In his first three appearances in the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open, Craig Stevens finished the 36-hole tournament with totals of 9-under, 7-under and 8-under.
Stevens’ outstanding play in the tournament produced a victory (2011) and a close runner-up finish (2012) at Newnan County Club and a second title (2013) at Chattahoochee Golf Club.
The 2014 Georgia Senior Open moved to the University of Georgia course, which has hosted a Web.com tournament around this time the last four years, but dropped off the tour’s schedule.
Stevens managed a 2-under 140 total on the par-71 layout, and that score was good enough for a three-stroke victory and his third triumph in the event in the four years in which he has been eligible.
Other than a 6-under 65 in the first round by amateur Bob Royak, no player in the field could post a score in the 60s. Stevens carded back-to-back scores of 1-under 70, with only two other players managing to post under-par rounds on the demanding UGA course.
Tying for second at 1-over 143 were Royak, fellow amateur Rusty Strawn and veteran Champions Tour member James Mason, whose second round 70 tied Stevens for low score of the day. Strawn shot 70 in the opening round to share second place with Stevens, with the two beginning the final day five in back of Royak, who won the Yamaha Atlanta Open in 2007.
When Royak began the second round with a double bogey on the first hole at the UGA course and both Stevens and Strawn birdied the second, Royak’s lead was quickly reduced to two strokes.
Strawn closed within one of the lead when he birdied the fourth and Royak and Stevens both made bogey, but Royak scored what turned out to be his lone birdie of the day at the sixth to build his lead to two.
After a pair of bogeys to close out the front nine, Royak held a slim one-shot lead over Stevens and Strawn as the final group headed to the back nine. Still leading by one, Royak faced a decision on the par-5 12th.
“I went for the green in two, and obviously that was not very smart,” Royak said after the round. “I thought I could get over the water and I pulled it. I thought I would miss it right. If I had laid up, I would have made four or five at worst. That was a big mistake.”
Strawn elected to lay up and made birdie to take a one-shot over Stevens, who cleared the water with his second shot but was unable to get up-and-down for birdie. But Strawn three-putted the 14th to drop back into a tie with Stevens, and lost his share of the lead when he three-putted again from just off the green at the 16th.
That put Stevens in front after his 12th straight par of the day, and he increased his lead to two shots when he birdied the par-5 17th after a deft wedge approach. Stevens chipped it close to save par on the long par-4 18th, with Royak and Strawn both making bogey to share low amateur honors and tie for second overall with Mason, who also closed his round with a bogey.
After beginning the final round five shots in back of Royak, Stevens said he “knew I had to play really good if I was going to catch Bob. But he double bogeyed number one and I could see he’s got some nerves. I wanted to just hang in there.”
That’s exactly what Stevens did. An instructor at Brookstone Country Club, Stevens has been one of the steadiest and most successful players in the Georgia PGA since he won the first of his four Player of the Year titles in 1999. Since turning 50, Stevens has captured two more Player of the Year honors, and is looking for a third straight this year.
Stevens was also the Senior Player of the Year in 2013, and is looking to defend both titles in 2014.
During his career in the Georgia PGA Section, which began more than 30 years ago, Stevens has succeeded with an approach that stresses accuracy and a skilled short game. That was the strategy for erasing his deficit to Royak after the first round.
“I just wanted to hit fairways and greens and give myself chances,” he said. Until the 17th hole, the only opportunity he took advantage of came at the second, when he made birdie from inside 10 feet. But his string of mostly low-stress pars got him closer to the lead, although Stevens admitted to one significant break that enabled him to hang around until taking the lead late in the final round.
Stevens’ tee shot on the par-3 eighth drifted right and was in danger of plunging down the steep hill just off the right side of the green. But Stevens’ ball hit one of the fans next to the green and came to rest next to the putting surface, setting up a par.
Both Royak and Strawn bogeyed the hole after missing the green to the safer left side. Stevens kept piling up pars and eventually grabbed the lead before locking up his victory with his second birdie of the day at the 17th.
Stevens arrived at his opening 70 using a slightly different route than the final round. Beginning on the 10th tee, he was 3-under par after seven holes before four bogeys in a five-hole stretch dropped him to 1-over for the day. Birdies at holes 7 and 8 enabled him to end the day under par and get him into the final group with Royak and Strawn.
Royak, who plays out of St. Ives, came up against the old golf adage that it is very difficult to follow up an exceptional round with anything approaching that level the next day.
“It can be tough,” he said after following his 65 with a 78. “It didn’t help when I got off to a bad start.”
A poor approach shot led to the opening double bogey, and Royak wound up with a 39 on the opening nine, nine strokes higher than the day before.
Royak, who never played the UGA course until a practice round the week before the tournament, birdied the first hole in the opening round, and carded four straight birdies beginning at the fifth for what he described as “a pretty easy 30.”
All seven of Royak’s birdies on the day came on putts of less than 10 feet, and included a two-putt birdie on the par-5 seventh. His lone bogey was the result of a three-putt from relatively close range on the 14th.
Royak did not play that poorly the second round, but struggled on the greens.
“I did not make anything,” he said. “The greens were not as fast as they looked and I never hit the putts hard enough.”
Strawn, who plays out of Eagle’s Landing, also encountered some putting issues late in the final round, and was 1-under on the day before bogeys on three of his last five holes.
Mason, who is playing more PGA events in the state with his Champions Tour career winding down, had a similar scorecard the second day to Stevens, scoring his only two birdies on the same holes (2 and 17). His lone bogey came at the 18th, at which point he was just one shot off the lead, although neither he nor Stevens knew what their situations were relative to the other.
Tying for 5th at 145 were Georgia PGA members Winston Trively (Crooked Oak) and Russell Smith (Bent Tree). Sonny Skinner (River Pointe) and amateur Jack Kearney (Flat Creek) tied for 7th at 147. Skinner, who edged out Stevens to win the 2012 Georgia Senior Open, was close to the lead before making a triple bogey on the par-3 13th. Smith, Skinner and Kearney all shot even par 71 the first day.
Mini-tour player Javier Sanchez played in the tournament for the first time since winning in 2009 and ’10 at Callaway Gardens, and was among a group tying for 9th at 148.
Amateur David Nell, who won in 2008 at Callaway, was the only player other than Stevens or Mason to shoot par or better the second day. He shot even par 71 with six birdies after a birdie-less 81 the previous day