For almost the past two decades, Craig Stevens has been one of the most consistently successful players in the Georgia PGA Section.
Stevens has earned Player of the Year honors three times (2001, 2012 and ’13), won 13 Section points events including three Georgia PGA Championships, two Match Play titles and the 2011 Atlanta Open. Since turning 50 in 2011, Stevens has won the Georgia Senior Open three times and the Senior PGA Championship in 2012.
With only two tournaments left on the 2015 schedule, Stevens had yet to win a tournament other than two victories early this year in low-key Georgia PGA Senior Division events. Stevens came close to a fourth victory in five years in the Georgia Senior Open, but struggled in Georgia PGA events until a tie for seventh in the recent Section Championship at Sea Island GC.
Stevens, the Director of Instruction at Brookstone G&CC, came through with his best showing of the year in the Georgia PGA Senior Championship, which also serves as a qualifier for the PGA Senior Professional National Championship.
He shot 2-under 142 for 36 holes on the demanding layout at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek to win by four. Stevens led a group of eight Georgia PGA members who qualified for the PGA Senior PNC, which was played Oct. 15-18 at the Bayonet and Black Horse courses in Seaside, Calif.
The Georgia PGA sent 10 players to the Senior PNC, as James Mason and Sonny Skinner were already exempt for nationals. Mason tied for second in last year’s Senior PNC, while Skinner was exempt after making the cut in the 2014 Senior PGA Championship. Skinner tied for fourth at 147 and Mason tied for sixth at 148 in the Georgia PGA Senior Championship.
Tying for second at 2-over were Griffin City Golf Course head pro Charlie King and Cherokee T&CC Director of Instruction Russell Davis. Currahee Director of Golf Clark Spratlin tied Skinner for fourth at 147, with Marietta CC Director of Golf Stephen Keppler tying Mason for sixth at 148.
Scott Hare, Director of Golf at Collins Hill GC, was eighth at 149, with Glen Herrell of Doublegate CC ninth at 150. Mark Anderson of Brunswick CC got the final qualifying spot in a playoff over Brian Puterbaugh, an instructor at the Hooch, with both finishing at 151.
Stevens posted scores of 69-73—142, with his opening 69 the low score of the tournament and just one of three under-par rounds on the highly-regarded Settindown Creek layout. He hit 13 greens in regulation in the opening round, got up-and-down four of five times and carded four birdies to take a three-shot lead over Puterbaugh, the only player to match par.
“I played a very solid round,” Stevens said of his 69. He followed with a respectable 73 highlighted by back-to-back birdie putts of around 25 feet on the 11th and 12th holes after Spratlin briefly pulled into a tie for the lead with a birdie at the 11th.
King got to even par for the tournament with birdies at 12 and 13, but fell into a tie for second when he three-putted 17 and 18 for bogeys and a 72. Davis played steadily with a pair of 73s, but was hurt by a double bogey the second day on the short, par-3 seventh.
Spratlin, playing in senior events this year for the first time, was 1-under for the tournament after his final round birdie at the 11th, but struggled from there with a double bogey at the 13th and bogeys at 17 and 18, the latter after a huge drive that almost reached the creek fronting the downhill par-4. He shot 74 to tie for fourth with Skinner, whose 1-under 71 was the second lowest score of the day.
Keppler shot 6-under 138 at Settindown Creek last year to win by four over Anderson. He managed six birdies in the opening round and was 2-under after 14 holes, but a bogey at 15 and a double bogey at 17 left him with a 73. He needed a birdie at 18 the next day for a 75. Like Skinner, Mason opened with a 76 but came back with a 72 to tie Keppler for sixth.
Hare and Herrell both made their first ever appearances in the PGA Senior PNC. Hare was 2-under the first day after an eagle on the par-5 10th, but settled for a 74 after four bogeys on the last eight holes. He shot 75 the next day with four birdies.
Herrell shot 80 in the opening round and was 3-over after two holes the next day before responding with a stellar comeback. He carded seven birdies after that, played his last 16 holes in 5-under and shot 70, with birdies at 15 and 16 earning him a spot at nationals.
Anderson, who was second in the Senior PNC last year behind Keppler, needed a pair of late birdies in the first round to shoot 75, and rebounded from back-to-back bogeys to start his second round, getting back to even par at the turn. He was well under the number to qualify for nationals until the par-3 12th, where he suffered a triple bogey after a double hit on a pitch shot.
After the triple, Anderson admitted he “was almost in tears,” but pulled himself together and saved par on the 13th from 50 yards short of the green and made birdie on the difficult 14th. A bogey at the par-5 16th dropped Anderson outside the top 10, but Puterbaugh bogeyed the 18th after an errant tee shot to drop into a tie with Anderson for the final qualifying spot.
Puterbaugh struggled early in the final round and fell to 6-over after a double-bogey at the 11th. He came back with six straight pars before his closing bogey, and did not have any better luck when he and Anderson returned to the 18th for the playoff. He hit his second shot into the creek protecting the front pin position, with Anderson winning the hole with a par.
It was Anderson’s second appearance in the PGA Senior PNC and his first trip to California. He was in position to qualify without a great deal of drama before whet he thought was a well-struck tee shot to the 12th “hit hard” and wound up in a fluffy lie over the green. The ball was sitting up in the rough and he got under his pitch shot a bit, resulting in the double hit.
“That was how much it meant to me,” he said of his emotional reaction to the triple bogey, but he settled down and earned his spot at nationals, giving him a chance for some redemption after a disappointing showing last year.
Mason was second in the PGA Senior PNC in south Florida in 2014, with Skinner tying for 10th, Keppler tying for 18th and Stevens narrowly finishing inside the top 35 to join them at the PGA Senior Championship. Skinner, Stevens and Keppler have been regulars in the Senior PNC in recent years, with Mason joining them in the field last year with his career on the Champions Tour nearing an end.
King and Anderson made their first Senior PNC appearances last year, with Davis playing in the event for the fifth time this year since 2009.
Stevens has been a regular in both the PGA and Senior PNC, qualifying for the senior event every time since his first year of eligibility in 2011. That streak appeared in jeopardy considering his recent form, but he began to show signs of getting his game back to its usual level in the Section Championship two weeks prior to the GPGA Senior Championship.
For most of the year, Stevens says he has had a busy teaching schedule at Brookstone, and as a result, “I’ve neglected my game.” He made an equipment alteration earlier in the year, and said he “liked my ball flight on the range, but when I took it to the golf course, I didn’t know where it was going.”
Stevens recently returned to his old shafts and said he “got my distance control back. I’ve been hitting a lot of balls and working out like I did when I was about to turn 50 and playing well. It takes a lot of work to get your game in shape.”
Since turning 50 in 2011, Stevens has won one of the Georgia PGA’s two main senior tournaments every year, taking the Senior Open in 2011, ’13 and ‘14 and the PGA Senior in 2012 and ’15. He also won his third Section Championship and only Atlanta Open title after celebrating his 50th birthday, along with his second and third Player of the Year titles.
He described his struggles earlier this year as “just a hiccup. I knew I still had the ability to play the game. I never did think I was done. If I continue to work at it, I still have the ability and mental stability to compete.”