Since he turned 50 in 2011, Craig Stevens has won the Georgia Senior Open twice (2011 and ’13) and the Georgia PGA Senior Championship once (2012), placing a close 2nd in the Senior Open the one time he did not win.
But it’s been Stevens’ play the last three years in Georgia PGA non-senior events that has attracted the most attention. Stevens captured the 2013 Georgia PGA Championship at Sea Island GC, putting him within reach of a second straight Player of the Year award, which would give him four over his long and successful career in the Section.
Stevens’ victory at Sea Island’s Retreat course was his third in the event, the most recent one coming in 2010, also on Retreat. Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone G&CC, finished the 54-hole event with an 8-under 208 total, coming from behind the final day with a 67 to edge former Section champion and seven-time Player of the Year Tim Weinhart by one stroke.
Going to the final round, Stevens was tied for 4th at 3-under 141, four strokes behind Dano Korytoski, who led Weinhart by two shots and Patrick Richardson by three.
With each round of the tournament beginning with a shotgun start, the top eight players after 36 holes all began their final rounds on Retreat’s opening hole, with Stevens’ foursome beginning just ahead of Korytoski, Weinhart, Richardson and Tommy Brannen, who comprised the lead group.
Korytoski, an assistant at Orchard Hills, was a surprise 36-hole leader, having played a limited schedule in 2013 and contending mainly in assistants’ events. He held steady early in the final round, beginning with five straight pars, but a double bogey at the par-4 fifth dropped him into a tie with Stevens, who birdied three of his first six holes.
Stevens hit his tee shot to four feet on the par-3 third for birdie, and holed putts of 12 and eight feet at 5 and 6. Kortytoski matched Stevens’ birdie at the sixth, but bogeyed the seventh to lose his share of the lead.
Korytoski briefly reclaimed a tie for first when he birdied the par-5 10th, but Stevens rolled in putts of 18 feet on the par-4 11th and 12-feet on the par-3 12th to extend his lead.
Korytoski answered with a birdie at the 12th to get to within one of Stevens, but back-to-back bogeys at 13 and 14 ended his hopes of victory. He ended up with a 74 to take 4th at 211 after either leading or sharing the top spot after scores of 67 and 70.
Weinhart, an instructor with Nuclear Golf at the Standard Club, struggled out of the gate with bogeys at 1 and 4, but birdies at 9, 10 and 11 moved him within range of Stevens. A birdie at the 15th got Weinhart one off Stevens’ lead, but he parred in from there.
The only other player with a chance to catch Stevens late in the round was fellow senior Stephen Keppler, who won his fourth Section Champoionship two years ago on the Seaside course.
Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, was six shots off the lead and two behind Stevens entering the final round. Starting on the second hole, Keppler was 3-under on the round after seven holes, and birdies at 14 and 16 got him within two of Stevens with three holes to play – two par 5s and a relatively short but treacherous par 4. After a par at 17, Keppler bogeyed the 18th, closing with a birdie at the first hole to shoot 67 and take 3rd at 6-under.
Keppler’s string of top-3 finishes in the Section Championship was extended to nine in a row. After four consecutive runner-up showings from 2005-08, Keppler has finished 3rd three times the last five years, winning in 2011 and taking 2nd last year.
Augusta CC head professional Brannen, who won the Section Championship in 1993, tied for 5th at 213 with CC of Columbus assistant Gus Barchers. Two-time champion Sonny Skinner of River Pointe in Albany recovered from an opening 76, closing with scores of 68-70 to place 7th at 214.
Champions Retreat head pro John Wade was 8th at 215 after opening with a 68. Tying for 9th at 216 were Seth McCain of Jennings Mill and Richardson, the head pro at Wilmington Island. Richardson shot 68 in the second round to move into 3rd place at 140, but made double bogey on the par-5 first hole in the final round and a triple on the 14th left him with a 76 on the day.
Stevens had a chance to win back-to-back Georgia PGA majors, but lost in the finals of the Match Play Championship two weeks prior to the Section Championship when he had to retire with heat exhaustion midway through the title match.
“The Match Play was unfortunate,” Stevens said. “But I hit the ball well that day and went down to the Section Championship hoping to continue that thought process and it worked out.”
Stevens was 5-under the final day after five birdies on his first 12 holes, and parred in from there.
“They had to catch me,” Stevens said. “And once I took the lead, nobody caught me.”
Even though he maintained his lead down the stretch, Stevens thought he might need one more birdie. He was a little worried about the dangerous par-4 18th hole, where he made bogey the previous day after his tee shot hit the cart path and bounced out of bounds. Stevens made a “birdie” after hitting his provisional off the tee to salvage his bogey.
Stevens said winning the Section Championship for a third time “is awesome. As we get older, we appreciate things more.”
The tournament did not get off to a good start for Stevens, who missed a tap-in par putt on his first hole in the opening round.
“I didn’t take anything for granted after that,” he said, adding just one more bogey that day and two more the next, one after his errant tee shot on the 18th hole. He said saving bogey on that hole “was huge for me right there.”
The victory put Stevens in first place in the Player of the Year points list ahead of Weinhart and Skinner. The Georgia PGA Professional National Championship, which will be played Sept. 30-Oct. 1 at Champions Retreat outside Augusta, will determine the 2013 Player of the Year, with Stevens having a chance to lock up his fourth title.
Stevens was Player of the Year in 1998, 2000 and 2012, and he would join Keppler as a four-time Player of the Year if he hangs on to his lead. Only Weinhart and Gregg Wolff, who earned the honor seven times each, have finished first on the points list more than four times.
The win was the first for Stevens in a non-senior event since the 2011 Atlanta Open. He captured Player of the Year honors in 2012 by finishing as runner-up in the Griffin Classic, Match Play Championship and Championship at Berkeley Hills, and tied for second in the Georgia PGA PNC.
Stevens has 13 career victories in Georgia PGA points events, his first coming in the Match Play Championship in 1985. He has won the Section Championship and PNC three times each, the Match Play twice and the Atlanta Open, along with four events that are no longer held.
After making it to the finals of Champions Tour qualifying once, Stevens has no intention of trying it again. His focus is more on qualifying for the two national senior PGA events, with the Georgia PGA Senior PNC being held this month prior to the PNC qualifier at Champions Retreat.
“I’m done with qualifying,” he said. “I really enjoy what I do and I’m happy with the my life and teaching here at Brookstone.”