Craig Stevens will shoot for his fourth Yamaha Georgia Senior Open title in the last five years when the tournament returns to the UGA course in Athens April 27-28.
Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone Country Club, has won the tournament three of the last four years, finishing a close second the one time he did not win.
Each of Stevens’ three victories in the tournament came in a different manner. In his first Georgia Senior Open start in 2011, Stevens won by a whopping eight strokes after being tied for the lead after 18 holes at Newnan Country Club.
The next year, also in Newnan, Sonny Skinner edged Stevens by one shot after a birdie on the final hole of the second round. Stevens came back to win by one shot in 2013 at Chattahoochee Golf Club, posting an 8-under 136 total to hold off a charging Danny Elkins, who fired a final round 62.
Last year, Stevens won by three at the UGA course, shooting 1-under par 70 in both rounds for a 2-under 140 total and a three-stroke victory. Amateur Bob Royak opened with a 65 to lead Stevens by five heading to the final round, but fell back the next day with a 78 and tied for second at 143 along with veteran Champions Tour member James Mason and amateur Rusty Strawn.
Stevens has been one of the Georgia PGA’s top players since the late 1990s, winning 16 individual Section titles since 1998. He is a four-time Player of the Year (1999, 2001, 2012, 2013) and has won the Section Championship, PNC qualifier and the Georgia Senior Open three times each, the Match Play Championship twice and the Atlanta Open once.
The one year he did not win the Georgia Senior Open, he won the Georgia PGA Senior Championship, giving him a victory in one of the state’s top two events for senior club professionals four straight years. Stevens, who won his first Georgia PGA title in 1985, also has notched four victories in events that are no longer on the Section’s schedule, including a pair of wins in 1998 that ended a 13-year stretch without a title after he won the Match Play Championship in ’85.
Stevens has won his three Georgia Senior Open titles on three different courses, comfortably handling the more demanding test posed by the UGA course, which hosted a Web.com Tour event for four years, the last in 2013.
Other than Royak’s opening 65, no player in last year’s tournament broke 70, and there were only two scores of 70 apart from the two shot by Stevens. Like Stevens, Strawn shot 70 in the opening round and was paired with Royak and Stevens in the final pairing the second day.
Royak’s five-stroke lead began to slip away after he made double-bogey on the opening hole, and he lost the lead to Strawn with a double-bogey on the risk/reward par-5 12th. Strawn birdied the hole to take a one-shot lead over Stevens, but Stevens gained four shots on Strawn over the last five holes, moving into the lead as Strawn bogeyed 14, 16 and 18.
Strawn and Royak finished tied for second at 1-over 143 with Mason, who suffered his only bogey of the day on the long, par-4 18th and shot 70. It was the second straight strong showing in the Georgia Senior Open for Mason, who placed fourth in 2013 at Chattahoochee GC.
Georgia has a strong group of seniors – both club professionals and amateurs – and Stevens will not lack for competition as he pursues a fourth Georgia Senior Open title.
The only person other than Stevens to win the tournament in the last four years is Skinner, who tied for second and won the first two years he played in the tournament, but has finished eighth and seventh the last two years. Skinner won the Georgia PGA Senior Championship in 2013 and played well enough in Section events last year to earn Player of the Year honors for a second time.
Marietta Country Club Director of Golf Stephen Keppler was third in the tournament in 2012, two shots behind Skinner, and third in 2013, three behind Stevens, but did not compete in last year’s event. He played in the Georgia PGA Senior Championship and won that event by four strokes.
Veteran mini-tour player Javier Sanchez of Fayetteville won the Georgia Senior Open in 2009 and ’10, the last two years before Stevens, Skinner and Keppler all turned 50, but did not compete again in the tournament until last year, when he tied for ninth.
Other Georgia PGA members who have turned in strong showings in the Georgia Senior Open in recent years include Winston Trively of Crooked Oak, Russ Davis of Cherokee Town & Country Club, Atlanta area instructor Ted Meier, Chattahoochee GC head pro Rodger Hogan, Augusta Country Club head pro Tommy Brannen, Ansley GC Director of Golf Phil Taylor, Bob Burk of Stone Creek in Valdosta, and Elkins, the head pro at Georgia Golf Center.
Amateurs won the tournament in 2006 and ’07, but David Nell’s title in ‘07 was the last victory by a non-professional. Among those who have contended of late prior to the strong showings last year by Royak and Strawn are Jeff Belk (fifth in 2013), Don Marsh (fourth in 2012), Jack Kearney (tied for second in 2011), Larry Clark (fifth in 2011), and Jack Hall (third in 2010). Mel Mendenhall has two top-10 finishes during that stretch and was contending for a victory in 2011 before struggling on the final nine.