The Georgia Open has been played in the Savannah area four times since 2010, and returns to the Ford Plantation just south of the city for the fourth straight year August 1-4.
Savannah native Tim O’Neal has played in each of the previous four Georgia Opens in Savannah, and has compiled an impressive record in his home town. He was second at Savannah Harbor in 2010, third at Ford Plantation in 2016, tied for second in 2017 and won last year.
O’Neal has been a prominent name in Georgia golf circles for more than 25 years, dating back to his college days when he contender in the 1994 Georgia Amateur at Savannah Golf Club. He won the event three years later at Idle Hour in Macon shortly before embarking on a professional career.
During his pro career of more than two decades, O’Neal has played has played all over the U.S. and internationally, winning an event years ago in Morocco as well as three victories on the LatinoAmerica Tour between 2013 and ’16. He played six seasons on what was formerly known as the Web.com Tour, most recently in 2014, and has enjoyed much of his success since then on the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour, adding to his list of victories on that tour earlier this year at TPC Scottsdale.
O’Neal enjoyed two successful seasons on the Nationwide Tour in the mid-2000s, and twice narrowly missed qualifying for the PGA Tour around that time. He returned to golf’s major leagues earlier this year, playing in the PGA Tour event at Riviera in Los Angeles as the recipient of the annual Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption and played respectably, matching par of 71 in the second round on one of the tour’s most highly regarded courses but missing the cut.
After a string of top finishes in Georgia Opens played in or near Savannah, O’Neal collected his first title last year, firing an 8-under 64 in the final round to win by five strokes after trailing by two after 54 holes. He finished with a 20-under 268 total, and is 36-under on the challenging Ford Plantation layout over the past three years and 52-under for the four Georgia Opens played in the Savannah area since 2010.
The other seven players who finished among the top eight in last year’s tournament have all entered this year’s Georgia Open, and will be among the top contenders along with O’Neal.
Barrett Waters of Dallas, who played at West Georgia, held the 54-hole lead least year and finished second at 15-under. Waters finished sixth, fourth and fifth in the Georgia Open from 2015-17.
Tying for third at 13-under was recent Georgia Southern standout Scott Wolfes from St. Simons Island and Ben Kishigian from Warner Robins, who tied for fourth in 2016. Wolfes has limited status on the former Web.com Tour this year, but has yet to get into a tournament. Kishigian was fourth the first year Ford Plantation hosted the Georgia Open in 2016.
Zach Caldwell of Alpharetta was fifth at 11-uinder after tying for 12th in 2016. Tying for sixth at 10-under was former South Carolina golfer Dykes Harbin of Augusta, and fellow Augustan Emmanuel Kountakis, who played two years in college at both Mercer and Augusta. Kountakis, who also had top-10 finishes in the tournament as an amateur when it was played at Pinetree in 2014 and ’15, has status on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, and made his eighth start of the year this week.
Former Kennesaw State golfer Matt Nagy of Buena Vista has a history of success in the Georgia Open, finishing second at the Legends at Chateau Elan in 2012 and third at Pinetree in both 2014 and ’15. He was eighth last year at Ford Plantation at 9-under.
Tour players have dominated the Georgia Open since Stephen Keppler won back-to-back in 1994 and ’95 at Lake Oconee courses. Since then, the only club pros to win the event are Tim Weinhart in 2004 at the Legends, Jeff Hull at Champions Retreat in ’07 and Paul Claxton at Ford Plantation two years ago.
Weinhart remains one of the top players in the Georgia PGA Section, earning Player of the Year honors nine times, but his only top 10 since his victory was a tie for 10th at Barnsley Resort in 2011. Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, tied for 12th at Ford Plantation in 2016. Hull, now the women’s golf coach at Furman, edged out current PGA Tour player Luke List to become the last player to win the tournament without having played as a tour pro.
Claxton, who won by four shots in 2017, played on the PGA Tour and its feeder tour for 20 years, and was the Web.com Tour’s all time money leader when he left the tour after the 2014 season. He has played in a handful of Champions Tour events since turning 50 in 2018 and also teaches at Brunswick CC.
The only other former champion in the field is Davin White, who won as an amateur in 2015 at Pinetree. White, from Locust Grove, played at Georgia State. White has since turned pro, and like a number of the state’s mini-tour players, competes on the Open Golf Atlanta tour.
Waters is the tour’s top player this year with four victories. Kishigian has also won this year and Nagy recorded four consecutive runner-up finishes recently. Roswell’s Shea Sylvester, an Open Golf Atlanta winner this year, is also in the field as is Deven Broadaway of Adairsville, who was fourth at Ford Plantation in 2016 and T12 last year.
Among the amateurs in the field is recent Yamaha Atlanta Open winner Eli Scott of Coastal Georgia; 2018 Atlanta Open winner Spencer Ball (Mercer); and 2016 Georgia Amateur champion Colin Bowles (Georgia Southern). Recent Georgia State golfer Nick Budd is entered along with current golf team member Josh Edgar, Coastal Carolina’s States Fort and incoming freshman Sam Lape (Furman) and Takafumi Shimoji (Kennesaw State).
Recent college golfers who have turned pro include South Carolina’s Ryan Stachler, Penn State’s Charles Huntzinger, and Emerson Newsome and Jared O’Kelley, who both played at Cincinnati. Stachler won the Georgia PGA tournament at Berkeley Hills in 2018, Huntzinger is the 2016 Dogwood Invitational champion, and O’Kelley was the low amateur in last year’s Georgia Open, tying for 12th.
Two-time Georgia Amateur champion David Noll is a long-time Georgia Open participant, and nearly won in 2007, placing third behind Hull and List.
Claxton is the top hope among the Georgia PGA contingent in the field, with the Section’s veteran players not able to contend with the tour players in recent years after making strong runs at victories in the past. James Mason, Sonny Skinner and Craig Stevens all had top finishes in the event in the 1990s and 2000s, but other than Claxton’s win two years ago, it’s been a while since a player from the Section challenged on Sunday.
Among the younger members of the Section who will look to challenge the tour players and college golfers are Robby Bruns (Augusta National), Matt Elliott (Achasta), Peter Jones (Cherokee Town & CC), Justin Martin (Bobby Jones GC) and Gus Wagoner (Capital City Club).
The field will compete on one of the state’s top courses, and the players who have teed it up at Ford Plantation the past three years have raved about the quality of the layout and its conditioning.
According to the Georgia PGA’s web site, the course will play just short of 7,300 yards, about 150 yards less than its maximum distance. The 188-yard, par-3 12th is listed at 137, with the 17th lengthened from 177 to 200. The difficult par-4 18th has been reduced from 500 yards to 450.
Either water hazards or marshes are in play on all but three holes, mostly outside the fairways off the tee and along the edges of the greens, with carries required on all the par 3s. The fairways are reasonably generous, but most are lined by trees, water, marshes or waste areas, and errant drives will be penalized.
The putting surfaces are large, firm and fast with sufficient undulation to put plenty of pressure on approaches, short game shots and putts of serious length.
The winning scores the last three years have been 15, 13 and 20-under, but there has been significant separation between the winner and the contenders. O’Neal shot 281 in 2016, but finished eight shots behind winner Shad Tuten and five in back of runner-up Blake Palmer. O’Neal shot 279 the next year and tied for second with Jimmy Beck and Dylan Freeman, four off Claxton’s pace.
O’Neal finished at 268 last year to win by five over Waters, with Wolfes and Kishigian seven back in a tie for third and Caldwell nine behind in fifth, the only other player fewer than 10 strokes behind the winner.