By Mike Blum
After going more than a year without a victory in a Georgia PGA tournament, Tim Weinhart closed out the Section’s 2011 schedule with back-to-back victories than enabled him to reach a lofty goal.
Weinhart survived a three-hole playoff with Clark Spratlin to win the Georgia PGA’s Professional National Championship, the Section’s qualifier for the national club professional championship.
With the victory, his 14th in a Section points event, Weinhart captured Georgia PGA Player of the Year honors for a seventh time. That matches the Section’s all-time mark set by Gregg Wolff, who earned that honor seven times in an eight-year span from 1984-91.
Weinhart was the Section’s Player of the Year four straight times from 2002-05. After yielding that distinction the next three years to three different players, he has captured the points title each of the last three years.
Three weeks prior to his win in the PGA PNC qualifier, Weinhart won the Section’s Match Play Championship in relatively easy fashion. His victory in the PNC qualifier, which was played at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek, was anything but easy.
Settindown Creek, one of the state’s most demanding courses, gave the Section’s top players a serious battle, with only four of them breaking par for 36 holes. Ten Georgia PGA members qualified for next year’s PNC, which will be played in northern California less than a week after San Francisco’s Olympic Club hosts the U.S. Open.
It took a score of 3-over 147 to qualify for the 2012 PNC, with the list including some familiar names, along with three “rookies” and a player who has been absent from nationals for some time.
Weinhart and Spratlin tied for first at 4-under 140. Weinhart will be competing in the PNC for the 13th straight year and 14th time overall, with Spratlin making his eighth start in the event next June.
Greg Lee was 3rd at 142 and Sonny Skinner 4th at 143, with both players sharing the lead with Weinhart and Spratlin late in the second round. Lee has competed in six previous PNCs, with Skinner having played in the championship five times, placing 2nd twice in the past four years.
Finishing 5th at 145 was Craig Stevens, who was already exempt for the 2012 PNC thanks to his top-20 finish in the event last year. Stevens competed in his 3rd PGA Championship this year at Atlanta Athletic Club, and joins Weinhart and Skinner in being a multiple qualifier for the Grand Slam event. Weinhart was played in five PGA Championships in his career, with Skinner qualifying twice.
Tying for 6th at 146 was Jordan Arnold of Achasta GC, who will be one of the three first-time participants in the PNC, and Ansley GC Director of Golf Phil Taylor, who will make his fifth appearance in the event, but his first since it changed its name and format.
Gary Miller of Reynolds Plantation and Kyle Owen of Dunwoody CC tied for 8th at 147, and along with Arnold will be making their first starts in the PNC. Also tying for 8th was Cherokee CC instructor Kevin Roman, who will be playing at nationals for the fourth straight year. He qualified for the PGA Championship in 2009.
Weinhart, an instructor with the Nuclear Golf program based at the Standard Club, posted back-to-back rounds of 70, taking different destinations to arrive at the same score. He was 5-under after 10 holes the first day, but a double bogey at the 11th led to a disappointing finish. A birdie at the 11th in the final round propelled him to a 3-under 33 on the back nine and a spot in the playoff.
“I played beautifully on the back nine,” Weinhart said, following an opening nine in which he said he “hit it poorly, but managed to escape” at 1-over after bogeys on three of the first six holes.
Weinhart hit his approach inside 10 feet and made birdie on the tough par-4 11th, then nearly holed his second shot on the 14th for another birdie. After what he described as a “poor wedge” into the par-5 16th, Weinhart holed a lengthy downhill putt for birdie. He made a key par putt on the par-3 17th while the other three contenders for first place all carded bogeys.
Every time Spratlin made birdie in the final round, he followed with a bogey on the next hole. He matched Weinhart’s birdie at the 16th, hitting a long bunker shot within a few feet of the cup, but gave the shot back when he three-putted from just off the green at the 17th.
Needing a birdie to force a playoff, Spratlin hit his short approach shot to the 18th within a few feet of the hole to shoot a 71 and force a playoff, which consisted of three laps around the 18th hole.
Spratlin barely survived the first extra hole. His birdie attempt from long range did not make it up the ridge that divides the green left and right, forcing him to make a difficult par putt to extend the playoff.
After Weinhart hit his approach stiff on the second extra hole, Spratlin landed his second shot just inside 10 feet and made another clutch putt to force a third playoff hole.
Spratlin appeared to have the advantage when Weinhart’s tee shot settled in heavy rough left of the fairway. It took almost three minutes to find the ball, with Weinhart forced to pitch out from what he said was a “horrendous lie.” Spratlin also missed the fairway and hit his second shot just right of the green, leaving a very delicate pitch shot.
“If I hit it close I can skill win,” Weinhart thought after pitching out, and that’s just what he did. He hit his third shot from 108 yards within six feet of the hole, and holed the putt for a winning par after Spratlin came up short with his testy pitch and missed his par attempt.
Weinhart said he drew on his experience from his recent win in the Section’s Match Play Championship in the back-and-forth playoff against Spratlin.
It looked like Weinhart was going to win on the first playoff hole, but Spratlin made what Weinhart described as “an awesome putt. I planned on him making that putt. Clark is more dangerous from 20 feet than he is from eight feet.”
Spratlin, known within the Section for his outstanding ball striking, admitted that there are “two things that have kept me from being on that level,” referring to Weinhart’s seven Player of the Year titles.
“One is the putter, and the other is my wedge game, which is not where it needs to be. Tim can beat you with his wedge. He always has.”
Spratlin’s consolation prize was winning the Gregg Wolff award for low scoring average for the season, a testament to his consistently excellent play that included five finishes of sixth or better in the Section’s six stroke play events. Spratlin, an instructor at Georgia Golf Center, won the Chicopee Woods tournament, was third in the Atlanta Open, fourth in the Section Championship and T6 in the Georgia Open, sharing low club professional honors.
In addition to his two victories, Weinhart was second behind Spratlin at Chicopee Woods, and was also third in the Section Championship and the Berkeley Hills tournament.
Of matching Wolff’s career number of Player of the Year titles, Weinhart said, “I tied a legend, that’s what it means. He is everything what you expect a golf professional should aspire to be. If you were looking for a role model, you could put Gregg Wolff up against anyone.”
With his victory, Weinhart earns exemptions next year into the PGA Tour McGladrey Classic for a third straight time. He will again look to make it to the weekend after playing well at Sea Island GC each of the last two years but narrowly missing the cut. Weinhart is also guaranteed a start in one of the two Nationwide Tour events in the state in 2012.
“I proved to myself again that I can play against the best players in the world,” Weinhart said of his recent effort in the McGladrey Classic. “I beat a lot of the best players in the world, just not enough.”
Skinner, an instructor at River Pointe in Albany, led after an opening 68 that included six birdies and just one slip – a double bogey on the long par-3 12th. He was 1-under after 11 holes in the final round, but was 4-over from that point, including three bogeys on the final four holes. He shot 75 to finish fourth at 143 and then headed to the airport to fly to south Florida, where he shot 67 the next day in the first stage of Champions Tour qualifying and went on tie for 3rd to advance to finals.
Lee, an assistant at Chicopee Woods, notched birdies at 10 and 13 to tie for the lead, but bogeys on the final two holes dropped him to 3rd at 142 after a second a second straight score of 71.
Stevens, an instructor at Steel Canyon in Sandy Springs, shot 75 in the first round with a triple bogey at the 14th. He made a run early in the final round, playing the first seven holes in 4-under, but did not manage a birdie the rest of the day and settled for a 70 and a 5th place finish at 145. He will join Skinner in the finals of Champions Tour qualifying, getting to skip first stage thanks to his tie for 3rd in the recent Senior PGA PNC.