The 2018 Yamaha Atlanta Open will be played June 5-6 at Cherokee Town & Country Club, the first time the event has been played at the Sandy Springs course in more than 20 years.
Cherokee last hosted one of the Georgia PGA’s four major championships in 1997, with Atlanta area resident Matt Russell winning the tournament for a second straight time. Russell won as an amateur at Golf Club of Georgia in 1996 and turned pro prior to defending his title.
Russell was one of a trio of golfers who won the tournament twice between 1987 and 2001, the first time for all three as an amateur and the second as a professional.
Jon Hough was the first to accomplish the feat, winning as an amateur in 1987 and repeating as a pro the next year. Hough is a former tour pro and long-time Georgia PGA member who is currently the head professional at Bentwater GC in Acworth.
Kevin Blanton won the Atlanta open as amateur in 1994 and was a tour player in 2001 when he won the event as a professional. Both Blanton and Russell have since regained their amateur status.
After Russell’s victory in ’96, no amateur won the Atlanta Open for more than a decade, but since 2007 amateurs have won the tournament four times, most recently last year.
Wyatt Larkin of Morganton, a member of the golf team at Kennesaw State, won in 2017 at Echelon GC, his first tournament in nine months after suffering a stress fracture of his L5 vertebra and spending four months in a full body cast.
Larkin shot 5-under 139 at Echelon, one of the most difficult courses in the state, finishing two shots ahead of Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen, and three in front of Heritage Golf Links Director of Instruction Tim Weinhart and Chris Nicol of Georgia Golf Center.
Owen went on to capture Georgia PGA Player of the Year honors, edging out Weinhart, who was looking to claim the title for a record 10th time.
After not playing in a tournament since early in the fall college season, Larkin played mistake-free golf last year at Echelon, with his only bogey coming on the final hole of the second round, by which time he had built a 3-stroke lead.
Larkin’s victory was the second in the tournament by a college golfer since 2013. Cory Griffin of Armstrong Atlantic, which has since discontinued athletics programs after merging with Georgia Southern, won at Polo G&CC that year in a playoff over Marietta CC Director of Golf Steven Keppler, with the tournament reduced to 18 holes when the scheduled first round was rained out.
The other two amateurs to win the tournament since Russell in 1996 were mid-amateurs Bob Royak (Standard Club, 2007) and Dave Womack (Georgia National, 2010). Royak recently won the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open at Pinetree CC.
With one week remaining before the entry deadline, Larkin had yet to register for the tournament. Also missing from the entry list one week before the deadline was Paul Claxton, who has won the last three Georgia PGA events he has entered.
Claxton won the Georgia Open and Georgia PGA Professional Championship, the Section’s qualifier for the national club professional championship, to close out 2017, and opened the 2018 schedule with a victory in a Georgia PGA event at Chattahoochee GC. Claxton, a long-time tour pro who turned 50 early this year, has a conflict with a Monday qualifier for the Champions Tour event in Des Moines, with the Atlanta Open being played on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Sonny Skinner, like Claxton a veteran tour player, is expected to compete in the Atlanta Open rather than travel to Iowa for the Monday qualifier. Skinner won the Yamaha Atlanta Open back-to-back in 2015 and 2016, scoring a one-stroke victory at White Columns in 2015 and defeating college golfers Jason Mendel and Adam Morris the next year.
Other recent champions include Frederica GC Director of Golf Hank Smith (Atlanta National, 2014), Seth McCain of Jennings Mill (Chattahoochee GC, 2012), Woodmont instructor Craig Stevens (The Frog, 2011), and Weinhart (Heron Bay, 2009).
Weinhart has a number of top finishes in the Atlanta Open, going back to a tie for sixth at Cherokee in 1997, when he shot 4-under 140. Weinhart lost in playoffs to James Mason at White Columns in 2000 and to Phil Taylor at GC of Georgia in 2002, and was third at Newnan CC the year before he won in ’09 and tied for second behind Womack the year after his 2009 victory at Heron Bay. Weinhart ended up three shots behind Larkin last year in a tie for third, and was two out of a playoff in sixth place in ’16.
It’s been 18 years since Mason scored his lone Atlanta Open victory in 2000, but he came close in 2012, losing to McCain in a playoff, and won the Section Championship as recently as 2015 at the age of 64.
Until Skinner’s playoff victory two years ago at St. Ives gave him Atlanta Open titles in consecutive years, 19 different players had won the tournament in the previous 19 years after Russell defended his title at Cherokee in 1997.
While the list of contenders has changed on an almost annual basis, there are several names that keep cropping up the leader board, Weinhart among them.
Owen was second last year, tied for ninth in 2016 and tied for third the year before that, challenging for the first time in 2007 when he tied for fourth. He was second behind Claxton in the recent Georgia PGA event at Chattahoochee.
Nicol has three top-5 finishes the last four years, tying for third in 2014 and last year and for fifth in ’15.
Peter Jones, who will have a home course advantage as Cherokee’s head professional, has recorded top-10 finishes three of the last four years, and is coming off a tie for third in the most recent Georgia PGA tournament at Chattahoochee.
J.P. Griffin of Capital City Club tied Jones for eighth last year and tied for third with Owen at White Columns in 2015. Gus Wagoner, also a Capital City Club assistant, tied for 10th last year and finished just one shot out of the playoff in 2016 in a tie for fourth.
Also finishing just one short out of the playoff on his home course was Royak, who has had several strong showings in the tournament since his win in 2007. He was fourth overall and low amateur in ’08 and was low amateur and tied for fifth the next year.
A pro-am will precede the Yamaha Atlanta Open and is scheduled for Monday, June 4, with the tournament being played on Tuesday and Wednesday, a departure from the usual Monday-Tuesday dates for 36-hole Georgia PGA events.
Cherokee is considered among Atlanta’s finest private clubs and has hosted a number of top events, including the Georgia Amateur in 2001and 2011 and the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur in 1999.
The North course, Cherokee’s tournament course, will play around 6.900 yards for the tournament, with the back tees utilized for all but a handful of holes. Since the Atlanta Open was last played at Cherokee more than 20 years ago, the course has been renovated by the Tom Fazio Design Group.
Although some yardage has been added since the renovation, Cherokee is not an especially lengthy layout, with no monster par 4s and a trio of two-shot holes well under 400 yards. The back nine is considerably shorter than the front, which includes two par 5s with ample length. Both par 5s on the back nine are reachable in two, although the two are among the tighter holes on Cherokee’ tree-lined layout.
The entry deadline for the tournament is June 1, with spots available for both the tournament and the pro-am.