By Bob Denney, The PGA of America
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – PGA Professional Bill Britton, a golfer used to coolly navigating himself around many of the toughest courses in the country, delivered again Sunday afternoon in the 73rd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid.
The 56-year-old PGA director of instruction at Trump National Golf Club in Colts Neck, N.J., Britton offset three bogeys with three birdies for an even-par 71, and earned his second Low PGA Club Professional honor in the most historic and prestigious event in senior golf.
Britton finished atop a contingent of 43 PGA club professionals who started play Thursday, posting a 72-hole total of even-par 284. He tied for 35th in the world-class field and pocketed $10,400. Britton also took home a second crystal bowl to go with his Low PGA Club Professional finish in the 2008 Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.
Two-time Senior PGA Professional Player of the Year Sonny Skinner of Sylvester, Ga., finished two strokes back at 286 after a closing 1-under-par 70. Jeff Coston of Blaine, Wash., one of four PGA club professionals to make the weekend’s final 36 holes, turned in a 67, his best performance in five Championship appearances. He tied for 56th at 291, while Tom Atchison of Silver Lake, Ohio, closed with a 78 and shared 68th at 297.
“I’m the kind of guy who works hard for that par,” said Britton with a wry smile. The soft-spoken former PGA Tour player also wasn’t oblivious to the honor of finishing first among his colleagues in the Championship.
“It means a lot,” he said. “I was fortunate to do it a few years ago, and a lot of the other guys I saw later in the year were very kind to me. So it's nice. Evidently, you know, it means a lot to all of us to play in this and it is great. It seemed like I had more fun this week.”
Britton said his Sunday finish was reminiscent of his play four years ago.
“At Oak Hill, I played great that whole week except for a few holes one day and a few holes another day, I really played about as good as I could play,” Britton said. “This week was similar. I played really good yesterday and I played really good at times throughout the week and slipped up here and there, but for the most part I played really good.”
You often give up important things at home to compete in a Championship, said Britton, and he will return home to celebrate a belated 25th wedding anniversary with his wife, Isabelle, who remained back in Rumson, N.J. Their anniversary was Friday.
Britton benefited from his caddie, Tom Walsh, a four-year member of Trump National Golf Club and who carries a 5-handicap. Walsh said that Britton’s focus on the course translates to his teaching ability at the club.
“Billy is a great ball striker,” said Walsh. “What Billy can tell you about any shot is more than most club professionals, and how to hit them under pressure. Billy doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. He tells you what’s right.”
The chemistry for Walsh and Britton worked well during the week. Last year, Britton’s son caddied, and passed this year to return on his father’s bag. That left the door open for Walsh.
“Tom wanted to do it and he did a terrific job,” said Britton. “He worked like a madman out there. It was a lot of fun. He may not be able to get any more time off. But it was a lot of fun. Socially it was a lot of fun too to have a friend around and spend some of your time with him.”
Skinner, the PGA head professional at River Pointe Golf Club in Albany, Ga., was the Low PGA Club Professional last year at Valhalla Golf Club. He said that Harbor Shores was a daily adventure.
“This course played totally different every day,” said Skinner. “The temperature would fluctuate 20-25 degrees it seemed like and the winds would fluctuate from five to 25 miles an hour. I loved it. I enjoyed it. I look forward to coming back. I do not have a problem with this golf course. I like it a lot.”
Skinner said that he has enjoyed being challenged for a second year in a row by a Jack Nicklaus-designed course.
"Jack Nicklaus was the best player ever, he's the best competitor, best champion we have ever had, he knows how to design golf courses,” said Skinner. “He makes you think, he challenges you, and I like that.”
Competing against his colleagues, Skinner said, is an opportunity that he relishes.
“Without a doubt, The PGA of America really goes above board giving us an opportunity as seniors to compete with these great players from all over the world,” he said. “And, Billy Britton is a really solid player and I wish him all the luck in the world. He's been a friend of mine for a long time, he plays hard golf courses well. I expect him to hit it down the middle and hit it on the green and make a bunch of pars and a few birdies, and it looks like he is doing that. So, my hat's off to Billy.”
Sunday proved also to be fun for Coston, 56, a PGA teaching professional at Semiahmoo Golf and Country Club in Blaine, Wash. Coston had struggled home with a third-round 77, and looked like someone who wanted to leave a better impression before he left town Sunday night.
He had a bogey-free final round, with birdies at Nos. 8, 10, 11 and 12, and registered his first Championship round in the 60s in 14 rounds. It was reflective of a day when Harbor Shores yielded a remarkable stroke average of 69.5.
“It was a lot more fun, I'll tell you that,” said Coston. “And hopefully, it is more Jeff Coston golf. I just played more like myself today. Out here you can make a couple mistakes at the wrong time and, boom, you're done for. And that happened to me yesterday. Today I was more in control of my ball. I did some fine things yesterday, but I liked it a lot better today. Yesterday no sharp objects in my grasp would have probably been good.”
Coston recalled his Low PGA Club Professional performance on The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., in 2007, when he closed with a 70. “I was happy to come back, because yesterday was kind of a blow,” he said. “I was happy to come back and I like my students to do that too.”
Coston said competing last fall at Creighton Farms in the Southworth Senior PGA Professional National Championship helped ready him for Harbor Shores.
“Creighton Farms, another Jack Nicklaus Course, reminded me a lot of this one,” said Coston. “Especially the greens. And so what was interesting is, I came out here Mother's Day, two weeks ago, and played on the 14th and the 15th of May. Then, I returned home, taught on the 17th through the 20th, and then played in the Washington Open on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.
“I flew out and got here Thursday morning and teed it up. Because I didn't want to miss my State Open. So, add it up. I played Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, State Open, flew in, got here Thursday morning, teed up here, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. A man on the move.”
Though it was not the best of weeks for Atchison on the scoreboard, he was encouraged by making the cut in his second Championship appearance.
“The thing about this course you don't have to hit a real bad shot to get really kind of penalized,” said Atchison, 52, a PGA head professional at Congress Lake Club in Hartville, Ohio. “That's what happened on the front nine. I missed a couple putts starting out, some short ones for par. And hit it like three inches in the rough on a couple holes and you just can't get out of that stuff and I made a couple bogeys. But the whole week I played solid, great, and it's a good experience and I enjoyed it, every minute of it.”