By Bob Denney, The PGA of America
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- There is a race shaping up at Harbor Shores Sunday for the crystal bowl that is presented to the Low Club Professional. It’s the reward for the best performer among a contingent of 43 who started play this week in the 73rd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid.
Bill Britton of Rumson, N.J., is the “rabbit” among the four PGA club professionals who made the 36-hole cut. The 56-year-old PGA director of instruction at Trump International Golf Club in Colts Neck, N.J., Britton posted a 2-under-par 69 Saturday afternoon to build a three-stroke lead over two-time Senior PGA Professional Player of the Year Sonny Skinner of Sylvester, Ga., who also had a 69. Tom Atchison of Silver Lake, Ohio, who had a 72, was at 219, and Jeff Coston of Blaine, Wash., who struggled to a 77, was at 224.
The last time Britton was sitting in a similar position was in the 2008 Senior PGA Championship, where he finished tied for 16th and rallied against rugged weather conditions at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. This week, Britton has been patient, adjusting to the climate and playing conditions.
“I’ve got more familiar with this course, and found that wind has been different almost every day,” said Britton. “I played a couple of practice rounds, so I've seen the wind direction a couple times now, but today was completely different. The greens are very slopey, and very difficult. You have to hit good shots.
“I played very good today. I messed up one hole, the sixth, but other than that, I played good. It's a tough course, but I did all right today.”
Skinner, the Low Club Professional last year at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., began play on the 10th hole on a day when a morning thunderstorm pushed back starting times three hours. He bogeyed his opening hole and added another bogey at No. 14 before picking himself up with four birdies over his final 13 holes.
“I felt like I could shoot in the 60s and I finally did,” said Skinner. “I felt good. I hit the ball well. I missed a couple of short putts early, but I just kept hitting the ball well. And, I made a few 10- to 15-footers for birdies. Overall, I was real pleased. I thought that with the wind I thought it played tough. I had held it together pretty good. You have to hit some good solid shots when it's a little breezy and your targets are small going into the greens and I felt like I did that.”
“I'm very encouraged. I'm really motivated. I would like to have my best tournament of the season on the Champions Tour so far, 31st is the best I've been able to do. I just looked, it showed I was like 42nd, so a good solid round tomorrow, maybe I can pass some folks and have my best tournament of the year.”
Skinner said that his improved second-round play of 70 on Friday resulted in added attention from friends in Georgia.
“I hardly could go take a shower last night. I got over 30 texts and about 15 phone calls,” said Skinner. “It was, it's neat, because the day before when I finished bogey-triple-bogey, I didn't hear from anybody.”
Atchison, the PGA head professional at Congress Lake Club in Hartville, Ohio, also was upbeat about a 72 that featured double bogeys at 4 and 15, mixed with five birdies and two bogeys.
"The round really changed about three or four times, cold and the rain and at the beginning. And then the wind came up later,” said Atchison. “I played really solid from tee to green. I think I hit every drive right in the fairway; I got a couple bad breaks on the par 5s, at 9, 10, and 15. Other than that, I putted great. I don't think I've had a three-putt on these greens in the first three days, which is unusual.
“I want to come out Sunday and have some fun. It's a great highlight for me to make the cut. I think any club professional that really plays in this, I mean a realistic goal, is we want to make the cut and then play good on the weekend, which I think I'm so far doing OK.”
Coston, a PGA teaching professional at Semiahmoo Golf Resort in Blaine, Wash., was the Low Club Professional in 2007 at The Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, S.C. On Saturday afternoon, Coston struggled home with a 77, for a 224 total. He was glib about his day.
“I made a lot of mistakes and I felt like jumping off a bridge,” said Coston. “How does that sound? I made some mistakes and I'm glad to be here on the weekend and glad I'm here, but tomorrow's a brand new day.”
Britton said that he has managed himself better over the past two days on a Harbor Shores layout that presents more than its share of challenges.
“It’s been a little bit difficult for me to remember which holes are which,” said Britton. “Even after I played it the first couple days. Usually, if I ride a golf course in a cart I have difficulty remembering holes. It’s been a little bit that way. I guess because we ride from a number of greens to tees out here, but of course, I remember all the holes clearly now. It's a great golf course, it's beautiful, it's hard. It's been fun. The wind's been different directions. It's beautiful up along the lake there. The seventh hole is spectacular.”
Britton overcame a double bogey at the par-4 sixth, collecting birdies on the difficult stretch of Nos. 7, 8 and 9. The key was a fortuitous bounce on the 436-yard, par-4 uphill seventh hole.
"I hit a good drive and I didn't hit a great 8 iron, but I got a really good bounce to about five feet away and made it,” said Britton. “That helped me out. It makes you feel so much better when you do that, like a shot of adrenaline. I played the next two holes really well and made birdie there. And really, birdieing 7 just changed my whole mindset. My concentration just was better after that.
“I have played in a few of these now, this is my sixth, and I really look forward to it. This is the highlight of the year for me playing wise. Most of the preparation is in the wintertime, that's when I have more free time. I don't play a whole lot, but I practice a little bit, and then I do what I can in the spring. We just started some of the (New Jersey) Section tournaments, and the first was in April. So, we have played for about a month now. And I got beat by a girl in one of them that I played. That wasn't too encouraging. She played good, and I played lousy. Humbling? It was. I have played some better golf since."