sonny skinner

Sonny Skinner's 67 was the best first-round score by a PGA Professional since 2003.

Skinner leads PGA contingent with first-day 67

By Bob Denney, The PGA of America

TOWN & COUNTRY, Mo. – Sonny Skinner drove 12 hours from his home in Sylvester, Ga., to Bellerive Country Club, a journey that he said allowed him time to “clear the mind” while preparing for the 74th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid.

“You listen to a lot of good music, and it allows you to refocus when you drive those 12 hours,” said Skinner, who attended his daughter’s high school graduation last Sunday and passed on a late search for a flight. “My game wasn’t very good coming in here. I didn’t play for seven straight days. That was on purpose, because my game felt sour and flat, and I was not confident.”

The truth is Skinner’s game was mostly sweet in Thursday’s opening round of the most historic and prestigious event in senior golf. The 52-year-old PGA head professional at River Pointe Golf Club in Albany, Ga., posted a 4-under-par 67, featuring six birdies and a pair of bogeys.

It was the best first-round score by a PGA club professional in the Championship since 2003, when Mike San Filippo of Hobe Sound, Fla., turned in a 68. Skinner’s performance, coming in his third appearance in the Championship, led a delegation of 42 PGA club professionals on a cool, overcast day that featured periodic drizzle in the afternoon. 

It also left Skinner one shot out of the lead, shared by two-time Senior PGA Champion Jay Haas and Duffy Waldorf, making his Championship debut.

Mark Mielke, PGA head professional at Mill River Club in Oyster Bay, N.Y., had a 69 in his Championship debut. PGA Life Member San Filippo, playing in his 10th Championship; Jeff Coston of Blaine, Wash.; and Bob Gaus of St. Louis, a PGA teaching professional at Tower Tee Golf Center, each were at 71.

“It’s a golf course that rewards you for hitting it in the fairway,” said Skinner, the reigning Senior PGA Professional Player of the Year, who hit all 14 fairways Thursday. “That’s always been part of my game. Round to round, I’ve relied upon being able to put it in play.”

Skinner salvaged his round with a spectacular par-saving pitch on the 195-yard, par-3 sixth hole. Ranked the second-most difficult hole in the opening round, Skinner hit a 4-iron up into a plugged lie in the left greenside bunker and blasted from there across the green and down a bank. 

He then chipped in from 40 yards out.

“I was just trying to make bogey and then I rolled it into the hole for a 3,” Skinner said.

Beginning his round on the back nine, Skinner birdied 15, 17, 18, 1, 3 and 4, offsetting bogeys on the 11th and 16th holes.

Skinner’s Championship trip was enhanced when his longtime caddie, Paul Yates, put him in touch with PGA Professional Craig Bollman of Edwardsville, Ill., who not only caddied but also has allowed Skinner to stay the week at his home some 50 minutes from Bellerive’s gates.

“Paul called me a month ago and said Sonny is coming to St. Louis, and needs help, and asked if I would help him out? I said, ‘Sure,’ ” said Bollman, a PGA teaching professional at GolfTEC-Des Peres in St. Louis, who is making his debut caddying in a tournament. “So, my family welcomed him in and he’s an awesome guy.” 

Bollman said that he and Skinner exchanged several text messages before Skinner arrived Monday night. 

“Sonny got in around 7:30, and I had to go to my son’s baseball game,” said Bollman. “I walked him into the kitchen, said, ‘There’s dinner, and see you tomorrow.’  It’s very easy to caddie for Sonny and it was a really great day for me today, too.” 

Bellerive reminded Mielke, 50, of several New York courses within the Metropolitan PGA Section, which added to his comfort level.

“The golf course set-up is almost exactly like what we play,” said Mielke. “There are six tough holes here. I said going in, if I could just par those six holes and maybe make some birdies on some of the other ones, it might be all right.” 

Mielke had only two pars over his first 10 holes, a string that went birdie-bogey-par-birdie-par-bogey-birdie-birdie-bogey-bogey. He finished with birdies on Nos. 14 and 17.