L-R: Mitchell, Strawn, Royak, Larkin, Hanzel
There is no shortage of accomplished and highly-decorated senior players in the state of Georgia. From USGA champions, a recent national player of the year and a marker who has a track record of beating some of the top players in the world at the Masters in Augusta National member Jeff Knox
, the Peach State has had more than its share of senior moments on the golf course over the years.
Four of the nine Georgians who will be an Kittansett for the U.S. Senior Amateur – Rusty Strawn
(No. 1), Doug Hanzel
(No. 4), Billy Mitchell
(No. 7) and Bob Royak
(No. 9) – are listed inside the top-10 of the Golfweek/AmateurGolf.com Senior Rankings
and are exempt, while Jack Larkin, Sr.
also enjoys exempt status by virtue of being a Top 25 age-eligible points leaders in World Amateur Golf Ranking.
(Atlanta), Tom Lape
(Atlanta), Danny Nelson
(Savannah) and Robert Sheats
(Atlanta) punched their tickets to Kittansett through local qualifying while Allen Peake
(Macon) is the first alternate.
Georgia’s nine players in the field are tied for third among all states with Texas, topped only by Florida with 19 and California with 17. Given its comparative size, Georgia can lay the claim to being the nation’s ultimate senior golf community.
“I’ve always felt our stable of senior players is as strong and deep as any state in the country,” said Royak, the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur champion who makes his home in Alpharetta.
So, what’s the secret sauce in the sweet tea?
“The state events prepare you very well for national competition because there are so many good players,” said Hanzel, the 2013 U.S. Senior Amateur champion. “Going to national events is not a major step up in competition.”
“We have good weather, so we can play year-round, and we have rich heritage and tradition from the Masters to Bobby Jones to the Atlanta Athletic Club that challenges our players to continue that tradition of excellence,” said Allen Peake, a lifelong resident of Macon won is the first alternate at Kittansett. “We have a very strong and competent golf association in the GSGA that runs competitive tournaments all year round. Most importantly, we all challenge each other.
“Our senior state amateur is ridiculously competitive, with two U.S. Senior Amateur champions, the low amateur from the 2021 US Senior Open (Mitchell), and the low am from 2022 British Senior Open (Strawn). It’s so strong we have players like Jack Hall, Chris Hall, and Jeff Knox who didn’t even qualify for this year‘s U.S. Senior Amateur.
“The amazing thing is that there are probably another 4-5 players that could be as good Royak, Hanzel and Strawn, but they just don’t play much outside of Georgia.”
Don’t let their easy Southern drawls fool you -- they are all intensely competitive.
“None of us hates to lose more than Hanzel in my opinion,” said Mitchell. “He's the fiercest competitor I know along with Rusty Strawn, who is very quiet as he goes about gutting you. Hanzel has done just about everything there is to do in senior golf and at 65 still hits bombs. Rusty is as good at killing things in the woods as he is at golf. Peake plays in more tournaments annually than there are weeks on the calendar. Royak is sneaky and streaky but also hates to lose.
“I'm the one who needs the most therapy and a complete whack job. If I had money I’d be considered eccentric but since I have no money, I'm just weird.”
“We are all very competitive seniors but I can truly say there is a lot of support for each Georgian,” said Hanzel. “We all want to win but we have fun, celebrate or commiserate and go have a beer and go at it again in a few weeks.”
While years of fierce competition have bred intense rivalries, it has also forged a unique camaraderie among the group founded on deep respect which has led to life-long friendships.
Royak and Hanzel are longtime four-ball partners, as are Strawn and Peake.
“We travel together, stay together, give each other swing advice all while trying to beat each other’s brains out,” said Hanzel. “At the end of the day, we all realize it’s golf and fun but not as important as family, work or just being a good friend.”
“We have a group chat run by Allen Peake that keeps us all up to date on who's playing in what and how they are performing,” said Mitchell. “We go to dinner together, we talk about our rounds and in a lot of instances, about life.
“I would consider some of these guys my closest friends and there is not too much I wouldn't do for any of them.”
Said Peake, “Speaking as someone that is just outside that top tier of players, I’m proud of the fact that guys like Billy Mitchell and Rusty Strawn pull for, root for, and cheer on guys like me that are striving to reach their level of excellence. They have helped me tremendously, in many areas of the game, sharing their golf wisdom and insight. I would not be where I am without their help and assistance.”
“All the Georgia senior guys are definitely competitive, but we all get along great,” said Larkin, who won the 1979 U.S. Junior before going onto a successful collegiate career at Georgia. “We see each other at a lot of tournaments, and we end up playing a lot together. We all know that it is “senior” golf, so it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t go exactly how we planned.”
Oh, there’s plenty of good-natured ribbing among the group, as well.
“There is a lot of trash talking going on with this group and other top players from Georgia,” said Peake, “but we all want to beat each other, rest assured.”
To which Mitchell counters, “The only reason I hang out with Peake is because he has a plane.”
Starting on Saturday, the Georgia Nine will begin their journey at Kittansett with the first of two rounds of stroke play. The low 64 players will advance to match play beginning on Monday.
Odds are pretty good at some point the champion will have to carefully navigate his way through one of the many red clay roads of Georgia to lift The Frederick L. Dold Championship Trophy.
• • • • •
Exempt Players from Georgia Competing in the U.S. Senior Amateur
Doug Hanzel (Savannah)
One of the most accomplished senior amateurs of all-time…won the 2013 U.S. Senior Amateur championship…was a semifinalist in 2012 and twice a quarterfinalist (2016, 2018)…has qualified for the U.S. Amateur in five different decades and has competed in 37 USGA championships…was the low amateur in the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Senior Opens…in 2013, he became the only player to qualify for match play in the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Senior Amateur…won the 2004 Georgia Mid-Amateur Championship at Jennings Mill Country Club in Bogart, Ga., and the 2006 Georgia Four-Ball Championship (with partner Bob Royak) at Wilmington Island Club in Savannah… has earned multiple GSGA Senior Player of the Year honors, including the recipient of the Tommy Barnes Award, signifying the GSGA’s overall Player of the Year, in 2012 and 2013…the Ohio native relocated to Savannah in 1989…is a Type 1 diabetic and plays golf with an insulin pump…graduated from Kent State University, where he played on the golf team and now has a golf scholarship in his name…is a member of the university’s athletic hall of fame…is a retired pulmonologist.
Jack Larkin, Sr. (Atlanta)
Has played in over 20 USGA events spanning five decades…won the 1979 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in Hilton Head, SC before going onto a successful collegiate career at the University of Georgia…enjoyed some success on the Hogan Tour, now the Korn Ferry Tour, with his best season coming in 1992 when he had one second-place finish along with three top-10 finishes…eventually had his amateur status reinstated…has qualified for the U.S. Amateur on seven occasions…at the age of 56, reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Four-Ball with partner Hayes Brown, who was half his age…serves as vice president of Pacific Southern Wine Company.
Billy Mitchell (Atlanta)
Was the low amateur at the 2021 U.S. Senior Open, when he tied for 46th at Omaha (Neb.) Country Club…tied for 21st at this year’s British Senior Amateur at Royal Dornoch…is a performance health coach who has trained PGA Tour players Stewart Cink, Roberto Castro and Casey Wittenberg and LPGA Tour players Mariah Stackhouse and Dori Carter…has also consulted college and high school teams…reached the Round of 16 in the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur…his father, Lawson, was a longtime club professional, played in the 1983 U.S. Amateur and his caddie was Chris O’Donnell, now a film and TV actor.
Bob Royak (Alpharetta)
Won the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur by defeating Roger Newsom, 1 up, in the final at Old Chatham Golf Club, in Durham, N.C…. has competed in 20 USGA championships, including five U.S. Amateurs and three U.S. Senior Opens (2012, 2019, 2021)…was the oldest player in last year’s U.S. Amateur at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club…his older brother, Jack, served as his caddie when he won the U.S. Senior Amateur and his younger brother, Paul, played in the same championship….captured the National Senior Amateur Hall of Fame championship in January at the High Point (N.C.) Country Club (Willow Creek Course) and followed with another win in his debut at the prestigious George C. Coleman Invitational at Seminole Golf Club in May…won the 2021 won the Georgia Mid-Amateur at the age of 59…was the 2017 Georgia State Golf Association Senior Player of the Year…serves as vice president for an executive search firm…he and his wife assist in finding families for Russian orphans.
Rusty Strawn (McDonough)
Ranked first in the Golfweek/AmateurGolf.com senior rankings…playing in his ninth USGA championship and third U.S. Senior Amateur…has four runner-up finishes this season (Gasparilla Senior, Moot Thomas Invitational, SOS Senior Masters, North & South Senior Amateur)…had six wins in an amazing 2021 season including the Ralph Bogart Senior, Society of Seniors Championship, Golfweek Senior National Match Play, Reynolds Senior Invitational, Society of Seniors Spring Classic and Golfweek Senior Player of the Year Classic…played college golf at Georgia Southern University and Alexander City (Ala.) State Community College…2016 U.S. Senior Open champion Gene Sauers was a college roommate…member of the Georgia Southern Athletic Foundation Board…chief executive officer of an insurance firm.
Allen Peake (Macon)
Has moved up to No. 2 in the Golfweek/AmateurGolf.com Senior Rankings…has two wins (Plantation Senior Invitational; Golfweek Senior National Match Play) and a pair of seconds (Jones Cup Senior; National Senior Hall of Fame) this season…senior golf's ironman has played in more than 100 tournaments around the country since the beginning of 2018, earning him the distinction of being one of amateur golf's busiest players over the last three years…longtime four-ball partner of Rusty Strawn…attempted to walk-on to the golf team at Auburn University in the late ’70s but didn’t make it…graduated from Mercer and eventually became the CEO of RMS Family Restaurants, a company that owned 130 locations of the chains Shoney’s, Captain D’s, Popeyes and Fazoli’s…when the company was sold in 2000, he became a Cheddar’s franchisee with business partner Mike Chumbley…former Georgia State Representative, serving in the State House from 2006-2018…had never held any sort of office before getting elected…is a father of three and a grandfather of six…born and raised in Macon where he still makes his home.