Jack Vajda (Kevin Price, exclusive to AmateurGolf.com)
Jack Vajda was one of three players to shoot 6-under-par 66 in the final round of the Golden Isles Invitational on Saturday at the Brunswick Country Club.
But only Vajda hoisted the winner’s trophy after the closing 18 holes in the long-running tournament which is an annual tradition around the Fourth of July at the private club on the Georgia coast.
The Augusta University golfer emerged as the champion in the 73rd edition of the tournament with a sterling performance on the back nine Saturday that featured an eagle-2 on the par-4 11th hole as he overcame a three-shot deficit to begin the day and won by two shots in just his second appearance in the three-round, 54-hole tournament.
Vajda, a native of Canton, Ga., finished at 16-under as he opened with a 68 in the first round before posting a 66 in each of the last two rounds.
“It was a great week. All the thanks go out to the members out here and everybody here in Brunswick,” he said. “The course setup was great. I played here last year and this year. This is a big one, yeah.”
Vajda, a junior at Augusta, finished two shots ahead of local player Dylan Freeman, last year’s winner, who was the co-leader coming into the final round at 13-under following the first 36 holes. He carded a 71 in Saturday’s final round.
Vajda made the turn at 1-under for the day after two early birdies and a bogey at the long par-3 eighth hole. It was his back nine, though, that won the tournament and brought some intrigue to what otherwise would have been a rather ho-hum final round on a hot summer afternoon in South Georgia.
Vajda opened his closing nine with a birdie at the par-4 10th after hitting a wedge to four feet and then he made the eagle at 11 when he one-hopped a wedge into the hole from 111 yards after his drive landed in the rough.
He would proceed to make three straight birdies from there, two-putting for his three on the par-5 12th, rolling in a putt that was close to 50 feet on the par-4 13th and hitting a wedge from 94 yards inside two feet for birdie on the par-5 14th.
“I was nervous to begin with, and it was kind of a slow start,” Vajda said. “But, I knew if I could give myself chances to make birdie it would go a long way. I hit good tee shots on the back nine and my wedges really helped.”
He was tied for the lead at 17-under after his first four holes on the back, but after a double-bogey at the par-3 15th hole, Vajda was down two shots again. However, there was another two-shot swing moments later when he knocked one close for birdie on the 16th hole and Freeman made bogey behind him at the 15th.
With both players again tied atop the leaderboard at 16-under, Vajda made par on the final two holes and then had to wait to see how Freeman would finish.
“I knew I had a shot when I went on that heater on the back, but didn’t think I was gonna be leading when I got done,” Vajda said. “I didn’t look at the leaderboard at all, didn’t check my phone at all (for live scoring.) It was just sticking to the game plan, making pars and birdies.”
Freeman, a two-time champion, had a birdie opportunity at 16 as he placed his approach below the hole, but walked off with a par. Freeman either had the lead alone or was tied for the top spot until he made a bogey on the par-3 17th hole when he missed the green off the tee and saw his long par putt circle the hole and not fall into the cup.
Down a stroke and needing birdie at the par-4 last to forge a tie and force a sudden-death playoff to decide the winner, Freeman gave himself a chance with a strong drive into the fairway. His approach shot seemed to get held up by the wind and landed on the front edge of the elevated green and spun off the putting surface. He then need to hole his third shot, but when that didn’t happen, the 2023 Golden Isles title was headed out of town with Vajda.
Freeman also actually missed his par putt and wound up making his third bogey in his final four holes. Freeman played a bogey-free round on Friday when he shot 68. In the first round on Thursday, Freeman carded nine birdies, an eagle on the par-4 seventh and had back-to-back bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes while opening with a 63.
Freeman was not only trying to repeat as the tournament champion. A victory would have put him in a group with only three other players who have won the tournament three or more times.
An All-American at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick when he helped the team to its first NAIA national championship in 2014 as a senior, Freeman won his first Golden Isles crown following his senior season when he shot a tournament-record score of 19-under at the country club.
Four players ended up tied for third at 13-under. Among them were Rusty Mosley and Harry Jones. They were the other two players who also shot 66 in Saturday’s final round. Mosley is a mid-amateur who played college golf at Florida State while Jones is a current player at Wofford.
Hughes Threlkeld, a Savannah, Ga., golfer who plays at North Georgia, also finished at 13-under, as did Jack Schoenberger, a Belmont golfer who shot even-par 72 on Saturday after starting the final round tied for the lead.
Champions List: The Golden Isles Invitational is closing in on 75 years as this year’s tournament was the 73rd edition of the event which dates back to 1949 at the Brunswick Country Club.
The first champion was William “Dynamite” Goodloe, one of three players who has won the tournament three or more times. A member of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, Goodloe was from the little South Georgia town of Ocilla. He had 18 career holes-in-one according to his Hall of Fame bio, played in the Masters tournament three times and shot 71 on the same day he died at age 62. He also won this event in 1953, 1956 and 1957.
The Golden Isles winner’s list reads like a Who’s-Who list, especially in Peach State golf. Past winners include Bill Ploeger, who has won the Brunswick tournament a record 11 times. Also a member of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, Ploeger played at Georgia Tech and won the U.S. Senior Amateur in 1999 as part of an illustrious amateur career that saw him rise to No. 1 in the U.S. senior rankings a few years later.
Steve Melnyk, a three-time All-American at Florida, also won the Golden Isles three times. He also is a former U.S. and British Amateur champion and two-time U.S. Walker Cup team member.
Other past Golden Isles champions are Sea Island touring pro Davis Love III, fellow touring pro Andy Bean and 1996 winner Vaughn Taylor who has played on the PGA Tour as well.
The Course: The Brunswick Country Club course was originally designed by renowned architect Donald Ross in the late 1930s.
In 2006, the course was renovated by Love Golf Design, headed up by Davis Love and his brother and former caddie Mark Love. They used the original drawings by Ross to recreate the course including the greens which were rebuilt to their original specifications.
Saturday Stuff: Spotted on Saturday at the tournament was Mike Cook, head coach at the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick. He was there watching his former player Dylan Freeman, also some of his current players and some of his incoming players who will be joining his team at the local four-year college in the fall. Cook is a former champion in the tournament. … Also former champion and club member Jay Cason was in attendance watching old friends and acquaintances play as was Tom Willis, head coach at nearby Frederica Academy and country club member who was watching his player Jackson Byrd compete … Grady Sanders, a senior at Glynn Academy, a local high school which won a state championship this spring, made a hole-in-one at the par-3 eighth hole in the final round. He hit a cut 6-iron from 178 yards. The ace was his first-ever hole-in-one.View results for Golden Isles Invitational