82nd KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship
Credit: PGA

Paul Claxton is the bespectacled poker player down at the far end of the table who, when the game breaks up in the wee hours, is holding all the chips. That guy.

Thursday at Harbor Shores, the 54-year-old PGA General Manager/Teaching Professional/Head Golf Professional at Richmond Hill Golf Club in Richmond Hill, Georgia – translation: very part-time player – found some of his old magic, opening the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship by shooting 6-under 65.

Claxton made seven birdies against a lone bogey and finished the day only one shot behind co-leaders Steven Alker of New Zealand, the hottest man on the PGA Tour Champions, and Texan Bob Estes. They finished their rounds in the early evening, setting the championship pace with matching 7-under 64s.

To his credit, Claxton is right there, too. It was a nice day for several of the Club Professionals in the Senior PGA field. Ohio’s Bob Sowards, who tied for fifth a year ago at Southern Hills, turned in another solid effort, getting out fast with a 3-under 68. Oklahoma’s Tracy Phillips, who last Saturday played in front of tens of thousands of fans as a non-competing marker in the third round of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, shot 69. Club Professionals Tim Fleming (Oklahoma City) and Larry George (Wallace, N.C.) each shot even-par 71s.

Scoring conditions were terrific in the afternoon, as rains kept away and the winds laid down. Claxton took advantage. Birdies would be plentiful, and Claxton gathered up his share.

“The hole,” Claxton would explain afterward, “just kept getting in the way.”

Did it ever. In October, Claxton captured the Senior PGA Professional Championship in Port St. Lucie, Florida, where the top 35 Club Professionals earned their way to Harbor Shores. (In all, there are 39 Club Professionals in this week’s field.) Claxton prevailed there in a playoff over Mark Mielke.

In Thursday’s opening round, Claxton got off to a dream start, making three consecutive birdies off No. 1. He hit 9-iron to 6 feet at the par-4 first; 7-iron to 40 feet at the 174-yard second, converting the long putt; and birdied the short par-4 third with a gap wedge to kick-in range. It was too terrific a start to waste. Though he made bogey at the par-3 fourth, Claxton would add four more birdies coming home.

82nd KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship
BENTON HARBOR, MI - MAY 26: PGA Professional, Paul Claxton reads his putt on the 16th green during the first round of the 82nd KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship held at Harbor Shores Golf Club on May 26, 2022 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/PGA of America)
Credit: PGA

“I had a great front nine, and momentum just kind of built from there,” Claxton said. “I hit a lot of good shots, kept the ball in play, made a few putts, chipped a ball in (at the seventh, for birdie) – I had a lot of good things happen to me early. I had a great pairing, played with some friends of mine, and all in all, I had a real nice day.”

Bob Sowards Round 1
PGA Professional, Bob Sowards hits his shot from the 14th tee during the first round of the 82nd KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship.
Credit: Montana Pritchard/PGA of America/PGA

Sowards, 53, from Dublin, Ohio, is a seven-time PGA of America Player of the Year – which includes three PGA of America Senior Player of the Year titles. His 11 career starts in the PGA Championship is second only to Steve Schneiter. He said his finish in Tulsa a year ago paid quite handsomely – not only in cold cash (he earned $106,000, which helped to pay for his daughter’s freshman year at Arizona State), but also in confidence. Sowards has played on the PGA Tour and knows a lot of players in this week’s field, and last year’s showing just gives him the extra boost to step in and try to do it all over again.

Sowards said he took a while to settle into his round, but once he did, he liked what he saw. Heading off the 10th tee, he hit 9-iron to a foot at the 14th, knocked in a 10-footer for birdie at the par-5 15th, and “hit the 7-iron of my life” at the par-3 17th to set up yet another birdie and get to 3 under. He gave a shot away with a three-putt at the rugged 18th, but rebounded with a clean nine holes to finish, tacking on one last birdie at the par-4 eighth. If he was going to make only one long putt on his day, he picked a good one, draining a 50-footer at the eighth.

Claxton said his members back home have been urging him to get out and practice more in recent weeks, but the course has been so busy he simply hasn’t had the time. He is a seasoned competitor, having played many seasons on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, winning twice on the circuit. So, even without practicing as he once did, he knows what to do out there. Even as he finished off his 6-under round, he raced right to the chipping area to get in some extra work with his pitching.

“I know it’s a long way to go, and we’ve got some weather coming in,” Claxton said. “We know it’s a long way to the finish line and there is a lot of great players out there. I don’t have the reps under my belt. These guys are playing every day, and I’ve been working.”

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