Mason’s 5-under par 67 made him the leader, and he stayed there all day.
Though it made for a nerve-racking afternoon, as Mason watched the other scores get posted, none of the 80 other players to record a score could catch him.
The 63-year-old who now makes his home in the north Georgia mountain town of Dillard is a golf veteran, turning pro in 1973. He has one Champions Tour victory, the 2002 NFL Golf Classic.
“I’ve been in these things forever, and I’m not in until I’m in.” Mason said as he waited for the last remaining groups to come off the 6,802-yard, par-72 course. “Right now, it’s looking pretty good, but you’re not in until you’re in.”
Mason was joined by a pair of teaching pros — Sonny Skinner of Sylvester and Tim Parun of San Diego — as the three to earn qualifying spots in next month’s U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National Golf Club in Edmond, Okla.
Skinner had a bogey-free round and finished one shot behind Mason with a 68. Parun got off to a rough start and was 2-over through five holes, but he played the remaining 13 at 4-under to shoot 70.
Roswell’s William Mitchell and Atlanta’s Jack Larkin beat Alpharetta’s Bob Royak in a playoff to earn the first and second alternate positions, respectively, after shooting 71s.
But the day belonged to Mason. He topped the leaderboard by making five of his seven birdies on the back nine — and they came in bunches. Mason strung together three straight birdies on Nos. 10, 11 and 12, and then closed his round with back-to-back birdies on 17 and 18.
“I actually made some putts later in the round,” Mason said.
Skinner said he struggled on his first two holes, but he managed to get up and down on both for par. After making birdie on the par-5 third, everything started to click. The former PGA and Nationwide Tour player made 11 straight pars before birdieing three of his last four holes.
“Very rarely do you play with no bogeys,” the 53-year-old Skinner said. “I felt real good about it, and if I’m one back of my buddy, James, I must have done pretty good.”
The 54-year-old Parun started on the back nine and bogeyed Nos. 10 and 12 to fall to 2-over. Birdies on 14 and 16 got him back to even at the turn before a birdie on No. 1 finally moved him to red figures. A birdie on No. 9, his final hole, kept Parun out of a potential four-man playoff.
Mason and Parun each qualified for their second U.S. Senior Open. Skinner is in it for the first time, though he caddied for good friend Allen Doyle at the 2007 tournament in Wisconsin.
Craig Stevens, the head teaching professional at Brookstone, came close to earning his second Open berth in two years, but his even-par 72 wasn’t the round he hoped to play.
Though the 52-year-old Stevens’ familiarity with the course game him an advantage, he said it was the occasional mental error that hurt him.
Stevens bogeyed the 320-yard par-4 fifth hole, after his drive set up only a 65-yard second shot to the green. He also said he missed a pair of 3-foot par putts during the round.
“I played solid for 16 holes, and it was the other two holes that got away from me, and that was the difference,” Stevens said. “My two buddies are Sonny and James, and I am happy that they got in. I should be No. 3, but golf is golf. I’m leaving (this) morning to Myrtle Beach to play the Professional National Championship, so you have to get on your horse and go.”
Mariettans Mark Mulhall (76) and Scott Davenport (77) joined Kennesaw’s Richard Grote (78) in the top 30. Like Stevens, Davenport made last year’s Open in Omaha, Neb.