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Mason hopes for happy homecoming at Greater Gwinnett Championship

James Mason current official PGA TOUR headshot (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR) *** Local Caption *** James Mason

James Mason current official PGA TOUR headshot (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR) *** Local Caption *** James Mason

When the Greater Gwinnett Championship tees off Friday morning, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

But while the Champions Tour event marks the return of a professional tournament to TPC Sugarloaf, it will be a literal homecoming for one of the participants.

James Mason has always relished a chance to come home to metro Atlanta to play competitive golf, and the 62-year-old Duluth native will get to share in the pro golf's return to Gwinnett County.

"I'm excited as a kid at Christmas," the 1968 Duluth High School graduate said. "I'm still living my dream. ... I just enjoy playing golf."

Playing golf is something he has done quite well for several decades as both a teaching and playing professional, including a four-year stint as the club pro at Jimmy Mozley's Golf Center in Lawrenceville in the late 1990s.

And he more than made his as a player, with three wins at the Georgia PGA Championship and having qualified for three of golf's four major championships -- the 1977 Masters, the 1978 U.S. Open and the 1997 PGA Championship.

No matter what else he does in his career, Mason is content that he has made the most of his ability.

"At 45, I got pretty good from teaching at Jimmy Mozley's, and I parlayed that into a pretty good run," said Mason, now the teaching professional at the Orchard Golf Club in Clarksville. "I think 1997 was one of my best years. I qualified for the PGA, and that was the year Davis Love (III) won it. I won the Polo Classic (on the PGA Georgia Tour) and the Georgia PGA Championship (for the first time). I think the biggest highlight I've had was winning on the Champions Tour (at the 2002 NFL Golf Classic in Clifton, N.J.) and almost winning two years ago at Hickory, N.C. (at the 2011 Greater Hickory Classic)."

Along the way, he's gotten a chance to meet and play alongside some of the game's greatest players, something he still appreciates and does not take for granted.

"I got to play with Arnold Palmer once or twice," Mason recalled. "I'm still in awe of all of them. It's like teeing off on the first hole at The Masters the first time. It's just unbelievable."

With his appearance at the Greater Gwinnett Championship, Mason will once again be playing alongside some of golf's biggest names, including former majors winners like Tom Watson, Larry Nelson, Ben Crenshaw, Larry Mize, Sandy Lyle or Hale Irwin, among others.

Because he's played sparingly on the Champions Tour in recent years -- this will be his first event of 2013, and he played in just seven tournaments last year, with the best result being a tie for 13th at the Insperity Championship at The Woodlands, Texas, last May -- he will be playing next weekend at TPC Sugarloaf on a sponsor's exemption.

"I attribute that to bad play," Mason joked. "But I fell very fortunate to get a sponsor's exemption, which I'm very grateful for."

As grateful as Mason is, and as much as he enjoys playing, he still retains his competitive streak.

He's made six previous appearances in the Atlanta's old PGA Tour stop, the last three of which came at TPC Sugarloaf at what became known as the AT&T Classic.

And though he never made the cut in any of his previous appearances, his scores got progressively better each time out.

So, with this scores headed in the right direction, his goal is to still be playing by the time the weekend is over.

"At the age of 62, I may have another (good weekend) left in me," Mason said. "I just hope I can go out and play and just see what happens."