After four seasons trying, Johnson joined the ranks of County Tour champions Sunday when he defeated Gary Wigington with a birdie on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to win the Pine Hill Invitational.
Both players shot 7-under-par 137 over the 36 holes of regulation. Johnson shot a bogey-free 5-under 67 in the final round, then made a downhill birdie putt in the playoff — from just about the same spot he whistled one past the hole in regulation — after Wigington’s birdie attempt missed on the high side of the hole.
“I’m very, very, very excited,” Johnson said. “I know what Jeremy (McGatha) and those guys who win regularly tell me: It doesn’t get any easier. Every time you win, you still get the same nerves and you’ve got to learn to play with it.
“I believe it 200 more percent now, because if I was in the same situation tomorrow, I’d have the same nerves. That’s just golf. You’re out there by yourself. It’s up to you to do it or you don’t. It’s all on you.”
With his win, Johnson moved into third place in the County Tour points standings (1025), behind leader Jeremy McGatha (1162.5) and Frank Brady (1070), and could make a case for shedding the tag of best player never to win a series event.
The top 16 finishers in the series advance to the County Match Play Championship later this fall. The final event on the schedule is the County Championship, Aug. 19-21 at Cane Creek. It’s worth 1.5-times the points for Tour players.
Johnson’s best finish in the series this season prior to Sunday was fourth at Cane Creek and a T-4 at Anniston Municipal. His best finishes last season were T-5s at Cane Creek and Cider Ridge.
He was eighth in the series points in 2010, 10th in 2008 and 12th in 2007. He didn’t play in the series in 2009.
“They always kid me about being the best Championship B player,” Johnson said. “Those core guys I play with … they keep telling me I have the game, you just have to grind it out and do it.
“Every time I tee it up, I hit it just as good as these guys. It always comes down to chipping and putting and, finally, this weekend I started making some putts.”
Johnson was four shots off the pace after two holes, but he eventually caught Wigington at the turn by playing the front in 4-under. Wigington regained the lead with a birdie at 10, but the tournament turned when the long-hitting local entrepreneur double-bogeyed 13, three-putted for bogey at the par-3 14th, and parred the par-5 15th out of the greenside bunker.
Wigington forced the playoff with a clutch eagle-3 on the 18th hole. The reigning Calhoun County champion carried a two-shot lead into the final round, but needed to make a sweeping 20-foot putt that almost came out of the hole after he went for the green with a driver off the deck from 270 yards “to see what would happen.”
“I wasn’t going to leave it short,” he said of the putt. “When it went in, I was surprised, but it was good.”
It was his second eagle of the round. He shot 69.
The players went back to 18 to start the playoff. Johnson found the middle of the fairway and Wigington found himself in almost the same spot his drive landed in regulation. This time, however, Wigington hit a 3-wood that settled short of the green, but in line with the pin.
Johnson’s second shot landed in the right rough in almost the same spot as it did when he played 18 in regulation and he chipped on to just about the same spot as he did in regulation. Wigington pulled his pitch shot and it finished below the hole and he missed the putt for birdie.
“It’s just gotta be a perfect putt there,” he said. “I couldn’t make two perfect ones in a row.”
That was the only time during the round Johnson felt secure that victory was his.
“I’ve seen ‘Twig’ do it too many times; that’s what makes this one a little more special,” Johnson said. “To know I could stay in there and play with one of the top players in the county.”
After Sunday, he should consider himself in the same group.
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.