SANDY — Having gone winless since last April on the Nationwide Tour, Zach Johnson wondered if he'd ever win again, particularly after finishing second in three straight tournaments in July.
However, deep in his heart, he knew it was only a matter of time. So did most of his fellow golfers, who know why he is now the No. 1 player on the Nationwide Tour.
Johnson capped a successful weekend by firing his second straight 65 to win the Envirocare Utah Classic by one stroke over Bobby Gage and two over Scott Gutschewski Sunday at Willow Creek Country Club.
The victory vaulted Johnson to the top of the Nationwide Tour money list with $418,915, as he became the first golfer in history of the 12-year-old tour to top the $400,000 mark.
"This is awesome," he said. "I was confident, but really didn't know what to expect. After three runnerups in a row, I didn't know if my opportunities would come again."
The 27-year-old from Iowa had started the day two shots off the lead, but moved into a tie for the lead after the front nine. Then he held off a late charge by Gage in a classic match-play duel down the stretch to claim the $81,000 first prize.
Next stop for Johnson — the PGA Tour.
He'll play in this week's John Deere Classic in his home state on a sponsor's exemption. However, he has already assured himself of a spot on next year's PGA Tour with his excellent season. Like most recent winners of the Utah Classic, Johnson isn't likely to return.
Johnson has made steady progress following an average college career at Drake University. After winning some tournaments he moved on to the NGA Hooters Tour, where he was the leading money winner two years ago and runnerup last year. This year he moved up to the Nationwide Tour where's he's moved up to No. 1.
"I want to improve every year and I have," he said. "I played out here in 2000, but was awful (making four cuts in 11 tournaments). But from a learning standpoint it was the best year of my career. I knew what I needed to do to get to the next level."
After starting Sunday's round two shots behind Gutschewski and Jeff Freeman, Johnson quickly caught up with birdies at 1, 3, 5 and 7. He took the lead when Gutschewski bogeyed No. 10 and added to his lead with a birdie at 12.
Gutschewski, who had never been in contention for such a big prize, had been frank enough before the round began to say he didn't know what to expect from himself. He did just fine, going out in 2-under-par to make the turn in a tie with Johnson at 18-under.
However, the beginning of the end for Gutschewski came at the par-5 586-yard No. 10 hole. After absolutely crushing a drive that a spotter measured at 356 yards, he made four bad shots in a row, hitting his approach short, barely making the green with his chip, knocking his putt eight feet above the hole, then missing the putt coming back.
Gutschewski called No. 10 a "glaring mistake," but said, "other than that, I played well all day."
Johnson claimed he never looked at the leaderboard until the 17th hole, but he knew playing partner Gage was gaining on him in a hurry with a startling birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle stretch at holes 10-13, which sprung him into a tie with Johnson at 19-under. The eagle came when his wedge shot from 130 yards took one hop and landed in the cup.
Both players parred 14 and looked to be on their way to pars at 15 until Johnson's tricky 30-foot downhill putt slowly trickled into the hole to put him one up. Then at the par-4 16th, Johnson hit a wedge to within six inches for a tap-in birdie.
Gage made things interesting with a chip-in birdie at 17, but his approach at No. 18 landed 30 feet beyond the pin and his birdie try to tie, slid past.
"I knew it was going to be a match play battle (after the eagle), but he's tough as nails," said the 38-year-old Gage.
By taking third, Gutschewski earned his way onto the Nationwide Tour for the rest of the year by $69. He needed to earn $30,531 to reach the number needed to earn an exemption for the remainder of the Nationwide schedule and earned $30,600
CLASSIC NOTES: Tournament director Evan Byers was very pleased with this year's tournament and is confident Envirocare will renew its option to be the sponsor next year. Byers said 16,000 fans attended this year's tourney . . . Farmington's Boyd Summerhays moved up the final day to finish in a tie for 43rd place at 282 with a final-round 69. He earned $1,701 . . . The other local golfer who made the cut, Salt Lake's Henry White, was disqualified for practicing putting during his round. White had shot a final-round 73 to finish at 290 and would have earned $1,100 . . . The most difficult hole during the tournament turned out to be the par-3 No. 2 hole, which yielded only 35 birdies all week. The easiest hole was the par-5 No. 3, which had more birdies than pars and 19 eagles . . . Only one golfer, Oscar Serna at 2-over-par 290, finished over par for the tournament.