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1-stroke victory: St. George golfer wins more than money

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SARATOGA SPRINGS — Although he'll surely find some ways to spend the $15,000 first prize, Nick McKinlay said he was much more excited about something else he earned by winning the Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open Sunday.

The 29-year-old from St. George capped off the best golfing week of his life by shooting a 69 Sunday, giving him a 54-hole total of 202 and a one-shot win over Salt Lake's Jeff Keye. Provo's Chris Moody and Bountiful's Garrett Clegg tied for third, two shots back.

But along with the biggest check of his life, McKinlay also received an exemption to next month's Nationwide Tour Utah Classic at Willow Creek Country Club.

When asked which thrilled him more, he said, "Definitely the invite. Money's nice, but it's the fact of advancing my future and the goals that I have."

Until the past couple of weeks, McKinlay was content working at Coral Canyon Golf Course teaching golf lessons and hadn't thought much about playing for a living. However, after winning the Salt Lake City Open two weeks ago and topping it off with the Utah Open win, McKinlay is re-evaluating his future.

"After winning the Salt Lake City Open, that got me excited about practicing and playing a lot more," he said. "I'm going to take playing more seriously and definitely going to re-dedicate myself to practicing a lot more."

On the other hand, maybe it's his relaxed approach to golf that helped him play so well lately. McKinlay acknowledges his game has improved since he changed his attitude about golf and started treating it like a fun game, rather than putting pressure on himself to perform well.

Unlike most players who get familiar with a course before playing and make

meticulous notes, McKinlay showed up blind for Friday morning's first round. He had never even seen the course but still fashioned a 6-under 66 that gave him a share of the first-round lead with Jon Fister Jr.

A 67 Saturday kept him in a tie with Fister, but more experienced players such as Canadian Tour regular Ryan Ellis, Tight Lies Tour player Clegg and Moody, an assistant at Riverside CC, were lurking close behind.

For Sunday's final round, McKinlay was able to stay pretty calm as he had been all week. He missed a birdie opportunity on the first hole, but made three more on the front nine to make the turn at 3-under par, 14-under for the tournament.

That put him three up on the field and even more on Fister and Ellis, who struggled early and made the turn at 10-under and 8-under, respectively.

The group in front of McKinlay's, was staying close as Moody, Clegg and Keye all made the turn at 11-under.

McKinlay added a birdie at the par-5 13th with a two-putt to move to 15-under. Keye and Moody were both 13-under after making back-to-back birdies 13 and 14. But neither birdied the par-5 15th and Moody fell back with a bogey at the short par-4 16th with a 3-putt.

That left McKinlay with a cushion going into the final three holes, when he finally began to get nervous.

"Those last three holes were not much fun," he said. "I've never been so nervous in my life."

McKinlay thought Moody was just one shot behind him because he assumed he would birdie No. 16, when in fact he bogeyed it.

"I never looked at a scoreboard until I got to 16 and then I saw Chris Moody's name," he said. "I know he's an unbelievable player."

After managing a par at 16, McKinlay hit the shot of the tournament at No. 17, a 220-yard par-3 with bunkers on the right and rough around the green. His 3-iron shot went straight at the flag and ended up just 7 feet away.

"I just closed my eyes and swung," he said. "That was the best shot of the day by far."

Even though he left the putt short, he still had a two-shot lead going into the final hole, allowing him to three-putt for his only bogey of the day and fourth of the tournament.

""I wanted to end on a better note," he said. "But I'm definitely happy."

It hardly matters how he finished the last hole, since McKinlay will always be known as the 2005 Utah Open champion.

Keye, a 35-year-old assistant at Old Mill, picked up $10,000 for second place.

"It was a good week for me," he said. "I kept it in play and made some putts."

Pete Stone, playing in his first professional tournament, finished fifth and picked up a check for $3,500. His 66 was the lowest score of the day.

Provo's Tadd Cox celebrated his 25th birthday by finishing as the low amateur at 207 in a tie with Fister, who struggled to a 74 with 37 putts Sunday.

Sandy's Todd Tanner finished sixth at 206 after shooting a 67. Ellis and Joseph Summerhays tied for ninth at 208.

The tournament's beneficiary, Special Olympics, was presented with a check for $22,000 during the awards ceremony.

E-mail: sor@desnews.com