SANDY — Willow Creek Country Club played harder this year for the Envirocare Utah Classic. Not hard, as in more difficult.
OK, maybe the renovated course was a little more difficult than in past years, but it was because of the firmness of the course, which has had little rain this summer.
But for former PGA Tour winner Garrett Willis, the hard conditions were no problem. He fired a final-round 70 Sunday for a 13-under 275 to win by one shot over three other golfers Sunday afternoon.
While other players watched in frustration as their drives rolled into the rough, their approach shots didn't hold the green, and their putts rolled past the hole, Willis played smart in winning for the first time in more than four years.
"It feels like a huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders," said Willis, who pocketed $85,500 in winning for the first time since winning the Tucson Open in 2001 in his first PGA Tour event
"You've got to play smart here," said the Knoxville, Tenn., native. "You have to lay back, play precision golf and rely on your short game. The course played extremely fair. All the guys who thought it was unfair are the guys who bomb it 330 on every hole."
For Brian Henninger, another former PGA Tour winner, the hard course resulted in what he called "definitely the worst break I've ever had in my career — and cost him a shot to win the tournament on the final hole, or at least force a tie.
It happened when Henninger's approach shot to the 18th hole hit a hard spot on an upslope on the fringe 15 feet in front of the pin and ricocheted back into the lake guarding the green. The resulting bogey left him one shot behind Willis along with Mathew Goggin and Kris Cox. Those three earned $35,467 apiece.
Willis had led going into the final round, a shot ahead of Goggin and two ahead of Henninger and Brendon deJonge. He led most of the day, but fell into a tie with Henninger by making a bogey at the par-5 17th hole, which was playing as the third-easiest on the course during the tournament, after hitting under a tree.
As he walked off the green he muttered to his caddie/wife Jennifer, "I can't believe I made a bogey. I like to make things interesting, don't I?"
Willis was able to regain his composure while waiting for the group ahead at No. 18. He watched Henninger's "body language" after his approach shot and figured he hit it in the bunker guarding the green. After hitting his drive, Willis asked a spectator, who informed him Henninger had actually hit it in the water.
The 43-year-old Henninger, an 11-year veteran of the PGA Tour, where he won twice, figured he was in great shape, just 120 yards out at the 346-yard final hole. He hit a pitching wedge right toward the flag, only to watch in horror as it bounced high and back into the water.
"I thought I hit a perfect shot," he said. "It hit a sod seam and it just went backwards."
Some of the grass around the 18th green had been re-sodded when the lake was extended earlier this year, but an inspection by several media members couldn't detect any "seams" in the grass. But it definitely was very hard ground and unfortunately for Henninger his ball bounded in the wrong direction.
Henninger recovered with a nice chip to salvage bogey and drop to 12-under. Back on the fairway, Willis knew he now needed a par to win. He hit his 80-yard wedge shot, 30 feet left of the pin and then rolled his downhill putt within three feet. Then it was pressure time.
"I was shaking like a 50-cent ladder," he said. "I had my heart in my throat."
Willis rolled the putt in to clinch the victory and prevent a four-way playoff with not a lot of sunlight left in the day.
Goggin, a 31-year-old from Australia, had rallied from three back with birdies at 13 and 16 and he just missed a 10-foot birdie try at 17. At 18 he had a 30-foot downhill putt that missed by inches or he would have finished 13-under. Cox finished a few groups ahead with a final-round 68.
The only Utah golfer to make the cut, Sandy's Todd Tanner, was disappointed in his finish Sunday, but was thrilled to finish in a tie for 22nd place at 285 with his final-round 72.
By finishing in the top 25, Tanner earned a spot in the next Nationwide Tour event in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., this week. He earned $4,227.
"It's frustrating to finish with a bogey, but I hope this holds up for next week," he said a couple of hours before learning he had indeed finished in the top 25. "This is the first cut I've made in a Nationwide Tour event and I hope the next one's going to be even easier."
After the tournament, it was announced that Envirocare will team with the Utah Sports Commission to bring the tournament back to Willow Creek CC next year.