Kevin Johnson captures Rex Open

Nationwide veterans decide title in one-hole playoff

Staff WriterJune 1, 2009 

— Over four days, the 18th green at TPC Wakefield Plantation showed Kevin Johnson some love.

On Sunday, as he rolled home his third putt for birdie there to win the Rex Hospital Open, it wouldn't have surprised anyone if he had knelt and kissed the ground.

Johnson needed his final birdie putt to edge Jeff Gallagher in a one-hole playoff, securing his fifth Nationwide Tour championship with a four-day total of 18-under-par 266 after rounds of 65, 69, 65 and 67. He entered the final day with the lead, fell behind, rallied and then held on for the victory, collecting the $94,500 winner's check.

After making four consecutive pars leading to the final hole of his regulation round, Johnson knocked in a 5-foot putt for birdie on the par-5, 577-yard 18th to force a playoff with Gallagher.

Then, with a steady stroke, he drilled a 4-footer on the first playoff hole -- No. 18 again -- while Gallagher missed his 5-foot attempt at a birdie.

"I don't know if I want to play it anymore," Johnson said of No. 18. "It was friendly to me. And for Jeff to miss that putt ... he was playing great."

Gallagher finished with a 7-under 64, earning $56,700 for his efforts.

Raleigh resident David Mathis, who last season earned his PGA Tour card while playing on the Nationwide Tour, was third after a final-round 67 for a 15-under 266. He took home $35,700. He was an alternate for this past weekend's PGA Tour event in Fort Worth, Texas, but no spot opened for him.

Still, in a tournament in which the leaderboard shuffled over the first three days, Johnson was the one to tame the 7,257-yard course with easy-swinging, solid golf. Dressed in an orange polo shirt, a nod to his Clemson undergraduate days, Johnson made three birdies on the back nine and overcame a bogey at No. 11. He watched the leaderboard and saw Gallagher overtake his lead. But he never panicked, and the native of Plymouth, Mass., hoisted his first championship trophy since 2006.

The Nationwide Tour, which serves as the proving ground for the PGA Tour, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Each season, the top 25 money winners earn their PGA Tour cards.

Johnson, 42, and Gallagher, 44, each participated in the Nationwide Tour's inaugural event in 1990. In the time since, they have had their ups and downs with a game that has been known to frustrate pacifists.

In 2001, Gallagher injured his left hip and missed 10 months of that PGA Tour season. He slogged through the next two seasons, eventually losing his tour card and returning to the Nationwide Tour. In 2004, he made just three cuts in 16 starts. From 2005 to 2007, he played in just eight events.

"I just really never recovered," Gallagher said.

He still awakens every morning with pain.

"It's been tough for the last five or six years. I just stuck with it," he said. "I don't like to complain about it. I complained for four years, and it dragged me down."

Despite the pain, he plays on in good spirits, though there have been many times he has thought of dropping his clubs in his bag for good.

What has kept him going was the encouragement of a man -- a two-time cancer survivor -- he had started giving golf lessons to three years ago.

"He just pretty much inspired me to keep playing," Gallagher said.

Johnson, who last season made only three cuts in 22 starts and earned just $6,479, has found his inspiration from those who have supported him.

His wife, Christa, and young daughters Jordan and Jade have stood by him, as has his primary sponsor, Jim Arrigo, who owns a Dodge dealership.

Sunday's victory places Johnson fourth on the money list this season with $146,999. He has moved one step closer to returning to the PGA Tour.

"I've been out here for a pretty good while," said Johnson, who turned professional in 1989 and had his best season in 2006. "You think you don't have it, all of sudden you win something. ... It's like a dream; I don't know what else I would enjoy doing."

robinson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4781

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