SAN FRANCISCO, CA –March 5, 2006 -
by Matt Foley
Will Johnson is the champion in the 90th playing of the San Francisco City Golf Championship. Johnson earned the cup in a 2&1 victory over Garett Wagner in the famous event that has been played every year since 1917. He can now take his well earned rest after 4 grueling weekends of golf which included 36 holes of stroke play to qualify, and 136 holes of match play to win it.
Johnson, of San Francisco, had advanced to Sunday’s 36 hole final by defeating 1999 champion Randy Haag of Burlingame 3&2. Wagner’s ticket to the finals came thanks to a 7&6 win over Kevin Kobalter of San Rafael. Saturday had provided a respite from the stormy weather that had hit the bay area hard the previous several days. The break in the storm even kept the competitors dry on Sunday for the first 18 holes. But the skies eventually opened up with blistering winds and rain that chilled the golfers to the bone, offering exactly the kind of weather in which the SF City is supposed to be won.
The conditions were especially brutal for the final 9 holes, with wind and sideways freezing rain that made club selection vital. “I’m not the kind of guy who hits the ball well all day long. Today I played better in the morning than in the afternoon,” Johnson said. “In these conditions it’s all about picking the right club and being able to hit a variety of shots.”
Johnson took a 3 up lead after the first 18 holes. His lead shrunk to just 1 after losing holes #2 and #4. But his eagle on the par 5 9th again put him 2 up. Wagner, though, would battle his way back to even, winning the 12th and 14th holes.
The best drama unfolded as the two moved to the 15th all square. Johnson was in the fairway with his 3 wood off the tee, while Wagner took out his driver and missed the fairway well right. He watched as Johnson put his approach shot in the middle of the green. Wagner hit the only shot he could, narrowly avoiding the trees and putting the ball 10 yards off the green to the left. He then chipped to within 10 feet, and when Johnson missed his birdie putt, Wagner had his par putt to save par and halve the hole. It was good from the moment it left his putter, and the two continued on to 16 all square.
What the competitors may not have known is that the pin placements on every hole were identical to those of the World Golf Championship won by Tiger Woods in late 2005. Johnson, though, hinted that he might have been aware that the 16th pin was the same. Both golfers were looking at short putts for par, but Wagner conceded to Johnson, who was only about a half foot closer to the hole than Johnson. Johnson, though, did not concede Wagner’s putt, which was eerily similar to the putt that John Daly missed in the infamous WGC final round. Wagner’s putt lipped out, much to the enjoyment of the sizeable gallery following Johnson. Johnson, who spends most of his time on the course as a caddie at San Francisco Golf Club, was well supported by many of his co-workers. A few muffled cheers went up at the joy of seeing him go 1-up with two holes left.
Wagner, though, almost got his sweet revenge on No. 17. His tee shot to the gusty par-3 was pin high, with Johnson facing an uphill putt from about 20 feet. Johnson hit a low 8-iron on the downwind hole, and with the soft conditions was able to stop the ball on the front of the green. As Wagner stood over his 25 foot putt for birdie, Johnson still felt confident. “I thought I would have a putt to win it.” But as Wagner’s putt rolled toward the hole, Johnson put his head down. “I thought it was in,” Johnson smiled. It was agony for Wagner, who must have thought for a moment that he had surely won the hole, and would go to 18 all square. His joy was short lived, as the putt astonishingly missed an inch to the right, leaving Johnson with a birdie putt to win the match.
What a way to win it! Johnson coolly rolled home the birdie putt, and sending the gallery into an uproar. Some of his friends ran to the green to hug him and carry him off on their shoulders. Johnson expressed his joy of winning the match on seventeen, avoiding the always treacherous and uncertain 18th hole. ”I was glad I did not have to go to eighteen, big time. I had only made par on it once the entire tournament,” Johnson quipped.
As he accepted his trophy from the venerable Sandy Tatum, Johnson expressed his gratitude. “I feel really honored to be the champion of the SF City, I know the history of this event, and I am honored to have my name on the trophy,” said a smiling Johnson. “It was an honor to play in front of all of you and all my friends.”
The 90th playing of the San Francisco City Championship was summed up well by Tatum as one of the “most important amateur golf events in all of the world.” The pride that all the competitors took in their performances was a joy to watch. There is no doubt that the amateur golf landscape in Northern California is as strong as ever.