Monday, April 07, 2008

First local PGA Tour winner in 20 years

When Johnson Wagner won the Shell Houston Open Sunday, he did more than earn himself a tee time Thursday in the Masters.

He became the first Charlotte resident to win a PGA Tour event in more than 20 years. Jay Haas lived here in the early 1980s when he picked up a couple of victories before moving to Greenville, S.C. Prior to Haas, you had to go back to Clayton Heafner's days in the 1940s and 1950s to find a Charlotte-based tour winner.

Wagner moved here two years ago after a breakout season on the Nationwide Tour. After leading wire to wire at Houston last week, he redefined his career.

Not only did Wagner play himself into the Masters this week while earning a $1.08-million check, he landed a spot in the Mercedes Championship at Kapalua next January plus better tee times as a tour winner.

That means Wagner might finally play with Tiger Woods, who he's seen plenty but not yet played with.

Wagner said Sunday evening that he had felt his game coming around in recent weeks, after working with his teacher, Bobby Hines, in Florida. The payoff came in a huge way.

Most impressive was how Wagner handled himself while trying to win his first tour event. He was nervous -- it was obvious watching him -- but you're supposed to be nervous when you're trying to win, especially the first time.

He didn't let a three-putt bogey at the 14th shake him and he kept making good swings and smart plays. The 11-foot par putt he holed at the 17th after a poor first putt probably sealed the tournament for him.

Wagner's victory also reinforced the decision by Masters officials to reinstate the rule that gives a spot to PGA Tour winners. It was part of the intrigue Sunday afternoon, knowing Wagner was playing for more than just a championship.

And when the Wachovia Championship rolls around in less than a month, Charlotte will have its own hometown guy among the favorites.