George Johnson, who quit the PGA tour this spring after 11 years because he had lost his chipping touch, rediscovered it yesterday, and shot a five-under-par 67 to win the 1oth annual Lee Elder Pro-Am Celebrity Tournament by one shot at Langston golf course.
Johnson's 36-hole total of 137 was seven under par, one shot ahead of Australian touring pro Bruce Devlin, 68 70-138, and cocky Renold Gutzi, 69 69-138, a 28-year-old Detroit native who will try for his tour card again this fall.
One disastrous hole each eliminated Saturday's top scorers, Al Green and George (Potato Pie) Wallace, from contention. Green drove out of bounds on his final hole, made triple bogey, and finished at 66 75-141. Wallace doubled bogeyed his next-to-last hole when he hit a fat chip shot, then charged a 15-foot downhill putt for par and missed a five-footer coming back. He finished at 67 72-139.
In the end, it was Johnson's tour experience that payed off in the $2,000 first-place check of $15,000 pro kitty. Conditions were rough and putts over two feet were challenges. He played cautiously, took advantage of his distance to make seven of his nine birdies on the par-55 and hit 32 greens in regulation over the two days.
On Saturday, he shot 70 and 36 putts -- twice two-putting for birdies and twice three-putting for bogeys. He missed one green.
At the 18th tee today, a tournament official told him he needed a par on the 396-yard finishing hole to win -- after he had birdies all four par-5s and the par-4 fifth from four feet.
He had missed two greens previously yesterday, but saved par with chips inside 18 inches each time, a far cry from the past 2 1/2 years when, he said, "I'd hit 15 greens in regulation and couldn't shoot 74. It wasn't that I was putting bad. I was leaving myself 12-to 15-foot putts with the chips."
So Johnson dropped off the tour, went home to Atlanta and chipped 400-500 practice balls a day. That preserverence and his experience paid off for him on the 18th hole yesterday.
He knew the tournament was his with a par, and he also knew the finishing hole was fairly easy if he played it correctly -- drive down the left side to avoid coming over traps and a slope on the right -- and let a seven-iron approach shot bounce up to the pin seven paces off the front side of the green.
A flyer from the fairway -- and that kind of shot was always possible -- would bounce over the green for a sure bogey. So if he was going to mis-hit his shot, he would leave it short and he did, just off the front of the green to the left, on a slight incline.
Standing behind the gallery ropes, Roger Christel, one of Gutzi's amateur partners, told his friend that Johnson would be sure to take three from where he was. After all, they had played a practice round with Johnson Thursday and the Atlanta native lost $25 in bets.
"He's no slasher. It told you that," Gutzi said to Christel. "He's an experienced tour player. Look where he's standing. A blind person could get up and down from there. I'll put the old Sicilian Malarkey on him."
For a second, Gutzi looked more like Dancing Harry then a golf pro.
The wedge chip was perfect, two feet past the cup and straight in.
"He'll miss it," said Cristel, hopefully.
"That's a gimme," said Gutzi knowledgeably.
Moments later, Johnson tapped in the winning putt.
The winner of one PGA tour event in his career with consecutive finishes of 61, 62 and 63 on the money-winning list in consecutive years at the start of the 1970s, Johnson quit the tour after missing the cut in three tournaments early this year.
"I couldn't chip and putt," he said. "If you can't chip and putt, you might as well not stand out there. I'd yank the ball or I'd use too much right hand. That's the worst part of my game -- chipping."
Johnson has won no money on the PGA tour events and pro-ams like the Elder, have amounted to no more than $6,000. He plans to play in three PGA tour events this fall, needing $8,000 in official winnings to avoid losing his playing card and having to go to qualifying school again.
"It feels good to win," Johnson said afterward. "I don't care what it is.
It'll give me a spark and confidence . . . if I can chip and putt, I'll know I'll never be over par."
Bob Hope, the comedian who was supposed to play with elder in an exhibition yesterday, called in his regrets because he was unable to break a previous commitment, according to tournament officials.