'It's just about anybody's day tomorrow,' said Johnson, 22, of Eau Claire, Wis. 'There's no cruise control in this tournament. You have to keep making birdies.'
She was right. Just when one player stepped up to lead, another player eclipsed her advantage. For most of the afternoon, a minimum of three players were tied for the lead with defending champion Stephanie George charging from behind with a front-nine 30 to join the leaders. You could almost feel a playoff coming and George, who won after two extra holes last year and carded a final-round 66 today, seemed destined for a repeat title.
But Hickory Point Golf Course also doubled as a roller coaster in today's final round with leaders coming and going. Two-shot swings were the norm in a day that included four eagles, with two scored on the fly from the 18th fairway by Meredith Ward of Crystal Lake, Ill., and Lindsey Wright of Albury, Australia, who had the day's low round of 65.
By the time 18-year-old rookie Aram Cho reached the last hole of the 54-hole event with a one-shot cushion, only Johnson, playing in the last group, could force a playoff. The left-hander's 6-foot birdie attempt grazed the left side of the cup. She tapped in for par and a share of second, giving Cho her first professional title. Cho fired a final-round 68 to finish at 11-under-par 205, while Johnson, posting a 2-under 70, tied for second with Wright, George of Myerstown, Pa., Sung Ah Yim of Seoul, Korea, and former Wisconsin teammate Katie Connelly of Beloit, Wis. Yim carded a final-round 67, while Connelly posted a 68 today on her 23rd birthday.
'I tried to take deep breaths to calm down and I was shaking a little bit,' admitted Johnson, playing in her fourth Futures Tour event as a pro following her senior season at the University of Wisconsin. 'I was thinking, 'Make this and go into a playoff.' I gave myself an opportunity. Next time, it might be different.'
But this time, it was Cho's day. It was a day she never dreamed would happen so soon in her young professional career. The native of Seoul, Korea turned pro last August and arrived in the United States in February with a baby face and a grown-up game. In nine tournaments this season, she has posted six top-20 finishes, three top-10s and has moved from seventh on the Futures Tour money list to No. 3.
'All the shots went the way I wanted to hit them today,' said Cho, with the translation help of Sung Ho Han, caddie for good friend Seon-Hwa Lee. 'I didn't really think about winning. I just needed to play well.'
Cho took the final-round lead on the 15th hole with a 3-foot birdie that took her to 11 under, but she didn't realize she was leading the tournament until she walked to the 18th green and looked over her shoulder to the main leader board. Cho broke into a huge smile and pumped her fists a couple of times while her caddie-dad tried to help her refocus on her last putt. The teen, called 'Pooh' by her friends, nearly made the 7-footer for birdie, but it lipped out. Now, she had to wait -- even though she was too nervous to watch Johnson's approach into the final hole in the last group.
'I've played well before out here, but I haven't scored so well,' said Cho, who recorded 27 putts this week and improved on her previous best finish of second place in early May in Albuquerque, N.M.
Defending champ George was the sentimental favorite at the tournament's 20th anniversary celebration and showed that once again, Hickory Point's 6,454-yard, par-72 layout suited her just fine. The Pennsylvanian birded holes 3 and 4, then holed out an eagle-2 on the par-4 fifth hole with a 52-degree gap wedge from 106 yards. With birdies on seven and eight, from 3 feet and a foot respectively, George felt her foot on the accelerator as she made the turn.
'I was really shocked that I was up there on the leader board at that point,' said George. 'But I also knew that I had to make a few more putts.'
George picked up two more birdies on holes 12 and 15, but missed the green on the par-3 17th and lost a shot to bogey. She needed birdie on the last hole to tie Cho, playing two groups back, but it didn't happen.
'The last five holes, I stuck it within six feet on every hole,' said George, who hit 16 greens and rolled in 28 putts in the final round. 'If I gave the tournament away, it was on the previous holes. I'm not upset about 17. To be in the hunt is nice.'
Playing in the same pairing as Cho, Connelly recorded three birdies in her last eight holes to move into a share of second. Her birdie-birdie finish and the large crowd's response left the rookie smiling for an hour after her round.
'God, this is cool,' she said. 'There are so many people here and today, it was anybody's game.'
But at the Tour's longest-running tournament with the season's largest galleries, it was Cho who beat the 140-player field at the finish. Presented by Ameren and Miles Chevrolet, Decatur once again played host to the event most likely to create drama -- right down to the last putt.