If this turns out to be the final go-round for the Gila River Classic, then at least its most memorable moment in its four-year history was saved for last. The sponsoring Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix has Chris Nallen to thank for that.
The former University of Arizona All-American, who was playing in his first Nationwide Tour event, put on a show worthy of several curtain calls.
Nallen did it in style, opening with a first-round 60 on Thursday that was the bestever initial appearance by a rookie on the Nationwide, and closing it out on Sunday with a chip-in birdie from 60 feet on the last hole to win by eight shots — the tour’s second-largest margin ever.
"It’s something I’ll always take with me,’’ said the mild-mannered 22-year-old, who overcame dust-stormlike conditions at Whirlwind Golf Club near Chandler to finish at 24-under-par 263, the tournament’s lowest score ever in relation to par.
"Just everything went right," he said. "That doesn’t happen often, so you enjoy it, and go with it.’’
In the process, Nallen became the 10th player on the Nationwide to win in his firstever start, the 17th Monday qualifier to win, and the 19th player to go wire to wire. What separates Nallen is he is the first to do all three, as no other player has even accomplished two of those feats.
Certainly, Nallen’s 1-under 71 on Sunday paled in comparison to his first three rounds of 60, 66 and 67. But it was smart golf considering he went into the day with a sixshot lead and facing blustery conditions.
"The wind was howling, and it kept reversing itself, which made it hard to pick a club,’’ said Nallen, whose victory over Troy Matteson was worth $85,500, placing him at No. 63 on the money list and earning him exempt status on the Nationwide through 2005.
"Really, par was a good score, and birdies were a bonus.’’
Kevin Stadler, whom Nallen was paired with in the final group, got blown away on the back side with a 41 that drug him down to 76 and a tie for fourth place.
Stadler, however, earned $20,900 that pushed him from 17th to 11th on the money list and clinched his PGA Tour card for next season.
Nallen, meanwhile, needs to get into the top 60 in order to play in the season-ending Nationwide Tour Championship in three weeks. If he can do well there, or perhaps win in between, he also might be able to finish among the top 20 money-winners and head to the big leagues.
This might have been the final Gila River Classic unless the event finds another sponsor now that the four-year contract with the Gila River Indian Community has run out.