Brian Harman admitted he felt the pressure.
The 27-year-old, in his third full season on the PGA Tour, hadn't been in the final twosome in the final round until Sunday. He held the lead entering the final round of the John Deere Classic, and looked at the scoreboard after hitting a poor shot into the eighth green.
"I saw the guys were playing well, so that's when I felt it, but I was able to hit three really good shots on No. 9 to birdie, and that kind of got me going," Harman said.
He kept going all the way to his first victory on the Tour, using three straight birdies down the stretch to hold off Zach Johnson by one stroke.
Harman had a 5-under 66 in the final round for a 22-under-262 total to earn $846,000 and the last exemption for next week's British Open. Johnson had the best round of the day at 7-under 64.
"It was very hard, probably one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do in my life," Harman said. "Just trying not to let your mind run wild is the hardest part out there."
Two years ago, Harman played with Johnson in a late pairing of the Deere that Johnson won, and learned a great deal about how to handle the heat.
"I talked to Zach about it, and he felt I was trying to get out of his way a little too much and that I needed to stake my ground a little bit," Harman said.
He did so Sunday beginning on the par-5 second hole, sinking a 4-foot putt after a 223-yard approach. That jumped him to 19 under and set the tone. His bogey on No. 5 became only a momentary speed bump once he birdied No. 9. He led Johnson and Scott Brown by a stroke at the turn and was ahead by as many as three strokes after his final birdie, a 6-footer on No. 16.
Jhonattan Vegas had a 65 to finished tied for third with Jerry Kelly (66) at 265. Scott Brown (68) and Tim Clark (67) tied for fifth another shot back.
Three-time winner Steve Stricker fell off the pace set by Harman on the front nine, then fell off the leader board with a double-bogey on the par-3 12th. His approach ended up in high brush behind and below the green.
"It was hard to play after that," Stricker said. "I was just trying to get it in without getting in Brian's way."
Stricker finished with a 72 and a tie for 11th at 269.
Brown was tied with Johnson and Clark briefly midway through the round, but played the back nine in par 36 and fell back.
Clark, the lone contender with a long putter, bogeyed No. 9 to fall out of the joint lead.
Harman, whose best previous finishes were ties for third place, also earned his first invitations to the Masters and the Tournament of Champions. He tried to block that out along the way.
"When those thoughts enter, it's like what's the best way to get those things you want," Harman said.
He got his third eagle in 19 holes when he eagled the par-5 second for the second straight day. He sank a 4-foot putt after a brilliant approach from 223 yards. A bogey on No. 5 was offset by a birdie on the ninth, the most difficult hole on the front nine. Harman stood 19-under at the turn, and added a birdie at No. 10 to go to 20 under.
Johnson started three strokes behind Harman, but caught him by the 14th hole, when he tapped in from 10 inches for his third birdie in five holes and sixth of the day.
Harman came to the drivable par-4 14th minutes later, and after watching Stricker scramble for a par, got up and down from a greenside bunker with a 14-foot birdie putt. He added birdies on the next two holes to pull away from the field. With a two-shot cushion on the 18th tee, a bogey on the final hole didn't hurt him.
"He's always been known as a gritty player that plays pretty simple golf," Johnson said of Harman, a neighbour on St. Simons Island, Georgia. "To me it was just a matter of time."
Defending champion Jordan Spieth finished in a tie for seventh after a closing 66 for 268. He was joined by Bo Van Pelt, Ryan Moore and Johnson Wagner.
Brad Fritsch of Ottawa finished in a tie for 13th, his best result of on the PGA Tour since January.
David Hearn of Brantford, Ont. finished in a tie for 45th. He will head to the British Open this week as the first alternate.
Jordan Niebrugge of Mequon, Wisconsin, the only amateur to make the cut, fired his third straight round in the 60s and finished at 10-under 274.