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In his 171st start on the PGA Tour, Lake Orion's Tom Gillis for the first time finally found himself atop the leaderboard after 72 holes.

Problem was, so did the hottest golfer on the planet.

On the second sudden-death playoff hole, Gillis found the water on his second shot and Jordan Spieth made par to secure the John Deere Classic title in Silvis, Illinois, on Sunday afternoon.

It's the fourth victory of the season for Spieth, 21, who also won the season's first two majors, the Masters and the U.S. Open, and this week will try to win the third, the British Open in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Gillis, 46, whose first event on the PGA Tour was the year Spieth was born (1993), still gets some consolation out of his second-place finish.

"When you're going to be 47, the window is closing," Gillis said. "What I saw (Sunday) and the last three days, I'd have to say makes me think I've still got some tread on the tires left."

That finish was good enough to earn him a spot in the British Open field. He secured a seat on a charter from Illinois to Scotland with Spieth and several other British Open entrants late Sunday night.

Gillis also earned $507,600, the biggest payday in his 25-year professional career. He earned $501,600 for a runner-up finish in the Honda Classic in 2012.

Gillis came into this tournament playing poorly on the season, having missed the cut in six of his 11 events.

Still, he was showing progress following a bad shoulder injury last November. That came at a rotten time, as he'd just won back his PGA Tour card for the 2015 season. He got back on Tour early this year, but after three missed cuts in January and February, he decided to rest the shoulder for three months.

He returned in May and started shooting early tournament rounds in the 60s, but couldn't string them together. He chalked that up to a stamina issue.

The last few days in Illinois, though, proved among the best stretches of golf in his life, and he entered Sunday's final round four shots behind Spieth.

Gillis got off to a blazing start Sunday with six birdies on the front nine to surge into the lead. He made bogey on the ninth hole, though, after a bad chip.

Gillis rebounded on the back nine, with a spectacular long iron into the 200-yard, par-3 12th hole, setting up a tap-in birdie.

On No. 16, however, he missed a 4-footer for par, and then on the relatively easy par-5 17th, where birdie was the optimal score, he mis-hit another chip and had to settle for par. He still shot a 7-under 64, and was leading most of the day, while some of the game's best players were swarming.

Spieth, meanwhile, after shooting 61 on Saturday, started surprisingly slow Sunday on the birdie haven that is TPC Deere Run.

Spieth, though, came to life on the back nine, making birdie on three of his last five holes, including a chip-in on the 16th, and a tap-in on the par-5 17th.

Spieth made par to force a playoff on No. 18, while Danny Lee, the winner last week at the Greenbrier, made bogey to finish one shot out of the playoff. Lee called a one-stroke penalty on himself on the fourth hole after he picked up his ball to clean it. Unlike Saturday, when rain allowed for players to clean the balls, players were ordered to play them down Sunday.

Zach Johnson, the No. 9 player in the world, also missed the playoff by a stroke, his birdie putt lipping out on 18.

Gillis and Spieth both made par on the first sudden-death playoff, at No. 18, a tough par 4, where Gillis did it from the fairway while Spieth did it from the right rough. Both made knee-knocking putts.

On the second playoff hole, also No. 18, Spieth found the center of the fairway, while Gillis, usually an accurate driver, sprayed his to the right.

That put Gillis, the Pontiac native and Indianwood member in Lake Orion, in a tough spot, in thick rough trying to thread the needle between two trees. The club turned over on him and the ball shot left, rolling into the water hazard and effectively ending his bid for his first win.

Spieth hit another nice iron to the center of the green and two-putted for his par, giving him another trophy and more momentum as he tries to collect the third leg of the grand slam at St. Andrews.

It was a David-vs.-Goliath playoff, to be sure, between Spieth, the No. 2 player in the world, against Gillis, No. 643.

If Spieth wins at St. Andrews, he will surpass Rory McIlroy as the No. 1 player in the world.

The British Open, meanwhile, will be Gillis' first major appearance since the 2011 PGA Championship; he hasn't played in the British Open since 2008, when he finished tied for 58th at Royal Birkdale in England.

Gillis, who turns 47 on Thursday, the first round of the British Open, was trying to become the PGA Tour's oldest first-time winner in 20 years, and Michigan's first winner since Marshall's John Morse in 1995. Before that, Mount Pleasant's Dan Pohl won twice in 1986.

While the win certainly would've made his career, Gillis' payday Sunday also goes a long way in helping him retain his PGA Tour card for next season, a scenario that was weighing heavily on him having lost several months to injury.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

Associated Press contributed

TOM GILLIS

Age: 46

Born: July 16, 1968 in Pontiac

High school: Lake Orion

College: Oakland Community College

Turned pro: 1990

Best PGA Tour finish: Tied for second in 2012 Honda Classic

Best major finish: Tied for 58th in the 2008 British Open

This year: Going into the John Deere Classic, Gillis was 194th on the FedEx Cup points list, with his best finish a tie for 26th in the Frys.com Open in October. He had missed the cut in six of his 11 starts.

Notable: Gillis has one win on the Web.com Tour, in 2009. It was then known as the Nationwide Tour, and Gillis won the Nationwide Tour Players Cup. Gillis also won the Michigan Open in 1994 and 2008.

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