Jennifer Johnson, No. 44 in the world, doesn’t take a private jet to LPGA events

Posted: June 22, 2014 1:10 am

PINEHURST, N.C. — Jennifer Johnson is ready to hit a tee shot, but notices that there are unexplained and previously unnoticed people within range down the fairway.

She stops, relaxes, smiles slightly, looks to her playing partners and their caddies, waits. Anyone who’s played much golf has done this.

And then the landing area is clear.

We know this without looking because she stiffens, formalizes her posture just enough to be noticeable.

Johnson applies her left-hand grip to the driver. Her right hand goes on the club, but doesn’t grip it. She lifts the club toward the target in an alignment ritual. She strides to the ball, and only now applies her full grip.

She starts a practice swing, and then stops it, perhaps 2 feet back, setting her hands and wrists, imprinting the desired position a half-instant before impact.

From there, Johnson goes through a full practice swing and then another one, addressing the ball. Does the hand-cocking thing again — it’s not especially idiosyncratic, as pre-shot routines go — and fires.

A 245-yard, high, baby draw ensues. As it has over and over and over, thousands of times, all over the world.

Relax, carefully program the machine, fire it, relax again and move on. It hardly matters that this was only a practice round, two days before the U.S. Open, the biggest event in women’s golf, on Pinehurst No. 2, a course as difficult and complicated and historic as any the women play.

It feels like a workplace.

“Patience is a big part of it,’’ Johnson says later, referring to the game and the life, sitting on a rocking chair on the porch of the players’ hospitality area at Pinehurst. “It’s a lot of fun, but I think in any job you have moments where, maybe, you’re not having quite so much fun.’’

Johnson, 22, is from Southern California. She is the 44th-ranked woman golfer on the planet, and 34th on the LPGA tour money list. She won a tournament last year, a wild shootout in Alabama, by shooting 22 under par, including 65-65 on the weekend and birdying the 17th Sunday.

She is, by any reasonable standard, ridiculously good at something ridiculously hard.

Yet being the 44th best at women’s golf is not as much like being 44th best at a major league team sport, or even at men’s golf, as you may think.

Johnson has made just over $175,000 this year. No. 34 on the men’s money list, the immortal Seung-Yul Noh, has made nearly ten times that, $1,727,687.

Male pros, and a small handful of star women, travel by private airplane and make far more money off the course than they do on.

Johnson mostly drives the tour with her Dad, Mike. She plays Bridgestone clubs and balls and wears Ecco shoes and Greg Norman clothing, but the deals don’t pay nearly enough to cover expenses.

This week at Pinehurst will be their seventh of eight straight weeks on the road. Yet the golf lately has been Johnson’s best of the year: four top 15s or better, including a third, in five weeks.

“My first couple years on tour, I couldn’t have done eight straight weeks,’’ she said. “Now it feels like no big deal. You sort of have to numb yourself to not being home.’’

Johnson does have something of an East Coast connection, in Lebanon, of all places. As a junior golfer, she worked with Mike Swisher, the now-retired pro at Lebanon Country Club. She has played Lancaster Country Club, where the show’s biggest event comes next summer, with Swisher, as a teenager.

She’s an honorary Lebanon C.C. member and lists the club as a “partner’’ on her website, along with a favored on-course snack, Seltzer’s Lebanon Bologna.

Her caddie at Pinehurst, and a half-dozen other times over the past few years, is Ben Brewer, Lebanon High’s girls’ basketball coach.

But Johnson hasn’t actually been to Lebanon in long time. The road, the reality of the travel, is as strange as you’d guess.

The last five weeks have been Texas to Virginia to Alabama to New Jersey (where the third-place finish came, including a first-round 62) to Canada to North Carolina. Somewhere in there, Jennifer stopped off in Nashville, Tennessee for a couple days with her swing coach. At another point, Mike parked the family car at BWI airport, where it has been for weeks, waiting to be needed again.

“We like to drive,’’ she said. “We run into way more problems when we fly. Plus, we bring a lot of junk that we just stuff in the car.’’

Mike is paunchy and amiable. We walks along, quietly says something once in a while, gets the clubs repaired, sets up the putting-drill devices, manages the endless logistics and drives and drives and drives.

It’s another difference between the tours. The men have teams of swing coaches and short-game coaches and psychiatrists and agents and equipment reps hovering. But not sharing the ride.

Walk around Pinehurst last week, and you saw a lot of middle-aged folks, mostly men, watching purposefully, who appear to be not quite coaches or agents, but are clearly there for more than just moral support.

“He’s kind of like my pseudo-coach,’’ Johnson said. “He knows my swing so well. He helps me so much.’’

You may be thinking: Sounds like a lot of father-daughter time for a 22 year-old professional anything.

Does it ever wear on you?

“Sure, sometimes,’’ she said.

Does it ever wear on him?

“Oh, my god,’’ she said. “I can’t imagine how annoying I am to put up with.’’

Johnson is 5-8 and very lean. From afar she looks like a skinny kid. Up close, it’s the kind of slight-but-taut athletic body you’ve seen before, on field hockey or basketball or soccer stars.

She was a soccer player and a dancer as a kid in SoCal before deciding on golf alone at age 12 or 13. From that point on, “the summers were a mini-version of this.’’

Johnson did one year at Arizona State, made the U.S. Curtis Cup team, and turned pro. She barely missed qualifying on points last year for the U.S. Solheim Cup (female equivalent of the Ryder Cup) team and was miffed at not being chosen as a captain’s pick.

She’s not a star yet, but at 22 she’s not behind schedule. And she is a ball-striker. Many women players (and not a few men) sort of pose on their follow-through, prettying it up. Johnson often lets the club drop after the ball’s long gone. No empty aesthetics for her. Arguably, it makes her swing look less good than it is.

It’s a very sound move. Those high baby draws keep coming.

She’s a San Diego Chargers fan and a foodie. Johnson will never be golf’s Taylor Swift, but to portray a lifeless grinder would be unfair. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be staggered by the commitment. “All-in,’’ seems an understatement.

I was reminded a lot last week of David Foster Wallace’s seminal 1996 Esquire profile of Michael Joyce, a then-very-good-but-never-to-be-great tennis player.

“Already, for Joyce, at twenty-two, it’s too late for anything else; he’s invested too much, is in too deep,’’ Wallace writes. “I think he’s both lucky and unlucky. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.”