Former La Salle golfer Johnson has major goal

Posted: May 29, 2014

LIKE MOST competitors, Mike Johnson dreamed big things when he was a kid. Yet for much of his athletic career, they had nothing to do with sinking a putt on the last hole to win a major golf tournament. Or even a minor one. When Johnson was younger his game was baseball. So his dreams were mostly about hitting a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series.

But by the time he was a sophomore at Hatboro-Horsham High, he started to take another swing more seriously.

"I got a lot better at it," he said. "It kind of took off right before I got to college."

So he set new goals for himself. One was playing in a U.S. Golf Association championship, which he did 2 years ago by qualifying for the U.S. Amateur (though he didn't make it past medal play). Another was playing in a U.S. Open. The recent La Salle grad has a chance to check that off his list Monday when he tees it up in the 36-hole Sectional being held at Old Oaks Country Club and Century C.C. in Purchase, N.Y.

Johnson is the first Explorer to make All-Atlantic 10. It is believed he'd also be the first to make it to an Open, which begins June 12 at historic Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2, where Payne Stewart won in 1999 and Tiger Woods almost won 6 years later.

"As a golfer, that's where you want to be," said Johnson, who shot 1-under-par 71, one off the low score, to grab one of the six available spots in the May 6 local qualifier at Hidden Creek Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. "We all want to make it, play with some of the best in the game. I'm no different. If you don't feel like you can do it, you really shouldn't be playing. I'm looking at it as another experience to put under my belt, regardless of what happens.

"I know I'm an underdog. I look at that as an advantage. There's no pressure. I can go have fun. And I'll have that for next time. I know I'll be there again. This isn't just a one-time thing."

Last year, in his second attempt, Johnson lost in a playoff at the local qualifier at Malvern's Applebrook G.C. His first time, "2 or 3" years ago, he didn't come close.

At Hidden Creek, he played the kind of golf that usually gets it done in U.S. Opens.

"You know if you shoot even par you've got a chance," said Johnson, who made some swing changes last summer and hasn't shot above 76 this season. "I was basically trying not to be overly aggressive. Just keep it in play and not make a big number. If you do that in one round, there's not enough time to come back. If I'd made 18 pars I wouldn't have walked off disappointed.

"I made it by two. When I finished I was pretty confident. But you never know. A couple of guys could get hot at the end . . . There's no better feeling than knowing you accomplished something you set out to do. I want to keep that feeling going. I want to give myself a chance, if I play the same way."

Two-time Open champ Lee Janzen (1993 and '98) will be at Purchase. As will four-time Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith, reigning Mid-Am champ Mike McCoy, 1996 U.S. Amateur runnerup Steve Scott (who lost to Woods in the final) and 49-year-old Temple product Geoff Sisk, who has qualified for seven Opens, including last June at Merion (his best finish was a tie for 30th in 1999 at Pinehurst).

"It's amazing all the support I've been getting," said Johnson, who is a member at Commonwealth National. "I'm really trying to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of myself. I still have two more rounds. I was kind of celebrating for like 2 days [after Hidden Creek]. Now it's go-time again."

One of Commonwealth's assistant pros, Justin Rinas, is from New York. So he's been filling Johnson in on what to expect from the layouts he'll be facing. Can't hurt.

"He said they're classic style," Johnson said. "You have to limit your misses to where you can get away with them. But [the venue] really doesn't matter. You have to play good. Everyone at that level can shoot some scores. You can't let your mind wander, or get too excited. If you do that and something goes bad your emotions can get all over the place.

"It's golf. Same thing, different day."

He's never played Pinehurst. But his father has been there. So has a teammate, on a trip with his grandfather, who told Johnson it was "unreal."

"It would be cool," he said. "Those thoughts do creep into your head. I was joking around with a friend that we can charter a plane from one of the members and fly down. Of course that's all part of it."

Johnson also has perspective. That's what happens when you lose someone close to you, as he did last November when sophomore teammate Morgan Dougherty passed away suddenly.

"You see how quickly things can change," said Johnson, who will be moving to Florida soon with some friends in hopes of making his way onto one of the mini-tours. "As soon as you walk off the course you take a little time to calm down and then it's over. You can't get too worried about it. Just go with it. That's how I live my life now.

"Let's be honest, you're hitting a little white ball. We'll see what happens."

Tap-ins

Sean O'Hair, the only PGA Tour player who calls the Philadelphia area home, will again attempt to qualify at the Sectional in Columbus, Ohio (Scioto and Brookside). He's played in four Opens, but not since 2010 (when he had his best finish, a tie for 12th at Pebble Beach). He's played in 25 majors, but none since the 2012 PGA Championship, where he withdrew.

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