Making Charlie Proud
Vincent Johnson received a healthy dollop of the stuff early Tuesday morning at venerable Riviera Country Club when he ventured over to the first tee for a practice round.
Johnson, who is five events into a professional career and 24 hours away from the biggest tee shot of his life, was hoping to stumble into a game with one of the assembled Tour pros. I didnt have the stones to ask anybody (to play a practice round), he laughs.
Instead, he teed off alone and inadvertently in front of a threesome that included J.J. Henry, Chris DiMarco and Japanese Rock n Roller/teen phenom Ryo Ishikawa. The media zoo that ebbed with each hole was eye opening.
Every time I was going to hit my second shot all the photographers (following Ishikawa) would be running around and setting up, Johnson said. As big as this week is for me, I cant imagine how he deals with that.
Johnsons perspective offers the first glimpse into why his name was pulled for the inaugural Charlie Sifford exemption into this weeks Northern Trust Open. If those who wonder how a relative unknown whose greatest professional achievement is a tie for 22nd at a Gateway Tour event last week landed such a coveted start, perspective comes in leaps and bounds.
Forget his wanting resume and limited years, Johnsons qualifications jump from his memory the moment he is asked about the exemptions namesake.
Johnson met the trailblazing legend once, when he was 14 years old at golf clinic in Portland, Ore., in one of those snapshot moments that guide careers from crossroad to crossroad.
It was a blast because you know what hes meant to the game, said Johnson, who marched out after that initial meeting and purchased Siffords book, Just Let Me Play. Reading that book was so exciting because he talked about traveling and meeting all these people. And then other parts were very appalling and sad.
If depth of knowledge and a firm grasp on reality, more so than wins and losses, were the criteria for the Sifford exemption ' which was awarded to a golfer of high character and accomplishment who advances the cause of diversity ' then Johnson was an easy 5-and-4 winner.
When Johnson left Oregon State, where he was co-captain of the golf team and a two-time tournament winner, he re-read Siffords book. It was a refresher course on humility and perspective.
Last December, shortly after he joined the play-for-pay ranks, he received a phone call from Sifford, who is considered by many the Jackie Robinson of golf.
It was, Johnson admits, the second-best call hed ever gotten, a close runner-up behind the call he received two weeks ago from Northern Trust officials offering him the Sifford exemption.
Even at the discombobulating hour of 6:30 a.m. (PST) on Tuesday, Johnsons enthusiasm, as well as a healthy dose of nervous energy, is evident.
Mr. Sifford told me to keep grinding, laughs Johnson before adding, I mean he was the ultimate grinder.
He will take that advice to the Northern Trust on Thursday when he begins play in the same event Sifford won in a playoff in 1969. But if Johnson is heavy on perspective, hes managed to keep his expectations low heading into his first Tour bout.
You try to pick things up as best you can, he says. After a couple of days you start feeling a little comfortable, but its such a bigger level.
In short, the Northern Trust Open is an opportunity, not an end all, for a player that knows history favors the patient. Of course, Johnson reasons that it might be easier for him to take the long view considering his background in a game that has been slow to embrace diversity.
Golf came easier to Johnson and his three brothers than to most minorities thanks to his father, Darren, who has been a mechanic for 15 years at Glendoveer Golf Course. It was in many ways an idyllic place to learn the game, so much so that although hes doing his undergrad work on Arizonas Gateway Tour, Portland is where he lives when hes not trying to golf, says his mother Margaret.
My parents could have gotten different jobs making more money, but they wanted to make sure I had access to golf, Johnson says. If my dad didnt work at a course I probably wouldnt have played.
The cosmic tumblers continued to fall into place in 1996, when Johnson watched Tiger Woods march to his third U.S. Amateur title at Pumpkin Ridge just outside Portland. A few months later the future world No. 1 held a clinic and Johnson received a one-minute lesson from Woods. It was a fleeting 60 seconds that still gnaws at him.
Man, I worked so hard before that lesson trying to get my swing right, Johnson recalls. When I got there I was so giddy I just couldnt hit the ball and he was watching me. I was so disappointed.
Unfortunately, Johnson wont get a chance to redeem himself this week at Riviera with Woods back home in Orlando, Fla., nursing that multi-million dollar knee. But not even an absent idol could douse Johnsons enthusiasm.
The most important thing for me is to make the most of this week, Johnson gushes.
Sifford would be proud.
Email your thoughts to Rex Hoggard
Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open
The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.
The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.
In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.
Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:
Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties
Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties
HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties
Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties
John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties
Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?
Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.
Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.
Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.
Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.
Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.
Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.
J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.
Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.
Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.
DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.
LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.
Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance
Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.
In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.
"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"
Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern architects.
"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.
The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.
"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.
Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.
Class of 2011: Who's got next?
The sprawling legacy of the Class of 2011 can be traced to any number of origins, but for some among what is arguably the most prolific class ever, it all began in June 2009.
The 99-player field that descended on Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., for the AJGA’s FootJoy Invitational included Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and so many others, like Michael Kim, who up to that moment had experienced the weight of the ’11 class only from afar.
“It was that year that Justin won the FootJoy Invitational and that got him into [the Wyndham Championship]," Kim recalled. "That was my first invitational and I was like 'these guys are so good’ and I was blown away by what they were shooting. I remember being shocked by how good they were at that time.”
|MORE ON THE Class of 2011|
|Lavner: Origins of the Class|
|Hoggard: Who's got next?|
|Gray: The struggle is real|
|Baggs: Other great 'groups'|
|Photos: The AJGA days|
Tom Lovelady, who like former Cal-Berkeley Bear Kim is now on the PGA Tour, remembers that tournament as the moment when he started to realize how special this particular group could be, as well as the genesis of what has become lifetime friendships.
In the third round, Lovelady was paired with Spieth.
“We kind of hit it off and became friends after that," Lovelady recalled. "The final round I got paired with Justin Thomas and we became friends. On the 10th hole I asked [Thomas], ‘Where do you want to go to school?’ He said, ‘Here. Here or Alabama.’ My first reaction was, ‘Don’t go to Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I wanted to go there. I knew the class was strong and they only had so many spots, but that’s where I really wanted to go.”
Both ended up in Tuscaloosa, and both won an NCAA title during their time in college. They also solidified a friendship that endures to this day in South Florida where they live and train together.
While the exploits of Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger are well documented, perhaps the most impressive part of the ’11 class is the depth that continues to develop at the highest level.
To many, it’s not a question as to whether the class will have another breakout star, it’s when and who?
There’s a good chance that answer could have been found on the tee sheet for last week’s RSM Classic, a lineup that included Class of ’11 alums Lovelady; Kim; Ollie Schniederjans, a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech; Patrick Rodgers, Stanford's all-time wins leader alongside Tiger Woods; and C.T. Pan, a four-time All-American at the University of Washington.
Lovelady earned his Tour card this year via the Web.com Tour, while Schniederjans and Rodgers are already well on their way to the competitive tipping point of Next Level.
Rodgers, who joined the Tour in 2015, dropped a close decision at the John Deere Classic in July, where he finished a stroke behind winner Bryson DeChambeau; and Schniederjans had a similar near-miss at the Wyndham Championship.
To those who have been conditioned by nearly a decade of play, it’s no surprise that the class has embraced a next-man-up mentality. Nor is it any surprise, at least for those who were forged by such an exceedingly high level of play, that success has seemed to be effortless.
“First guy I remember competing against at a high level was Justin. We were playing tournaments at 10, 11 years old together,” Rodgers said. “He was really, really good at that age and I wasn’t really good and so he was always my benchmark and motivated me to get better.”
That symbiotic relationship hasn’t changed. At every level the group has been challenged, and to a larger degree motivated, by the collective success.
By all accounts, it was Spieth who assumed the role of standard-bearer when he joined the Tour in 2013 and immediately won. For Rodgers, however, the epiphany arrived a year later as he was preparing to play a college event in California and glanced up at a television to see his former rival grinding down the stretch at Augusta National.
“Jordan’s leading the Masters. A couple years before we’d been paired together battling it out at this exact same college event,” he laughed. “I think I even won the tournament. It was just crazy for me to see someone who is such a peer, someone I was so familiar with up there on the biggest stage.”
It was a common theme for many among the Class of ’11 as Spieth, Thomas and others emerged, and succeeded, on a world stage. If familiarity can breed contempt, in this case it created a collective confidence.
Success on Tour has traditionally come slowly for new pros, the commonly held belief being that it took younger players time to evolve into Tour professionals. That’s no longer the case, the byproduct of better coaching, training and tournaments for juniors and top-level amateurs.
But for the Class of ’11, that learning curve was accelerated by the economies of scale. The quality and quantity of competition for the class has turned out to be a fundamental tenet to the group’s success.
“Since the mindset of the class has been win, win, win, you don’t know anything other than that, it’s never been just be good enough,” Lovelady said. “You don’t think about being top 125 [on the FedExCup points list], you think about being as high as you can instead of just trying to make the cut, or just keep your card. It’s all you’ve known since you were 14, 15 years old.”
It’s a unique kind of competitive Darwinism that has allowed the class to separate itself from others, an ever-present reality that continues to drive the group.
“It was constantly in my head motivating me,” Rodgers said. “Then you see Jordan turn pro and have immediate success and Justin turn pro and have immediate success. It’s kind of the fuel that drives me. What makes it special is these guys have always motivated me, maybe even more so than someone like Tiger [Woods].”
The domino effect seems obvious, inevitable even, with the only unknown who will be next?
“That’s a good question; I’d like for it to be myself,” Lovelady said. “But it’s hard to say it’s going to be him, it’s going to be him when it could be him. There are just so many guys.”