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Making Charlie Proud

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Perspective is a peculiar thing, particularly viewed through the rose-colored optics of a 22-year-old with a greater depth of understanding than his abbreviated resume would suggest.
 
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.
 
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