by Ryan Lavner
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Michael Johnson dragged himself to the practice range at TPC Sawgrass, exhausted from an early-morning wake-up call and the ensuing flight from Birmingham, Ala. There he met his caddie for the week, 43-year-old Mike Keeble. Not one for introductions, Keeble cut straight to the point.
“Hi, I’m Mike,” he said to Johnson, 17, extending his hand. “You ready to win this thing?”
Nearly 96 hours later, after 53 holes of competition and one inexplicable pull into a hazard, Johnson was reminded of this conversation. Only this time, he had a 20-foot putt to win.
“What’s the first thing I said to you?” Keeble asked Johnson, who was waiting to putt on the 18th green, with a swollen gallery assembled on the hill.
“I said, ‘Are you ready to win this thing?’ And I’m saying it again now. Let’s go win this thing. Put it in the heart, because we’re not going to play off.”
Johnson sank that 20-footer on the final hole for an improbable bogey, edging Jordan Spieth and Emiliano Grillo to win the Junior Players Championship on Sunday. Afterward, it was hard to tell who was more ecstatic – the caddie with the foresight, or the junior with the feistiness.
“I’m not much for celebrations,” Johnson said, “but you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”
Johnson, who closed with a final-round 72, finished with a three-round total of 4-under 212, one shot ahead of Spieth (71) and Grillo (72). With the victory, Johnson, an Auburn commit, earned a sponsor exemption into the Nationwide Tour’s Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open, to be played on the Dye’s Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass in late October.
But on this day that added perk mattered little. Instead, these three masterful rounds on the Stadium Course provided further evidence that Johnson is indeed an emerging player in junior golf – even if he blossomed later than most.
This was, after all, his first AJGA invitational start, and a tournament spot secured only after a late withdrawal two days before the first tee shot. Johnson scrapped plans to play the AJGA Woodward Video Junior in West Virginia and headed to TPC Sawgrass, hoping to catch fire on a course that, at times, has befuddled even the game’s greatest champions.
Johnson’s main exposure to the Stadium Course, it turns out, came by virtue of a Tiger Woods video game he played before he left Alabama, and the TV coverage each spring. Perhaps it was only fitting, then, that Johnson’s 18th-hole exploits mirrored those of Adam Scott, in 2004, when the Aussie hit his second shot into the water and needed a 15-footer to win The Players. That tournament, and that winning putt, are memorialized in the Sawgrass clubhouse.
Now, Johnson authored his own indelible moment in the final round.
Starting the day with a one-shot lead, Johnson made the turn in 2-over 38 to fall two shots behind Grillo. That deficit didn’t last long, as Johnson birdied three consecutive holes to begin the back nine, leapfrogging Grillo and Spieth – both of whom are ranked in the top 5 nationally – to take a two-shot lead into the closing stretch.
“His mentality is that every hole can be birdied,” Keeble said, “and it takes only one shot.”
Grillo sank a 15-footer for birdie on 15 to cut the deficit to one but got greedy on the 16th. He hit a fairway wood trying to reach the par 5 in two and pull-hooked his ball onto a side-hill lie, some 40 yards left of the green, and made bogey.
“I tried to cut it over the tree and it was just bad,” Grillo said.
After navigating the watery par-3 17th, Johnson stepped to the tee on the 18th, a 462-yard par 4 that played to a 4.72 stroke average over the three rounds. Fearful of the water bordering the left side, Johnson flared his tee shot into the right trees, his ball settling in a clump of thick, gnarly grass. Needing to go under the tree directly in front of him, and over another tree some 20 yards ahead, he tugged his 6-iron into the water in front of the green.
Johnson took a drop, pitched on and sank the putt in front of about 200 disbelieving spectators.
“Without a doubt, he’s the best junior I’ve ever seen,” Keeble said. Then, pointing to his forehead, “Up here, he can go forever.”
That mental fortitude is what kept Johnson in the sport, his mother, Shari, said after the round. Johnson’s older brother, Bradley, a former U.S. Junior Amateur finalist, was killed in a car accident in March 2006.
“Michael’s overcome a lot in the past several years,” Shari Johnson said. “He’s come a long way. And this is all about Michael. He’s done this because he wants to. It’s really huge.”
Huge for Johnson, a relative unknown on the junior circuit. Said Spieth: “You’ll see him a lot more soon; I guarantee it.”
Huge for Keeble, the caddie, who now has another gig lined up when the Nationwide Tour rolls into town next month.
And huge for Johnson’s family, which lost a son and now saw the younger one rise to unimaginable heights. “The only way to get through this is to have Bradley a part of our lives,” Shari Johnson said. “So these are kind of tears with mixed emotion. I’m very proud.”
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