2005: Perspective - A Walker Cup kind of guy

Southport, England

As the Walker Cup approaches, the biennial question resurfaces: What’s become of the mid-am?

The only player older than 25 being mentioned as a potential U.S. Walker Cup team member is Trip Kuehne. He was a late scratch from the British Amateur here, but likely ensured his Walker Cup spot by qualifying for the U.S. Open.

One guy the U.S. Golf Association ought to put on its Walker Cup radar screen, if not for August then perhaps for 2007 at Royal County Down, did make some noise at the British Am. Displaying a nifty short game, Will Johnson was the only America to survive the medal rounds and reach match play at Royal Birkdale.

Johnson, 26, was a Division II second-team All-American at California-Davis. He quit a marketing job last summer because it interfered with his golf; now he caddies at San Francisco Golf Club, works on his game, and competes in as many tournaments as he can afford.

At Birkdale, Johnson displayed mettle that has been sorely lacking in recent American Walker Cup players. He has a passion for what he calls “pure golf.” He loves match play.

“I can make pars from anywhere,” Johnson said over post-round lagers in the Birkdale clubhouse. “My game will frustrate guys and wear ’em down.”

His victory in Round 1 was evidence of that. Playing against Daniel Belch, a guy with local knowledge who plays out of Birkdale’s next-door neighbor, Hillside, Johnson was 2 down through 12 holes. At Birkdale’s par-5 13th, he rolled a putt from off the green – about 35 yards to the hole – to 2 feet and a conceded winning birdie. A deft pitch at the par-3 14th looked good for a sure half until Belch jarred a 50-foot putt for 2.

At the par-5 15th, Johnson hit driver off the deck on his second shot to the front of the green, winning the hole with birdie. The 16th and 17th were halved with pars, then Johnson canned a 12-foot birdie on No. 18 to square the match. At the 19th, he nestled a wedge from 140 yards downwind to 3 feet for a conceded 3.

There were 11 Americans in the field, including Pat Tallent, 52, who was low amateur at the 2004 U.S. Senior Open.

“I can’t understand why more guys don’t come over here for this event,” said Tallent, who was low American after an opening 72 at Southport & Ainsdale but struggled to an 81 over Birkdale. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Johnson quickly became a convert.

“This was one of the highlights of my life,” he said, evoking the names of Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Mark O’Meara – all British Open winners at Birkdale. “How much money would some of the guys they were playing against have given to birdie the 18th. And I did it! In a pressure situation.”

Johnson said the experience stoked his ambition to become a premier mid-amateur in the United States. After graduating from UC-Davis with a history degree in 2002, Johnson bummed around for a year, hunting, fishing and playing golf. He took a marketing job in San Francisco, but quit after a few months when it became apparent that the demands of his job and his golf expectations didn’t mesh; his request to take a week off for the U.S. Mid-Am, followed by another week off to caddie for his brother, Tom, at PGA Tour Q-School, wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm. Now he’s content to loop at SF Golf Club, whose members have embraced Johnson’s quest for amateur success.

Johnson wasn’t aware that as a U.S. Mid-Am semifinalist he was exempt into the British Amateur until he received a letter and application form from the R&A three months ago. “I was pretty surprised,” he said. “I knew I was exempt into the British Mid-Am, but not this.”

It was Johnson’s first visit to Britain, or anywhere outside the United States. His father, Chuck, was going to make the trip, too, but the plans were derailed in early May when the elder Johnson underwent emergency heart bypass surgery. Instead, Will came solo and Chuck followed his son’s progress via the Internet.

Traveling on a limited budget, Johnson flew to London’s Heathrow Airport, took a train to Liverpool and a cab to Southport. “I got where I was supposed to go,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with the way I handled myself.”

Johnson couldn’t afford to pay a caddie, so he carried his own bag during practice rounds, the medal rounds (74-73) and his opening match against Belch. Amid a diverse international field, many of whom were accompanied by national coaches, friends and family, the solitary Johnson was an anomaly.

“It was just me and my game,” he said.

Johnson had a 55-minute break between his OT victory and his Round 2 match against Tim Dykes, a Walker Cup hopeful who plays on Wales’ international team. Over lunch, I offered to caddie for Johnson in the afternoon. He gladly accepted. Blame it on fatigue, anxiety or the caddie; Johnson got wayward off the tee and was bounced, 7 and 5.

“I don’t feel like I failed. I got some great experience,” said Johnson.

He hopes to attract the attention of the USGA’s Walker Cup selection committee this summer at the Pacific Coast Amateur, the Scratch Players Amateur, the California State Am, the U.S. Mid-Am and – if he can scrape together the money – the British Mid-Amateur at another fabled links, Muirfield. He also would appear to have an inside track to the U.S. Amateur at Merion; Johnson’s home track, North Ridge Country Club, is staging a qualifier.

Johnson has an unquenchable passion for golf, but he never considered turning professional. He finds the path less taken, that of the career amateur, far more appealing.

“People respect it,” he said. “They look at you like you’re playing golf because you love it. The pros have a different motivation.

“Don’t get me wrong. If I was out there shooting 65 every day, I’d go pro. I’m good, but not that good. I don’t want to go out on the mini-tours and end up hating golf because I’m not good enough.”

Johnson may not be good enough to play for money, but he’s definitely got the game – and the mindset – to play for his country.

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