2006: A little fade goes a long way

By Evan Rothman

Since his arrival on the Nationwide Tour four years ago, Johnson Wagner has been considered one of the nicest guys on the circuit. But thanks to some recent changes, he rarely – if ever – finishes last. Rather, Wagner, fourth on the Nationwide money list and winner of this year’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open, looks poised to join the PGA Tour in 2007.

Wagner’s ballstriking is an established strength: He ranks 10th this year and was 10th last year in that category, which combines a player’s ranking in driving accuracy, driving distance and greens in regulation. In the last 12 months Johnson has risen 189 spots to 116th in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index.

“The danger with someone as talented and natural as Johnson is to try to change what he has,” says his coach, Bobby Heins, head professional at Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, N.Y. “He has a swing – it’s the use of the swing and getting the potential out of it.”

Much of this entails Wagner adding a fade to his preferred tight draw.

“I’ve been working real hard hitting fades into greens during tournaments, which is something I haven’t been comfortable with in the past,” Wagner says. “The pins are tucked in corners out here, and it’s generally not worth going right at them. But if you can start the ball in the middle of the green and work it toward the edges, you’ll allow yourself a lot more 15-footers instead of 30-footers.”

Hit the ball closer to the hole and your putting stats should improve, as Wagner’s have – from 85th last year to 16th in ’06. Wagner spent the offseason changing from a square-to-square stroke to a motion with more arc and was pleased with the initial results. Then he hit a bad patch. With the help of a friendly competitor, however, as well as his caddie, Steven Hale, Wagner was able to right himself with a simple fix.

Wagner also has changed technique and added to his arsenal of shots available when he does miss greens, thanks to winter work with Heins – who sees Wagner about a half-dozen times per year and talks to him on the phone as needed.

“We’ve worked to add variety and some specialty shots to his short game,” Heins says. “His bunker game is the only place where he has a lot of room for improvement.”

The final piece in the puzzle? Self-belief.

“I used to think I could win if I put myself in position and was playing great,” Wagner says. “Now I know I can win. I’ve done it.

I feel like I should have a chance every week.”

– Evan Rothman is a special contributor to Golfweek.

Contact him at erothman@golfweek.com about instruction articles.

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