Johnson slays Thompson to reach finals
ST. LOUIS – For a moment, it looked like the lore of Alexis Thompson might include a page from the Tiger Woods handbook.
Down three holes with four to play against Jennifer Johnson, Thompson drained a 12-foot par putt on the 15th hole Saturday to stay alive in the semifinal round of the U.S. Women’s Amateur. She then made consecutive birdies from 35 and 25 feet on the next two holes to extend the match to No. 18.
Thompson, 14, had aimed to become the youngest champion in event history, like Tiger Woods on the men’s side in 1994. Alas, her par putt on the last hole slid right and her chance to make history quickly evaporated.
“Except for those two holes, it was another day of bad ball-striking, bad chipping, bad putting,” said Thompson, who lost 1 up. “Just not very good playing at all.”
It was one of those matches that was more about who lost rather than who advanced. Johnson, a reserved, steady 18-year-old from La Quinta, Calif., birdied only one hole Saturday and played the back nine even par.
The soon-to-be Arizona State freshman is definitely in the midst of something worth talking about: She hasn’t trailed one time in five matches.
Johnson’s father, Mike, calls it “mind-boggling.” He’s looked at the match play bracket these last few days and tried not to think too far ahead.
“I kept thinking ‘That person’s an icon,’ ” Mike said.
Icon might be a bit of a stretch, but Johnson has beat several big names to get to Sunday’s 36-hole finale: Calle Nielson, Sydnee Michaels, Candace Schepperle and Thompson.
Johnson insists she hasn’t stepped her game up a notch this week or done anything especially spectacular.
“This is pretty much my standard game,” she said. “Sometimes I putt a little better.”
Thompson struggled with her short game most of the day and never led the match. Johnson faltered with bogeys on Nos. 5 and 6 to let Thompson square things up. On the par-4 eighth, however, Johnson struck a 5-wood to 5 feet and regained control.
Give Thompson credit for making several do-or-die putts down the stretch. She didn’t shed a tear, at least in public, and handled interviews with the blunt honesty of a 14-year-old with great expectations.
“It’s just bad golf what I’ve been doing,” she said.
While Thompson draws a crowd most places, Johnson prefers flying under the radar. Both played in the Kraft Nabisco Championship last spring, and Johnson said the nerve-wracking experience helped prepare her for her semifinal experience.
Johnson will face another Jennifer on Sunday – Jennifer Song. Earlier this year Johnson won the California State Women’s Amateur, which also features a 36-hole final.
Song, of course, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in June and also was a WAPL finalist in 2008.
From the outside, it appears that nothing bothers Johnson, who is playing in only her second U.S. Women’s Amateur. She’s about as low-key as it gets.
“(Jennifer) doesn’t have a lot of moxie,” said Mike, referrring to the level of pep she shows on the golf course. Johnson shows about as much emotion inside the ropes as she does in the interview – little to none.
Like many shy folks, however, Mike said she’s different around those she knows.
“Off the course, I laugh a lot,” Johnson said.
While Johnson might be the least decorated of the two Jennifers, she’s hardly a long-shot. Johnson represented the U.S. on the victorious 2008 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team and leaves next week for Chicago to play in the Junior Solheim Cup. She has seven AJGA titles to her credit.
Sunday’s 36-hole final features two of the most focused individuals in women’s golf. There won’t be any temper tantrums, flying fists or idle chit-chat.
The battle of the Jennifers will be a mild-mannered affair. But the golf should be good.