Johnson readies for N’wide debut at Sawgrass

Michael Johnson hits a shot during the 2010 Deutsche Bank Partners for Charity Junior Shoot Out.

Michael Johnson hits a shot during the 2010 Deutsche Bank Partners for Charity Junior Shoot Out.

About the only thing Michael Johnson remembers from his rousing triumph at TPC Sawgrass was his 20-footer on the 18th hole of The Players Stadium Course. Everything else, it seems, is one euphoric blur. 

“I made a lot of friends that week, and it was cool to see people watching me,” Johnson, 17, said by phone from Jacksonville, Fla., where on Thursday he will tee it up in the Nationwide Tour’s Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open. “And yeah, I think I’ll always remember that putt.”

The stakes are wildly different this week on the First Coast. So is Johnson’s competition. One thing remains the same, though.

“I still don’t really know anyone,” he said, laughing.  

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The last player in the field as a sixth alternate, and a relative unknown in junior golf circles, Michael Johnson held off Jordan Spieth and Emiliano Grillo to win the AJGA Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

On Tuesday, Johnson was scheduled to play a practice round on the Dye’s Valley Course with Scott Sterling, a 15-year touring pro who, at No. 76 on the Nationwide Tour money list, needs a good week to secure playing privileges for next season. Johnson’s goal, meanwhile, is merely making the cut. 

If nothing else, Johnson returns to the site of his breakthrough performance, one that earned him a spot in the field this week. 

On Labor Day weekend, on a course that has produced so many indelible moments over the past decade – Tiger Woods’ “better than most” putt in 2001, Craig Perks’ chipping clinic in ’02, Adam Scott’s double-bogey save in ’04 – Johnson authored his own TPC magic during the final round of the Junior Players.

OK, so it wasn’t the most majestic finish, what with a severely blocked tee shot, a rolling hook into the water and a chip that lacked conviction on the final hole. But it mattered little when that 20-foot bogey putt dropped, completing Johnson’s one-shot victory over a field that included eight of the top 10 juniors in Golfweek’s rankings. 

“I’m not the most well-known guy out here,” Johnson said after that victory, “but hopefully that will change.” 

Johnson was such an obscure winner, in fact, that on his way to the scoring center, he received both praise and introductions from his peers. The 337th-ranked junior at the time, Johnson, an Auburn commit, received a spot in the invitation-only event only after a player withdrew two days before the opening round. He since has moved to No. 217, more a product of his lack of experience in top-flight events than his talent.

Two weeks ago, at the AJGA Ping Invitational in Stillwater, Okla., his first start since his victory at Sawgrass, Johnson finished 10th at Karsten Creek. More surprising was his photo on the tournament pamphlet as one of the event’s three featured players. 

Johnson has been approached by a few Nationwide regulars this week, but the laconic kid from Birmingham, Ala., can’t remember their names. 

He’s not yet fazed: “It’s still the same sport; it’s just different players.” 

His nerves, at least at the moment, are in check: “At the Junior Players, I actually had something to lose. This week I don’t.” 

And the last player in the field at an AJGA event now is the fourth junior player to compete in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event this season. It truly has been a whirlwind six weeks, huh?

“Yeah,” Johnson said, “I guess people know who I am now.”

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