Johnson carries brother’s memory on course

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

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Michael Johnson is an only child. It wasn’t always that way.

Johnson, the 36-hole leader at the Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, is the younger brother of Bradley Johnson, a junior standout who was a finalist at the 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur. Michael doesn’t remember much about the match at Longmeadow Country Club, which current Oklahoma State standout Kevin Tway won, 5 and 3, but he did recall that “every time Bradley hit a good shot, Kevin hit a better shot.”

The two brothers grew up in Birmingham, Ala., learning how to play golf from instructor Hank Johnson (no relation). Older Bradley was a monster off the tee, while Michael, small for his age, hit the coveted straight ball, although admittedly had some length to make up on his second shot.

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Bradley Johnson

“They were very close,” said Shari Johnson, the boys’ mother. “Michael really. . . I hate to use the word ‘worshiped,’ but he really loved his older brother. They never had that sibling rivalry at all.”

The spring after Bradley’s run in the U.S. Junior would be one that would make golf seem like a meaningless afterthought. Bradley, 17, was focusing on making a college selection – his parents think he was leaning toward Auburn – but he never got to finalize it. On March 25, 2006, Bradley died in a two-car accident in Lay Lake, Ala.

“When he passed away, it became really hard to look at a golf club,” said Michael, who didn’t return to school for a month and a half. “Anything I would see would make me remember Bradley.”

Since his brother’s death, Michael, 17, says he has “grown into Bradley’s game,” mostly referring to his relatively newfound length off the tee and consistency around the green. One difference from Bradley’s game is the way Michael marks his golf ball: With a simple “B.J.,” in memory of his brother. Michael also wears a rubber yellow wristband stamped with “BRADLEY,” which is now badly faded after nearly five years of golf-filled afternoons in steamy Alabama.

While Michael was too young to really compete with his brother – he was in seventh grade when Bradley died – he recalls that the two always had fun on the golf course. When Bradley began to hit his stride on the junior circuit, Michael was not old enough to play in the same tournaments as his brother. To pass the time, he would spend hour after hour on the putting green or driving range until Bradley finished his round.

“He would just stay out there and putt for five hours, and then the older kids who were playing in the event would come back to the green and see this itty-bitty kid out there putting,” said the boys’ father, Hugh. “And then, he would always beat them. I think that’s one of the things that made him tough.”

Today, Michael is on the same path as his older brother. His golf game is in top form – he also won earlier this year at the AJGA’s Deutsche Bank Junior Shoot Out – and he already has committed to play for Auburn. Michael said Bradley was a big Auburn fan and would have been happy with the decision. But that wasn’t his only criterium in choosing a school.

THE BRADLEY JOHNSON MEMORIAL FOUNDATION

After Bradley’s death, his parents, Hugh and Shari, started a foundation in his memory.

In the months after Bradley died, the foundation brought in nearly $30,000, which has gone to assisting junior golfers with the travel expenses of a national schedule, as well as college scholarships.

The foundation also sponsors an annual high school tournament at Greystone Country Club that brings in the top teams from across Alabama.

For more information on the foundation, or to make a donation, visit www.bjmf.org.

“Michael is not going to Auburn because of his brother,” his mother said. “He’s always been very much his own person. He is not playing golf because his brother’s not here. He is not trying to be his brother, and we aren’t trying to make him into that.

“He loves what he’s doing, and this is all about him.”

Referring to Michael as an underdog to start the Junior Players may have been a bit of an understatement. He is playing in his first-ever AJGA invitational, and he was the last player added to the field. He didn’t even find out he had a spot until Tuesday afternoon, when he was informed of a WD, causing him to cancel a trip to the AJGA’s Woodward Video Junior in West Virginia. To put it in junior-golf perspective, that’s like pulling out of your local muni’s three-club tournament for a spot in. . . well, The Players Championship.

But nevertheless, he finds himself atop a leaderboard filled with the biggest names in junior golf, with one round standing between him and a sponsor exemption into the Nationwide Tour’s Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open. According to his caddie, Mike Keeble, whom Michael just met this week, that is no accident.

“He’s incredible,” said Keeble, a full-time caddie at TPC Sawgrass who was randomly assigned to Michael as one of the perks of the Junior Players. Juniors are not allowed caddies in regular AJGA events. “I can tell you this: You will see him in the future. He’s got the talent, but he’s got the mental strength, too, and that’s what it takes.”

Keeble was alluding to Michael’s up-and-down ride through the tournament so far. In the first round, he started on the back and made two bogeys and a double, but offset them with four birdies to shoot even par. He got things ironed out on his second nine, making birdie on his first three holes and adding another at the ninth to shoot 68 and take the lead.

Playing in the final group Saturday, Johnson bogeyed two of his opening four holes, signaling to many that his dream run was over. But again he made enough birdies to get his round back to even par, where he finished the day. He takes a one-shot lead into the final round over Billy Kennerly and Emiliano Grillo, while Jordan Spieth lurks two shots behind.

“He’s got the best mental game I’ve seen in a long time,” Keeble said. “And that’s not just kids; that’s anyone. I’ve been out here for four years caddying, and I’ve caddied for the best. I’ve been with Anthony Kim and Chris DiMarco, and Michael’s got it. Plain and simple.”

When asked what advice Bradley would give him about closing the deal in the final round, a smile came over Michael’s face.

“It’s just another walk in the park,” he said. “He would tell me that it’s just another round of golf.

“Bradley was a very good golfer, but golf was not his life; it was just something he did. It never got in the way of anything. He always had time to hang out with his friends and do normal things.

“He was just a normal guy. Just like me.”

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