Julia Johnson returned to Mississippi on a red-eye from the NCAA Regional in San Francisco and dove headfirst into a philosophy final, followed immediately by a psychology exam. Friday’s finals slate: comparative politics, English 222 and nutrition. The Ole Miss freshman arrived in Oxford in the fall with 36 credit hours and plans to graduate in four years with an MBA.
Everything Johnson does is full throttle.
“I can’t remember a time I wasn’t gritty,” she said. “I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to claw people’s eyes out. It’s only gotten more so in college, because I’m playing in bigger tournaments and I feel like I have something to prove.”
Johnson lit up Harding Park in the final round at regionals, posting a 5-under 67 without birdieing a par 5. The 10th-seeded Rebels cruised to a stunning third-place finish, securing the program’s first trip to an NCAA Championship. Simply getting to regionals for the first time in five years was an accomplishment, but it’s little wonder that Johnson helped take matters a step farther.
“I thrive in situations like that,” she said. “I like to play against people who are supposed to be better. I really enjoy opening people’s eyes.”
Johnson isn’t alone in enjoying surprises. When coach Kory Henkes came to Ole Miss three years ago, her players laughed when she announced plans to compete for a national championship. Henkes and assistant coach Drew Belt didn’t let that reaction deter them. They got to work on an overhaul: changing the team chemistry, work effort and expectations. This year Ole Miss won three team titles, more than the last 13 years combined.
“You can’t teach grit in a player,” Henkes said. “You look for that player that’s going to find a way to get it done.”
Johnson, who had verbally committed to LSU when she was “barely 15,” attended a football game at The Grove with good friends Conner Beth Ball and Macy Holliday when the Tigers came to town. The teen from Baton Rouge listened to her classmates talk about how driven they were to change the Ole Miss program, to put it on the map. Johnson immediately knew that she wanted to “be on that ship with them” and made a plea to be a part of it.
“I’ve been pushed harder this year than I ever thought I could be,” she said. “Everything I wasn’t good at coming into college, I look at as a strength now.”
Henkes (nee Thompson) runs a tough practice. She wants their time at home to feel tougher than anything her players might face in a tournament. Ladder drills can take players up to three hours to complete. Cart paths are sometimes out of bounds at qualifiers.
“They hate that rule,” she said.
Eighty percent of practice centers around the short game. There are days when the Rebels go into the woods on purpose and punch their way out. When Henkes lets her team set the schedule at practice, it’s often tougher than what the coaches had prepared.
“Kory puts her whole heart into whatever she does,” said LPGA player Kristy McPherson, Henkes’ teammate at South Carolina. Henkes caddied on professional tours for both McPherson and older brother Kyle Thompson, who competes on the PGA Tour.
Johnson, the first freshman in school history to win twice, feels ultra-confident with her coach by her side in competition because of Henkes’ calming influence and course management.
“If you were to mic us up,” said Johnson, “we probably have one of the best dynamics between a coach and player in college golf.”
When the women’s team returned from San Francisco, Ole Miss men’s coach Chris Malloy gathered a few dozen supporters at the Golf House to welcome them back. While many schools draw a line between the men’s and women’s golf programs, there’s no shortage of synergy between these two teams. Last year Malloy, in his third season as head coach, led the men’s program to its first NCAA Championship in 16 years and Braden Thornberry captured the individual title.
Thornberry, an 11-time winner at Ole Miss, has given Johnson tips throughout the season on managing expectations and closing tournaments. The overachieving Johnson soaks it up.
Now she’ll lead Ole Miss in Stillwater, Okla., where the 23rd seed that has nothing to lose, just might shine. Gwk