Steady Johnson Marches Into Championship Match
By Stuart Hall
St. Louis — Steve Ries has had the best perspective to watch Jennifer Johnson’s march through this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. And the longtime Old Warson Country Club caddie has seen little that stands in Johnson’s way.
“We have just stayed patient the entire week,” said the 45-year-old Ries, who has worked at the club for 12 years. “It seems like every time we have come up the hill on No. 7, we’ve had a 2- or 3-up lead. Nothing much seems to bother her.”
In Saturday’s semifinal, 14-year-old Alexis Thompson, of Coral Springs, Fla., pushed Johnson to the brink before the Californian held on for a 1-up win. The match was Johnson’s longest in a week in which she has never trailed and led 68 of 76 holes played.
Johnson’s on-course demeanor has been virtually void of emotion, but then again there has been little to be upset about. After eliminating Thompson, Johnson was asked what an on-course display of temper would entail.
“I beat my club into the ground,” she said. “That’s about it.”
When was that?
“I did it on the 18th tee,” said the 18 year old from La Quinta, Calif., with a shy smile.
At that point, Johnson had seen a 3-up lead through 15 holes trimmed to a one-hole advantage heading into the 412-yard, par-4 18th hole.
“On 16, Thompson’s putter got really hot. She made two great putts,” said Johnson of Thompson’s 35- and 25-foot birdie putts to win holes 16 and 17. “I thought she was going to make that one [from 10 feet] on 18 and I was ready for extra holes. But I was just trying to… after the drive, put myself in the spot to get up and down on 18.”
Johnson and Thompson halved the 18th with bogeys, putting the incoming Arizona State freshman into Sunday’s scheduled 36-hole final against University of Southern California sophomore-to-be Jennifer Song. The 19-year-old Song, the 2009 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion, defeated Tiffany Lua, 18, of Rowland Heights, Calif., 3 and 2, in the other semifinal match.
“I just can't believe it,” said Johnson. “Tomorrow is going to be a long day and there's a lot of golf, so I've just got to be patient and not think about the outcome so much, because that can get in the way.”
Ries is a former golf pro at Innisbrook Golf Club who ran a junior golf program north of Tampa, Fla. for four years before returning to his native St. Louis in 1995. He has seen plenty of junior golfers and, maybe a little biased, said Johnson is as good as any.
“When Jenn gets up to the ball, she can hit all the shots,” said Ries, who got Johnson’s bag through a recommendation from a long-time club member. “She has a great short game. I’m telling you, when she gets the club in the slot, she’s just tough. Hard to believe someone at age 18 has that kind of game — even Thompson, who is 14.”
The loss ended Thompson’s week well short of its intended destination.
“I really wanted to reach the final so I would be exempt into next year’s [U.S.] Women’s Open,” she said, though a win was her primary goal. “I didn’t play well at all. It was just another day of bad ball striking, bad chipping and bad putting. I didn’t make the one I needed to [at 18].”
While Johnson works on not being emotional on the course because “that can be your worst enemy,” she said, outside the ropes is a different story.
“Off the course, I laugh a lot,” she said. “Like I don't smile much on the course, but I'm not like that off the course.”
A victory on Sunday might just bring that personality out.
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose stories have previously appeared on USGA championship Web sites.