Eric Johnson: Former pro discovers a new drive

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

Eric Johnson is helping mold the next generation of golfers

It is early on a weekday morning, and Eric Johnson says he hasn’t had quite enough coffee yet, but you wouldn’t know it by the energy and enthusiasm with which he is conducting a golf lesson on the practice range at RiverRidge Golf Course.

His pupils are two middle school students, ages 12 and 11, boys at the beginning of their golf experience.

They may or may not be fully aware that their teacher won the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship when he was not much older than they are now, as a 17-year-old graduate of Churchill High School, that he played at the University of Oregon, and that in the very select group of PGA Tour golfers to come from Eugene high schools and local country clubs, along with Brian Henninger, Casey Martin and Jeff Quinney, there’s Eric Johnson of Churchill and Shadow Hills.

What they sense, however, is that their teacher is having fun. He pretends to make creaking noises while he leads them in stretching. He exults when they chip a golf ball into a bucket. And in every sentence, there seems to be information about the golf swing, as if all that knowledge compiled over so many years can’t wait to get out.

Johnson has had a myriad of experiences in golf, highs and lows. He’s loved it, passionately, and walked away from it, in utter frustration. And now at 50, he’s ventured back into the game. He’s teaching more, and creatively, and he’s even playing some. Like a golf course with blind shots, he’s not exactly sure where this fairway will lead, but he seems to be coaching and playing with renewed faith in the game, and in his game.

A season on the Tour

It’s been 16 years since Johnson’s single season on the PGA Tour. By then, he’d talked openly about the struggle with alcoholism that had derailed his career in his 20s. In sobriety — since January 1989 — Johnson found success on what was then called the Nike Tour in the mid-1990s, winning the Nike Knoxville Open in 1996 and finishing high enough in the standings that year to earn his PGA Tour card.

“Do I get there in the mid-1990s if I don’t go through what I did in the mid-1980s?” Johnson mused. “It made me a better person, and if (talking about it) saved one person’s life, it was worth it.”

In 1997, Johnson played in 30 PGA Tour events, made 11 cuts, and had two top-25 finishes, including a tie for 12th at the Byron Nelson Golf Classic where he shot 65-69-66-69, 11 under, and earned $33,171, roughly a third of his season earnings of $97,091.

He finished 171st on the money list and did not retain his Tour card.

“I look back and think that I tried to make things happen too fast,” he said. “I got in my own way. When I got to the level I had dreamed of, I had grander plans of what I would do being on the PGA Tour for whatever number of years that was going to be. … To be successful financially enough to fund a scholarship for a high school golfer from Churchill or from 4J. To use my success as a springboard for others.

“I think I put undo pressure on myself to succeed. Decent driver, putter, good irons player — I had lots of different tools. But I missed the big picture in that the PGA Tour each year isn’t a race, it’s a marathon. It’s not one week that makes a season, it’s not two weeks, it’s what you did in those stretches of time where you played well.”

But Johnson makes it clear that he enjoyed the experience immensely.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was absolutely a blast. It was wonderful. For lack of a better way to put it, it was a dream come true.

“There are times when I look at being on the PGA Tour for one year as a failure, that I only stayed one year. But how can that be a failure? How many people reach the PGA Tour? The only three things, in a fun way, is that I didn’t get to play a practice round at Augusta the week of the Masters with Jack Nicklaus, I didn’t win a Tour event and I didn’t make a Ryder Cup team.

“If those are my three failures, I’m going to be OK.”

Putting woes

In 1998, Johnson returned to the Nike Tour, winning the South Florida Open. He was a staunch advocate in establishing the Oregon Classic tournament at Shadow Hills. But Johnson never made it back to the PGA Tour; his last competitive season consisted of five events in 2003, as ongoing putting problems eroded his game.

“I couldn’t play anymore because I couldn’t pull the trigger with the putter,” he said, noting that sometimes he’d freeze over the ball, unable to initiate a smooth stroke.

“Whether you want to call it anxiety attacks, or the yips, or performance anxiety, I got to the point with the putter where I just couldn’t pull the trigger. When you can’t putt comfortably, it took away some of what I considered a mental edge. Because I always felt from the age of 8 on that when I entered a golf tournament that I had the ability to win. (Not having that) was very hard for me to accept, and probably led to even more problems.

“Instead of accepting that ‘hey, I’m going to putt badly one weekend, I’m going to putt better the next week and maybe I’ll feel good after that,’ I let that bleed into my whole outlook on golf. To the point where I became mad at the game. I felt like I had dedicated my life to playing professional golf, and to have something as simple as a putter derail that was probably as frustrating. …”

Initially, Johnson said, he wrestled most with putts in the 8- to 20-foot range; putts a golfer needs to make birdies and save pars and shoot in the 60s instead of the mid-70s.

“There’s such a fragile line between the ability to not only filter out the cacophony that is a golf tournament, but the cacophony that plays within your own head,” he said.

“The only way I can explain what happened to my putter would be if you were a Broadway actor who went through all the rehearsals, the dress rehearsals, everything leading up to opening night, and you were fine. You didn’t forget a line, you didn’t forget a spot. You didn’t forget the timing. And the curtain lifts on opening night and you can’t remember a line.”

In the years after he played the satellite tour, Johnson continued to play in fund-raisers, but he also had a full-time job, selling team athletic apparel; he served as a fishing guide, his passion; and he helped coach his daughter, Jordin, in basketball.

About three years ago, Johnson said, he stopped playing golf completely.

“I had shot enough 75-76s in my life,” he said. “I wasn’t the golfer I was at one time. I wasn’t going to suddenly find lightning in a bottle and become the player I was.”

Back on the course

Last summer, no longer working in the sports apparel business, Johnson taught in a juniors clinic at Shadow Hills. He loved it. This past spring, he accepted a long-standing invitation from Dennis Nakata to help coach the boys golf team at Sheldon High School. He loved that, too, and increased his teaching at RiverRidge this summer, ranging from competition clinics to drop-in sessions for juniors and a “retain a pro” concept for golfers who want briefer on-going lessons. He plans to ramp up even more programs at RiverRidge next summer, including various multi-day clinics aimed at different groups — elite juniors, women, etc.

Johnson grew up around coaching; his late father, Steve, was a longtime coach at Churchill, and Johnson’s best friend. Still, he said, “there was a learning process for me, because I’d been out of teaching for a long time.” With a natural aptitude for the game, Johnson said he felt initially uncertain teaching beginners, blaming himself when progress didn’t come as fast as he thought it should.

“It was hard for me to get paid to teach and walk away from the lesson thinking ‘boy, I sure got the better of this deal,’” he said. “It took a while to realize ‘incremental steps.’ I kept wanting that quantum leap from here to there, like all of a sudden you flip a switch and make a golf swing, and took a while for me to cut myself some slack, and realize that those students were coming to me to learn, and the less complicated I could keep it, the better off they were.

“The more I do it, the better I get at it. The more I do it, the more I enjoy it. The more I do it, the more the people around me enjoy it. I would love to be known as a good teacher, and I think being a good teacher is a life-long pursuit. … The more people you work with, the more different golf swings you work with, and the more ways you find that something works for a person, the better teacher you become.”

Johnson’s return to golf hasn’t been confined to conducting lessons. Last summer, on the practice range at Shadow Hills, knocking the ball around a bit with a former mentor, PGA teaching pro Tim Zwettler, he stumbled upon a putting approach — an anchored belly putter, with a claw grip that he’d tried in the past but been too embarrassed to embrace — that suddenly felt good.

Last October, after his birthday, Johnson played a round at Shadow Hills, curious about what he could score at age 50. He shot 68. He hadn’t made every putt, but he’d made enough.

He is of an age now where he could attempt to qualify for the Champions Tour, and Johnson admits that he’s thought about it, though it would require months of preparation, and financial backing, and represents a huge commitment for himself and his wife, Suzie, with Jordin in eighth grade. But if the chance came. …

“I can’t imagine anything more fun,” he said. “I’ve missed that gut feeling of playing in front of people, and either doing well or doing poorly.”

And yet, Johnson said, “I have no regrets about my golf career. None whatsoever. If I suddenly lost my right arm in an accident today, I wouldn’t feel like I left anything unfulfilled in golf.

“I’m no longer mad at the game. The experiences I had in golf, the goods and the bads, are experiences that very few people will ever have. And I don’t give myself enough credit for that.”

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