Golfer gives new meaning to ‘long drives’

11-03-09 Golf
Freshman golfer Jennifer Johnson practices her swing at the Karsten Golf course on Friday.(Matt Pavelek | The State Press)
Published On:
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
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The terms “summer vacation” and “relaxing weekend” have never exactly been a part of Jennifer Johnson’s vocabulary.

The highly-touted freshman member of the No. 1 ASU women’s golf team has been too busy occupying her schedule with, well, golf.

Take her summer “road trip,” for example.

Johnson and her father Mike Johnson toured the Midwest and East Coast for seven weeks this summer, as the 18-year-old competed in several high-profile amateur events.

“It was a lot of fun,” Johnson said of her nearly two-month whirlwind tour. “I made it to the finals of the [U.S.] Women’s Amateur at the beginning of August. From there, I went to the Junior Solheim Cup [in Chicago] and then flew straight from there and started school. I’ve been pretty much nonstop.”

She hardly seems to mind the routine.

While ASU coach Melissa Luellen calls her freshman one of the top five recruits to join the team during her eight years at ASU — a rather impressive feat given the long list of golfers who have been a part of one of the nation’s top programs — Johnson doesn’t see any need to pump the brakes.

Success has been her motivator since she picked up the game a decade ago while accompanying her father to the driving range.

“I played in my first tournament when I was 8 … I finished last,” she said. “But I wanted trophies when I was that young, so I just kind of worked harder and improved.”

Luellen was well aware of the player she was getting in Johnson, who the coach first saw play at the age of 13.

At that time Johnson “hadn’t quite grown into her body,” but Luellen could tell even then that the young golfer had a special work ethic.

“You could tell she had a lot of discipline on the golf course,” Luellen said. “She had the foundations of a good player. … When she physically matured, she started hitting the ball further, and because her short game was so good as a youngster, she started beating some of those players who were beating her earlier.”

While shiny plastic trophies might have satisfied Johnson when she was barely as tall as her golf bag, her will to perform at a top level has her now striving for bigger prizes.

It’s the reason why Luellen was hardly surprised Johnson spent her final summer before starting college on the nation’s fairways.

“She always plays a lot of tournaments,” the coach said. “It’s what she works hard at, and she just loves to compete.”

Johnson has strived for perfection since she picked up the game as a youngster.

When she hit her first hole-in-one a few years ago at a course in Texas, she was, at the time, hardly excited about the feat every golfer yearns for.

“I was actually disgusted because I had bogeyed the past couple of holes, so I really couldn’t enjoy it,” the freshman said.

Her desire for intense competition was what made the Women’s Amateur so satisfying for Johnson. She called the tournament one of the most memorable matches of her career because it was “six or seven days straight days of grueling golf.”

The success Johnson had this summer quickly translated to the college level.

In the three fall tournaments Johnson competed in for ASU, she finished in the top 10 in each.

The strenuous schedule does call for sacrifices, though, Johnson admitted.

Outside of classes and golf, she said she hasn’t experienced too much of the college life in Tempe.

“I haven’t really spent many weekends here,” said Johnson, who has spent some of her free time visiting her family in the San Diego area where she is from.

It’s clear, though, that the young golfer likes things how they are.

Fiddling with an iron — the golf club kind — as she talks about some of her early experiences as a college student, the seemingly shy Johnson is direct when asked what she thinks she can achieve when the heart of the college golf season kicks off in the spring.

“I want to be a First-Team All-American and be Freshman Player of the Year,” she said without hesitation.

Her coach certainly thinks the lofty goals are achievable.

“We have the third- or fourth-toughest schedule in the country, and she’s finishing in the top 10 against the best competition,” Luellen said. “She’s got to continue it in the spring. If she were to win a tournament, that would seal the deal for her for First-Team All-American.”

On Wednesday, Johnson’s frequent-flier mile count will continue to climb when she competes in the Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship in Trinity, Texas.

The Olympic-style event features two female and two male amateurs from each country participating.

“The Spirit and the World Amateur are the biggest competitions you can compete in as an amateur golfer,” Luellen said. “That fact that she was selected to represent the United States — one of two girls and one of four kids — wow, what an honor. She deserves it.”

Johnson said her individual aspirations fall in line with the goals of a team she has had no problem fitting in with.

“Team golf is definitely a lot different than just individual,” Johnson said. “We have a great team, and we’re just going to push each other better.”

The freshman said there is a family-type atmosphere that surrounds the defending national champions, and her coach thinks Johnson has already become a great addition.

“She is the one that keeps us laughing when we travel,” Luellen said. “When you first meet her or see her from afar, you would think she was a very quiet, shy girl, but she’s hilarious. She’s added a great element to our team.”

Reach the reporter at nkosmide@asu.edu.