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'Up-and-down': ASU golfer Ryggs Johnston seeks storybook ending to a lengthy career

The Montana native is looking to improve his play well into his fifth season as a Sun Devil


ASU graduate student golfer Ryggs Johnston points up at the sky during the Ben Hogan Collegiate at Shady Oaks Country Club on Monday Oct. 2, 2023, in Fort Worth, Tex.

ASU graduate golfer Ryggs Johnston has had a roller-coaster career marked by skillful play and challenging stretches. Well into his final season, Johnston is attempting to cap off his storied career by leading the Sun Devils to national glory.

Johnston, who hails from Libby, Montana, traveled around the country to play golf and get noticed by collegiate coaches. He dominated in-state competition during his time at Libby High School by winning four Montana state championships while facing worldly foes at the U.S. Amateur Championship.

"Frankly, there's just no high-level D1 coaches going to Montana to watch golf because it's just not quite at that level yet," Johnston said. "So I definitely had to get out of state."

He jumped on the chance to play collegiate golf for ASU when the Sun Devils came calling. Johnston said joining ASU was an easy choice because he has family in Phoenix and thought the program and Arizona’s weather would give him a leg up.

"I figured this was not only one of my best chances to grow my game itself but also win a national championship as a team, have a great time doing it," Johnston said. "This is a great area."

Johnston has made the most of his time in Arizona by recording 19 top-20 finishes and 10 top-10 finishes in his four seasons here. While lighting it up on the links, Johnston has also been named to the College Sports Communicators Academic All-America first-team and all-Pac-12 multiple times.

His career got off to a hot start by posting a 71.04 stroke average his freshman year, one of the lowest freshman scoring averages in ASU history. In his sophomore season, Johnston got even better by recording a 70.63 stroke average.

Johnston finished top-four at the Pac-12 Championship that season before recording a 63/-7 at the NCAA Championship, the second-best round score by a Sun Devil in program history. His score put him in historic company with Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson for the lowest NCAA Championship round scores in ASU history. 

However, with higher expectations each season, Johnston said his career has been filled with highs and lows after his NCAA performance.

Johnston's junior season was arguably his worst, where he posted a 73.23 stroke average, his highest in a complete season, and finished in the top 10 only once at a tournament. Yet, just a year later, Johnston improved his play to record a 71.08 stroke average and was named the 2022-23 Pac-12 Men's Golf Scholar-Athlete of the Year. 

ASU head coach Matt Thurmond believes that Johnston is already a fantastic player and a crucial part of ASU’s success year in and year out. Praising his veteran's impact, Thurmond said Johnston is an all-around great person and the team's trustworthy leader. 

"It's kind of been an up-and-down career a little bit for Ryggs," Thurmond said. "Even maybe before he got here, I think there were some ups and downs. When you strip it all away and forget about some of the downs, like as a whole, Ryggs has been a five-year starter for the team, and he’s helped us."

This season has been a mixed bag for Johnston. 

He's appeared in four tournaments and recorded a 72.9 stroke average. In his best string of outings, he finished top-13 at the Fighting Illini Invitational and top-14 at the Ben Hogan Collegiate, impressing his coach in the process.

“I think his performance, as far as finishing and fields, has been better this year than it was last year," Thurmond said. "I think it's going to be a really solid year for Ryggs."

Johnston is still working to improve his play as his ASU career winds to a close. Thurmond said Johnston excels on the fairway with his mid-iron and long-iron play, but he can still improve by making more putts to notch lower scores.

Besides focusing on his play, Johnston utilizes his experience to keep the team organized and serve as a role model for the next generation of Sun Devils. Freshman Connor Williams said he looks up to Johnston because of his years of experience and tremendous skill.

"He's a great role model being a fifth year, he's someone to look up to for sure. He's kind of a poster role model for the program," Williams said. "He works hard, he's good with his academics, and obviously, he's one of the best amateurs in the world."

Edited by Vincent DeAngelis, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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