Article Courtesy of Duramed FUTURES Tour
The 2004 season seems like yesterday, and yet, so long ago for MALINDA JOHNSON. Each spring, collegiate players turn professional after the NCAA Women's Golf Championship and arrive at their first tournament as professionals on the Duramed FUTURES Tour. And every year, they show up with a youthful eagerness to win and a sense of fearlessness in their hearts.
That's the way it was for Johnson back in the spring of 2004, when she, along with a bumper crop of brand-new pros right out of college - including Tour alums ALLISON FOUCH and EMILY BASTEL of Michigan State University, KATIE CONNELLY of the University of Wisconsin, MEAGHAN FRANCELLA of the University of North Carolina, and current member ALLISON HANNA-WILLIAMS of Ohio State University - all converged in the same place, ready to compete head-to-head for cash prizes and LPGA membership.
Johnson was the big-hitting left-hander from the University of Wisconsin who brought along a swagger for her 2004 pro debut in Merrillville, Ind. Three competitive rounds later, she had finished second in her first professional event.
"I was just pumped up about everything and I was like, 'Wow! This is easy," said Johnson, 27, of Eau Claire, Wis. "I don't think I'd had enough time to realize that I should be afraid of anything."
Johnson kept that fire going for her entire first season, posting five top-10 finishes in 12 events. By the time she arrived at the 2004 Tour's season-ending event, which was held in York, Pa., Johnson had worked her way up to the No. 11 spot on the money list. Her longtime Big Ten Conference rival, Bastel, was tenuously clinging to the No. 5 spot on the money list, hoping to grab that fifth and final LPGA card that was offered at the time to the top-five season money winners.
But in the final round of the tournament in York, Pa., Johnson bid the Duramed FUTURES Tour adieu when she striped her 105-yard uphill approach shot to the 18th green from the rough with a sand wedge to eight feet, and then converted for birdie to win the tournament. With the win, she raced from 11th to fifth on the season money list to earn the fifth exempt LPGA Tour card for 2005, knocking out Bastel in the process.
"Honestly, that week, I didn't think about the LPGA cards - it was just about that tournament," Johnson said. "I don't even remember playing exceptionally well, just being extremely calm - even over that last birdie putt to win. It was all very surreal."
But it was real and Johnson was moving on to the LPGA. Once again, she arrived at the next level - only one year removed from college golf - and found herself on the practice tee alongside then-top-ranked Annika Sorenstam and a host of talented LPGA stars. Johnson made her first LPGA tournament cut in Phoenix in 2005, and tied for 15th. She was on her way, yet again.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, she was making the typical rookie mistake. Johnson had played seven tournaments in a row when CRISTIE KERR told her, "I know you're excited and you want to play a lot, but slow down so you won't get hurt." Even Sorenstam reiterated that point one day during a practice round with Johnson.
By May of 2005, nearly one year from her professional debut on the Duramed FUTURES Tour, Johnson felt a painful "tweak" in her right shoulder during an LPGA event. The pain was excruciating enough that she was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to an injury. It never got better and Johnson went through the remainder of the LPGA season missing every 36-hole cut. She also had back spasms every day for a year.
"Once I got hurt, I started the downward spiral of doubting myself," she said. "I just couldn't seem to find the confidence that I'd had."
Johnson went back to LPGA Q-School that fall. By then, she was in so much pain that she couldn't lift her right arm. She salvaged some LPGA status for 2006, but by February 2006, she was undergoing major surgery to repair her shoulder. She had torn the labrum off the bone in her right shoulder. Doctors also found they needed to shrink the joint cap in her shoulder so it wouldn't pop out of joint. That procedure took away one inch of flexibility in her range of motion.
For six weeks, she went to rehabilitation for the surgically repaired shoulder. She didn't touch a golf club for eight months and struggled with simple daily tasks involving her dominant hand.
"I'm right-handed with everything except golf, and that was the least golf I had played since I was four years old," she said.
While her body healed, Johnson spent most of 2006 thinking about what was next. She worked as a substitute teacher in the Eau Claire (Wis.) school system for six months. By March 2007, she could swing a club again but was not interested in competing. She was offered the assistant professional's job at The Legend at Brandybrook in Wales, Wis., where she oversaw the women's program, as well as the club's robust junior program with nearly 300 juniors. Johnson taught golf lessons and practiced with the high school girls in the club's junior program, but professional tournament golf seemed like an eternity ago and not even a blip on her future radar.
"Mentally and physically, I think I needed that break from competition," she said. "For all of 2006 and 2007, I didn't miss it at all."
But the turning point for Johnson was that the game "got fun again" through teaching and playing casual golf with club members. Just to see where her game was after no competition and very little practice, she entered the 2008 Wisconsin Women's Open Championship last summer - and won.
"All of a sudden, it was like, 'Oh, maybe I still have it.' And I thought that if I could win with only a little bit of practice, what could I do if I practiced and played full-time?" she said.
So four years after her blitz through the Tour en route to the LPGA, Johnson returned last fall to the Duramed FUTURES Tour's Qualifying Tournament. She earned 2009 status, and six events into the current season, she has started her slow climb back to where she was in 2004. It has been a daunting task and one that only a more mature player could handle.
In six tournaments, she has missed three cuts, but she also tied for 18th at the Tour's event in San Antonio. And then there are the weeks where sometimes she finds herself battling back from disastrous rounds to shoot next-day sub-par rounds. After shooting an 80 in the first round of the wind-pummeled tournament in Brownsville, Texas last month, Johnson actually looked stunned when she walked out of the scoring tent, but then she turned it around the next day with a 71 to make the cut
"It's been an up-and-down struggle so far, but now I totally get it," she said. "I'm just grateful to have this opportunity again."
When Johnson looks back on her first stint on the Duramed FUTURES Tour, she now sees a bigger picture. She played in only 12 tournaments and moved on. And while she sees the value of having practiced and played with the best women golfers in the world on the 2005 LPGA Tour, she also now admits that more time developing her game could have helped. The shoulder injury simply compounded the problem of a young pro not being able to calm her mind and steady herself in the middle of a tournament season.
"Maybe another year on the urame FUTURES Tour would have done me good, she said. "When I got to the LPGA, I think I was unprepared about how hard you have to work and how hard you have to work on your short game to be competitive at that level. I don't think I truly understood their time commitment to practice."
Traveling this season with rookie LINDSEY BERGEON of Sarasota, Fla., has enabled her to rekindle her enthusiasm for competition while bringing along a more seasoned capacity for patience with less of a temper than what she brought to the Tour five years ago. Being around the fire and fearlessness of first-year professionals has been good for the veteran pro. But while she is not the same person who stormed onto the Tour in 2004, afraid of nothing and hungry to win, Johnson says the goal is the same - to return as a full-time member to the LPGA Tour.
"I can't live in the past," she said. "I need to live right here, right now, and do what I need to do. I love my life because I came back from something that was awful and now I appreciate things more. Sure, it's a rebuilding year and I'm getting back to basics, but I will make it. It's just a matter of time."
Topics: Player Feature