The Norman Transcript

August 25, 2013

North’s Johnson chasing history

The Norman Transcript

EDMOND — A three-putt here and there aside, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this.

At the tournament that includes the names of past winners like Bob Tway and Willie Wood and Mark Hayes and Gil Morgan and Lucas Glover and even British Open champion Todd Hamilton on its trophy, a very different name is threatening to be put alongside.

That would be 16-year-old Norman North junior Thomas Johnson, who, at 8-under par 132 after 36 holes at Oak Tree Country Club’s fantastic East layout, is just a stroke back of Oscar Stark going into today’s final round of the Oklahoma Open.

The tour pros may not leave the circuit to play the Oklahoma Golf Association’s flagship event any longer, but don’t let it fool you. 

An open event, the field is primarily pros. Of the 47 players to make Saturday’s cut, 41 will be playing for the trophy as well as a $10,000 check.

The OGA’s State Amateur and Stroke Play Championship are fantastic events that produce state champions in every sense of the word, but they are not this.

And the kid is one back.

“I feel like I had one really, really good round and one bad finish,” Johnson said after Saturday’s even par 70. 

Still, he added, “I’m kind of shocked by it.”

Him and everybody else.

You might have figured it out already. If he shot 70 Saturday, he had to shoot 62 Friday, and that’s just what he did when he turned a great round that had him 3-under after 11 holes into one for the ages when, playing the front nine last, he closed with birdies at Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8.

For uninitiated golfing fans, which likely include most of Johnson’s friends and classmates at North, look at it this way: This isn’t’ supposed to happen, yet the kid’s in the final group.

Heck, for a while, Saturday, he threatened to run away with the thing.

Saturday, he made the turn at 3-under after birdies at Nos. 1, 5 and 8, getting it to 11-under overall. 

But Johnson said he putted poorly all day and it caught up to him down the stretch, when he missed a short par putt at the 13th before three-putts at Nos. 15 and 18. He even made a pair of six-footers at 16 and 17 just to secure two-putt pars.

Still, if he left the 18th green upset he gave a few strokes away, he has to understand he’s already blasted well beyond expectation, leaving him to play today’s final round with a briefcase full of house money.

Scott Watson, Lawton Ike’s golf coach, himself still playing after opening rounds of 70 and 69, sought Johnson out after the round. 

“It’s hard to follow up a 62, man,” he said, “hold your head up high.”

Watson took notice of Johnson during Class 6A regional play, a week before Johnson began the run he’s still running, when he lost a playoff for the Class 6A medalist crown. 

“He’s one of the best ball strikers I’ve ever seen,” Watson said. “He just has it.”

Hunter Austin is a North sophomore, a teammate of Johnson’s, and was walking the course Saturday supporting his friend. If Watson saw something at regionals, Austin saw it last summer.

“Before sophomore year, he started shooting a lot of under-par rounds,” Austin said. “Like, not in tournaments, but just shooting under par like 10 times in a row.”

Austin saw Johnson make his move when it didn’t count, which is always the first step to making it when it does.

About a tournament like this for a kid like Johnson being something that’s not supposed to happen, it’s good to remember the nature of the game. 

Though often played at private clubs, there’s no more democratic sport. Put the ball in the hole faster than everybody else and you win. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from or who you know.

The game produces all kinds of wonderful surprises and no flukes.

So Johnson will tee off today looking to become the youngest victor in the 103-year history of the state’s most important golf tournament.

The last question to him Saturday was if he’d like a gallery watching today.

“It depends,” he said, “It depends on who’s in the gallery.”

What if it was his friends, his classmates.

“Yeah,” he said.

He goes off at 10:10 this morning.

Clay Horning

Follow me @clayhorning