EDMOND — Thomas Johnson said he wasn’t trying too hard.
He wasn’t trying too hard when he found the water left on No. 16 at the East course at Oak Tree Country Club, maybe gripping the club too tightly, trying to force the ball on a line with the stick despite a stiff breeze coming off the pond.
He wasn’t trying too hard on the next hole either, a long and brutal par 3 that, for the second straight day, he took a long iron right over the pin, though the pin was already tucked deep into the green.
He said he didn’t know what victory required when he stood on the 15th tee, 7-under par at the Oklahoma Open, still with a chance to become the youngest winner of the state’s most important golf tournament, one that came into being in 1910, with a trophy that lists a who’s who of Oklahoma golf going back more than a century.
Maybe he didn’t.
But maybe he thought he needed a birdie or two to give himself a chance (which he did), and, in there, somewhere, things went awry.
So Johnson, only a junior at Norman North, did not accomplish what would have been a win for the ageless Sunday afternoon at Oak Tree, the same way 60-year old Tom Watson’s would-be-victory at the 2009 Open Championship would have been a win for the ages. Still, he gave the state its most unique and interesting golfing ride in a long, long time.
Also, finishing at 3-under par 207, five strokes back of winner and fellow amateur Chris Worrell, who plays his college golf at Tulsa, Johnson still finished off the best show by a high school golfer this town’s seen since the sports editor of this newspaper came on the scene. And that’s awhile.
There have been lots of great prep golfers in this town over the last 16 years, but only a few have stood above the rest
There was a time Brad Purcell was the man. Andre Metzger enjoyed an amazing run.
Norman North’s Ryan Rainer remains the only high school state tourney champ over the span, though his finest moment was a final-day 28 at a rain-shortened Westwood Invitational.
Brandon Blevins found his game in a big way before graduating from North in 2006. Then came Taylor Artman.
Jett Johnson, Thomas’ older brother, followed before Kyle Raberding carried the flag for Norman High.
Thomas Johnson, with so much time remaining, may stand alone.
His move began at last year’s Class 6A state tourney when he played his last 11 holes in 5-under par to reach a playoff for the medalist crown.
Since, he’s reached the Oklahoma Golf Association’s Junior Boys Championship’s final four, placed 22nd at the Callaway Junior World Championship at Torrey Pines, site of the 2009 U.S. Open, won the PGA Junior Series at Arborlinks in Nebraska City, Neb., which qualified him for the Junior PGA Championship at Trump National in Washington, D.C., where he went 70-70-65-69 to finish 10th.
Then, over the weekend, he was the best player at the state’s most important tournament, one dominated by pros, for about 30 holes, reaching 11-under par of a tourney 8-under eventually won. Nobody else was ever any better than 9-under.
“I just couldn’t finish the last two days,” Johnson said.
He didn’t say it happily.
He’d just gone from 7-under par to 3-under in the space of three holes. He did, though, smile when asked what he’d learned.
“That I can compete with the best,” he said.
That’s for sure.
Quiet to the core, it’s still clear when Johnson’s upset. It’s a real skill, but he never seems to hurt himself when he swings a club that’s misbehaved into one of his shoes.
“He hates to lose,” North coach Dennis Etter said at Karsten Creek last May.
Given what he’s done over 16 short weeks, don’t count on him doing much losing going forward.
Really, the hard part may be getting excited to take on kids his own age on something less than a national stage.
“I’ll try,” Johnson said.
Given his fire, it shouldn’t be a problem. Better, the rest of us will get to watch.
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