Playing in the Nature Valley First Tee Open at famed Pebble Beach with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw last week proved the trip of a lifetime for Baton Rouge’s Sheldon “DJ” Johnson.
The 16-year-old Catholic High School junior treasured his time with the golf legend as the two teamed in the pro/junior section of the tournament, playing Pebble Beach last Friday and Poppy Hills Golf Club on Saturday.
“It was almost dreamlike honestly,” Johnson said.
Although they didn’t make the top 23 cut out of 81, Johnson did birdie his final hole each day — including the iconic 18th at Pebble when he stuck his approach shot to inside two feet.
So what does a 16-year-old junior golfer learn from one of golf’s greats?
“He told me golf is more visual than anything,” Johnson said. “You can think of a certain number or a club but he was saying have a look at your shot, say ‘this looks like a certain shot,’ and then you play it.”
Crenshaw also helped Johnson with his putting and distance control and gave him yardages and lines into greens. Oh, and he added an encore to Johnson’s reciting of a line from Taylor Swift’s song “22”.
“I feel like I’m 92,” Crenshaw jokingly told DJ during their interview on the Golf Channel last Friday.
All joking aside, the trip marked Johnson’s first excursion to California, since infancy, and after taking in the Golden State’s views and casual feel he’s already made a decision about his future.
“When DJ came home he said, ‘What do you think of me going to school in California?’ ” Johnson’s mother, Melanie, said.
“And I said ‘I’m not going to hold you back if you get the opportunity.’ ”
Who knows what the future has in store for this young talent but he sure gave his family, watching back home on TV in Baton Rouge, something to smile and cry about by simply playing in the event.
“It was a very proud moment for me to see him play with one of the golf legends, it was just great,” Melanie Johnson said. “I got a little tear when I saw him because my dad played, and I reflected back to when I was a little girl, to his experiences.”
Indeed, DJ Johnson’s grandfather, Phillip Smith, played against the likes of Charlie Sifford as he tried to make it on Tour during the 1960s. But after years of pursuing professional golf, Smith had to take a job for his family and began working for Southern University in 1967 — giving up his dream of making the PGA Tour.
“But now DJ is living my dream,” Smith smiled. “I was thrilled beyond belief, and watching him exceed my wildest expectations.”
Smith also shed a tear as he soaked in one of golf’s greatest landscapes and his grandson taking the stage with confidence.
The two watch the major championships together and talk golf almost non-stop. Johnson’s grandfather gave him Ben Hogan’s book “Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons” and Johnson said after reading many more since his friends have come to call him the “golf encyclopedia.”
That knowledge was put to the test during Golf Channel’s live national telecast last Friday as reporter David Marr interviewed Johnson.
“Who finished second (in the 1970 NCAA Golf Championship)?” Marr asked.
“Some guy named Wadkins,” Johnson dead-panned, knowing Lanny Wadkins was providing analysis in the TV booth.
Wadkins couldn’t help but laugh as his colleague Brian Hammonds said “Well, looks like DJ’s lost a fan in the booth.”
Wadkins enjoyed the light-hearted jab.
Watching the classics
Johnson’s grandfather grew up watching old footage of his favorite three golfers: Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Arnold Palmer. He learned to watch the shoulder turn in each’s swing and he would emulate what he could. Now, more than 50 years later, his grandson is studying golf footage, just on modern mediums like YouTube and Golf Channel. Johnson says he enjoys watching old classic rounds like Tiger Woods’ 2000 US Open triumph at Pebble Beach.
Above all, Johnson’s takeaway from being inside the ropes-which included a dinner with the stars, a country concert, and lunch with Ben Crenshaw-was a desire to make these events a consistent part of his future.
“I really liked the atmosphere of (the week) and it’s something I’d really like to do in my future, to try and make it out there on the (PGA) Tour because it feels like where I should be honestly.”
Johnson, who plays locally at Santa Maria Golf Club, has been involved with the local First Tee of East Baton Rouge Parish the past six years.
His mother said the program has given him more confidence in himself.
And look what Johnson’s doing now? He was the only player from First Tee executive director Henry Pointer’s group to represent Baton Rouge last week, he’s co-captain of Catholic’s varsity golf team, and he volunteers much of his time helping young players in Pointer’s program.
“He’s like a magnet,” Pointer said. “People are just drawn to him, both the kids and the adults.”
That was true as well at Pebble Beach last week when Johnson struck up a conversation with Kevin Sutherland’s wife, Mary, finding out they both had a mutual friend from Baton Rouge.
Overall, Johnson says he enjoyed the “camaraderie” of the game last week. He should, after all he’s a big part of it.
Garrett Johnston is a sports journalist and video producer who covers golf, the NBA, and NFL. Follow him on Twitter @johnstongarrett