When Bryce Johnson was driven to the 12th hole Monday at Wildhorse - when he was supposed to start his round on the opposite side of the course at No. 18 - he was unfazed.
Yes, he was awkwardly the last player to arrive at the tee as his group fidgeted. Sure, No. 18, with its hazard along the left, is arguably the toughest hole on the course. Adding to the moment, it was the start of his last crack at the Sac-Joaquin Section divisional playoffs.
Johnson, a Woodcreek High School senior, had not advanced past the opening round of the postseason.
The left-hander calmly striped the longest tee shot of his foursome down the middle of the fairway, leading to a routine par in a round of 2-under-par 70 that easily qualified him for next week's Masters.
Johnson longs for a playoff run alongside the area's other top high school players. Corey Pereira, Brandon Baumgarten, Corey Eddings, Andrej Bevins and Hunter Rappleye also advanced Monday at sites throughout the region.
But Johnson, 17, has something his fellow teenagers don't - perspective that comes with being unable to meaningfully swing a club for almost a year.
"My main goal is to have fun out there," he said. "That's what my injury opened my eyes to."
Some bad news
The pain started early in his sophomore year, Johnson said. It gradually increased over three months until he couldn't walk. Initial tests were inconclusive and rest was ineffective. Finally, the injury was diagnosed - a stress fracture in the facet joint in his lower back.
The remedy, a body cast from Johnson's upper chest to his lower stomach to completely immobilize the affected area for six months, was a shock. No twisting movements, no matter how slight, so nothing involving a golf club.
Not even a putter. The plastic brace could be removed only to shower.
"My jaw dropped," he said. "I was playing good golf. I was ready to make my move."
Back injuries are bad news for golfers, especially 15-year-old ones dreaming of a college scholarship. But despite the devastating development and missing his sophomore season, Johnson didn't sulk. In the one picture his family took of him wearing the brace, he's smiling broadly.
"I know it would have been more dramatic with him laying in a hospital bed with IVs and the brace," said Scott Johnson, his father. "But that's not Bryce."
But the brace worked and the joint healed. After the device was removed, Johnson needed two months of physical therapy to learn to stabilize himself again. Then he was allowed to grip a club and swing it slowly for another two months. Ten months after the brace went on, he was allowed to play a shot.
He does 30 minutes of core-strengthening exercises daily to protect the injured area. General weight training has helped transform a skinny kid into a powerful 5-foot-9, 160-pound dynamo.
"They say (the joint) can come back stronger than it was before," Johnson said.
Making up for lost time
Johnson caught the golf bug at 11 when some neighborhood buddies took him to Woodcreek's driving range. Neither of his parents played, so he went looking for a set of clubs. The only left-handed set he found belonged to a friend's grandmother.
Undeterred with a knack for the game, Johnson found his way to Tim Berg, a teaching professional at Cherry Island. Berg worked to refine Johnson's swing before the injury. They went back to work after the injury to build a swing that didn't stress Johnson's back.
"We don't let him drive his hips forward and we keep his back flat as it rotates through," Berg said. "Through that, he has developed arm speed where he can hit it really far for his size."
While Johnson bears a facial resemblance to Keegan Bradley, Berg likens his revamped swing to Adam Scott's "because he puts the club on plane and has a very good spine angle."
There were a few rough patches, as with anyone changing his swing and returning from injury, but he stuck it out and results have been good. His handicap index is +2.3. He was the MVP of the Sierra Foothill League, which includes some of the area's strongest high school golfers. The First Tee of Greater Sacramento, of which Johnson has been a part for six years, nominated him last month for a national "Achievers of the Year" award.
The injury was a setback to Johnson's goal of playing for a Division I college. But as it taught him to do, he continues to stay positive as he prepares to graduate later this month with a 4.2 grade-point average.
Chico State, a perennial national title contender at the Division II level and where Lee Gearhart, Johnson's former Woodcreek teammate and best friend, plays, offered a scholarship to the diamond in the rough.
"This might work out better," he said.
Call The Bee's Steve Pajak, (916) 326-5526.