Golf Plus: For Tom Johnson, it’s been a rough journey back to the PGA Tour

Tom Johnson, seen playing for Del Campo High School in 1999, won the Northern California Junior Championship twice. As a collegian at Northwestern, he was ranked No. 2 in the country.
Tom Johnson, seen playing for Del Campo High School in 1999, won the Northern California Junior Championship twice. As a collegian at Northwestern, he was ranked No. 2 in the country. Sacramento Bee file

Tom Johnson hit bottom, knock on wood, 18 months ago.

He was arrested for driving under the influence. The marijuana and alcohol he was unable to will himself to stop using all his adult life was as prevalent as ever. Every relationship was strained. The family business in which he had a stake was failing. He was broke.

He was humiliated.

Almost six years removed from last striking a ball on the PGA Tour, he was closer to sleeping in a ditch than playing professional golf.

“I had nowhere to run,” Johnson says. “I look back on everything that happened to me like it was totally necessary. I needed to touch that bottom to get back up.”

Not long after, his mother had one request for her July 4, 2013, birthday: Get sober.

The time had come. Johnson admitted he needed help, then sought it. He says he has been drug- and alcohol-free since July 5, 2013.

The re-emergence

When Johnson, 33, made it into the Sony Open two weeks ago, it was his first PGA Tour start since 2007 and seemingly came out of the blue. His name would surface over the years in the tour’s annual qualifying tournament or a U.S. Open qualifier, but he didn’t fare well.

“Then it was back in my hole for another year,” he says, with only those closest to him aware of the demons he was battling.

Johnson’s performance in Hawaii, where he advanced through prequalifying and qualifying before getting some national TV time and finishing 51st, was a public announcement of sorts that after 18 sober months, his life is in order. And his golf game is competitive again.

Making the Sony cut exempted him from PGA Tour prequalifying, so he’s going to pursue qualifying for the West Coast events before focusing on the Tour. He shot a 68 Monday in Arizona to finish seventh in a field of 120, but it wasn’t good enough to get into this week’s Phoenix Open. His goal this year is to play his way onto the Tour, where the qualifying window is wider.

“In golf, you’re either all in or all out,” Johnson says. “Right now, I’m all in.”

Not surprisingly, the financial support he had when he started his pro career a decade ago has all but disappeared. He has a cousin who is footing the bill for this year for a promise of a percentage of his earnings.

Johnson was hired as assistant men’s golf coach at UC Davis in November, further legitimizing his comeback. Aggies coach Cy Williams did his due diligence before putting Johnson in a position of responsibility, talking to Pat Goss, Johnson’s college coach at Northwestern, and Jim Sochor, the former UC Davis football and golf coach Johnson has relied on for guidance.

“Both were in strong support of Tom,” Williams says. “I trust those guys 1,000 percent. They said he has his act together and would be a great hire, which he’s been.

“He loves coaching. He’s going to be a (full-time) coach at some point in his life. He’s great at it, and the guys love him.”

Ability not the issue

Johnson, born in Sacramento and raised in Fair Oaks, remembers seeing a golf course as a child for the first time. It was Poppy Hills. He was smitten.

“The fairways were mind-blowing to me, how close they could cut the grass,” he says.

He took his first lesson from legendary Tom Lopresti when he was 9. He recalls Lopresti having him hit the toe of his club into a cardboard box to offer resistance and encourage a high finish.

Johnson had no idea he was talented until he signed up for a junior tournament.

“I led after the first round and gave it away in the second,” he says. “I cried. And I wanted more.”

He started winning – first junior tournaments, then the Northern California Junior Championship twice. He played under par in all 20 of his dual matches during his senior season at Del Campo High School. He earned a scholarship to Northwestern, where he reached No. 2 in the country in 2002 behind Fresno State’s Nick Watney.

Success as a pro golfer seemed a gimme. But there were red flags, and not the kind that indicate a front hole location. Johnson was suspended from high school during his senior year for marijuana use. Experiencing yips so severe at the prestigious Northeast Amateur when he was 18 that he putted one-handed, he accepted an offer of a shot of whiskey during a rain delay “that made me feel warm and at ease,” he recalls. At Northwestern, he drank to the point of blacking out.

“When I was uncomfortable, my solution was to put things in my body,” he says.

During his third crack at the PGA Tour qualifying tournament in 2006, his anxiety through the roof and unable to eat as a result, he smoked marijuana the morning he played for the first time to settle his nerves and stimulate his appetite. After six pressure-packed rounds, he finished eighth to earn a place in golf’s big leagues for the first time in 2007.

Highs and lows

Johnson says he smoked marijuana before each of the 70-plus PGA Tour rounds he played in 2007. Others indulged on off days, he says, but he’s the only one he knows who did so on the days he played.

“I think I was the only one who thought it would enhance performance,” he says.

When he played well, he wondered if he could have played better. He vowed he wasn’t going to get high the next day, then he would. When he played poorly, he blamed his weakness.

The week of that year’s Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas, the tournament sent private jets to New Orleans to pick up players facing weather delays on commercial airlines. Johnson was given a new Cadillac to use for the week, which he drove to his complimentary luxurious accommodations.

He was living a lifestyle of the rich and famous. But looking out the window of his suite, he felt lonely and empty. He thought about his family, whether he could ever own and care for a dog, what his future relationships would look like living out of a suitcase.

“I have everything going for me,” he recalls thinking. “I’m supposed to feel like I’m living the dream, but I don’t. What’s wrong with me?”

Johnson had one top-25 finish and finished 196th on the money list, losing his exempt status.

He returned to what was then known as the Nationwide Tour and had three top-10 finishes in 2008, but he still finished outside the top 60 earners and lost his Nationwide status. He played seven Nationwide events in 2009 with little success. His game had leveled off, he says. His desire had diminished. He wasn’t feeling fulfilled.

“All I was was Tom the golfer,” he says. “I didn’t want to just be that anymore. My happiness hinged solely on how well I played. I started to think what time off would feel like.”

His dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Drug testing had come to the PGA Tour in 2008, and although Johnson had yet to be randomly tested, he knew from myriad failed attempts that he couldn’t stop using and a positive test was a matter of time.

So Johnson retreated to Weaverville, where his family had purchased a restaurant. He pushed golf to the back burner.

He covered sports for the Trinity Journal, the region’s weekly newspaper, proud when his family saw his byline. He was a substitute teacher. He coached high school baseball and golf, deriving great satisfaction from helping others. He played recreational softball, something he wouldn’t have done previously because of the fear an injury would affect his golf game.

While he might have seemed about as far from the PGA Tour as a player could get, Johnson didn’t see it that way. It was all part of his evolution.

“The secret to golf is in all of the details,” he says. “I consider all that stuff the details. I had to do a lot of things to get the perspective I needed.”

In a good place

Months into recovery, Johnson wrote to Sochor. He had been enamored of UC Davis football while attending games as a child and always looked up to the respected coach. Sochor agreed to meet.

They get together whenever Johnson has a need and for as long as it takes. Sochor, now a life coach, says he tries to empower Johnson to let go of angst and find inner calm.

“He’s a very deep thinker,” Sochor says of Johnson. “The trials and tribulations he’s had have allowed him to open up to people, to realize that everybody is vulnerable.”

Johnson says he was uncomfortable watching PGA Tour star Dustin Johnson give evasive answers last week to questions about his reported drug use.

“It’s a shame people can’t say, ‘This is who I am, but it’s not who I want to be,’ ” he says. “Honesty is freedom.”

When Johnson weighed whether a return to competitive golf was in his family’s best interest late last year, Sochor counseled that nothing makes parents happier than seeing their children pursue their dreams. Sochor also helped him realize golf doesn’t have to be a selfish endeavor, that something as simple as giving a ball to a young fan can make a positive difference.

In October, Johnson rented a place in the middle of an almond orchard in Arbuckle and got a yellow Labrador retriever he named Daisy. He’s committed to a return to pro golf, but keeping a healthy balance in which his self-worth isn’t tied to the flight of a little white ball.

“I felt like I was where I was supposed to be,” he said of the Sony Open. “My performance wasn’t tainted by anything. The belief in myself got validated. It was more satisfying than ever before.”

Johnson doesn’t know what the future holds, but he plans to take it a day at a time.

One thing he knows for sure: “I’m certain that I don’t ever want to go back to that way of life.”

Call The Bee’s Steve Pajak, (916) 326-5526.


Age: 33

Height/weight: 6-foot-2, 180 pounds

Born: Sacramento

Raised: Fair Oaks

Lives: Arbuckle

High school: Del Campo

College: Northwestern, degree in communications

Job: Assistant men’s golf coach at UC Davis

Turned pro: 2004

PGA Tour: 27 events in 2007, one in 2015; career earnings of $203,893 Tour: 72 events 2004-09; career earnings of $214,409