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Johnson thrilled by return to roots

Monday qualifier learned the game in Tampa and found his greatest thrill at the TPC.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


LUTZ -- Doug Johnson's car broke down in Tampa on the way to the Verizon Classic, the second Senior PGA tournament of his career.

Okay, technically not on the way. It broke down in 1972, when he was driving from Green Bay to Florida after he'd decided to play golf for a living.

"Tampa's where I learned to play, at USF," Johnson said. "I hit balls at the Pit. Anyone that ever played at USF knows where that sand pit is, where we used to hit balls on our own."

If you haven't played there, it's on Fletcher Avenue, across from South Florida's course, nicknamed the Claw. "I played the Claw 1,000 times, 10,000 times."

Early preparation for this weekend. He qualified Monday. His two-round 3-under-par 139 at TPC of Tampa Bay has Johnson teeing off today in the threesome three groups (and three strokes) behind leader Hale Irwin.

"I feel like I played 36 holes; that's how hard I had to think," he said Saturday after his 4-under 67.

"I played a senior event at Michigan last year." He tied for 24th at 1-under 215, worth $6,930, two weeks after he turned 50. "I said that was the best fun I ever had, but this is 10 times that. I almost won in 1980 at the (PGA's) B.C. Open, and that didn't even begin to compare to this round."

Johnson attended his first tournament as a marshal, watched Jim Colbert win the 1972 Milwaukee Open, and was hooked. He learned his craft at USF, then at Saddlebrook in Wesley Chapel.

"When I was 23, 24, I said I'd be on the PGA Tour in five years," he said. "I made it in seven. I've been preparing for the senior tour for about 30 years.

"That's what I was thinking when I was walking off (the course Saturday). I was thinking, "This is what you work for; this is what you practice for.' And now I'm old enough to appreciate the whole thing. When I was on the PGA Tour it was a lot more intense. I'm old enough now to where it's not a matter of life and death."

He has spent what must feel like half his life qualifying for tournaments. He'll be at it again Monday. "We've got to get out here (today), then I've got to get on a plane (tonight)" to qualify for the Mexico Senior Classic. It'll be like that for 30-something tournaments. "The frustration is unbelievably bad," Johnson. said "There's 144 guys for four spots every week."

Then he'll go back to qualifying school for next year's senior tour. "I missed (earning an exemption this year) by a shot. It was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me. The mere numbers tell you you're not going to get in 'cause there's only eight spots.

"But I think it helped me coming down the stretch, helped me hit a smart shot on the 18th hole. At the tour school I went for the flag that was as tight (close to the edge of the green) as this one and it cost me a year of my life."

Johnson played the PGA Tour from 1980-90. "I'd lose my card and get it back, lose my card and get it back. I never had exemption status," he said. When he lost his card in 1987, he played the Hogan and Nike tours, then spent 10 years at Baseline Golf Course in Ocala.

He couldn't get enough of the atmosphere Saturday. When he walked off No. 18 he received shouts of congratulations and encouragement from small knots of fans who constituted his rooting section. "Tampa was my home," he said. "To come back only about 8-9 miles from where I learned to play, it's really a thrill."

He signed every visor, program and ball held out to him and said thank you just about every time.

"Without these people ... " he began. "I was them. I remember that. I hope I can give them something to look at again. They don't come out to watch the Doug Johnsons."

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