A Wildcat For Life
April 12, 2004
When attempting to find the right college for him four years ago, Tom Johnson wanted to play golf at a school where he knew he could get beat.
That motivation may shock some, but the last thing Johnson wanted to be was a "big fish in a small pond."
At first, Northwestern wasn't even on the map for Johnson. The Sacramento, Calif., native had his dreams set on playing at Stanford, but it wasn't until he played in the 1998 U.S. Amateur did his mind begin to change.
During the prestigious tournament played at Oak Hill, former Northwestern golfer Eric Gleacher knew he saw talent when he saw Johnson. Gleacher was one of the officials assigned to Johnson's match. The young 17-year-old had a swing that would leave a coach in awe, and a mental game that would leave one without words.
The two chatted briefly about college during the match, but Johnson had his mind almost completely set on playing for the Cardinal. But there was something about Johnson that sparked the interest of Gleacher.
After the tournament, Gleacher contacted current NU head coach Pat Goss and told him about an unbelievable talent he just discovered. Little did Goss know he already had the perfect recruiting tool in place to snatch Johnson - a better player.
Luke Donald was one of the premier collegiate golfers in the nation and was just what Johnson was looking for.
"Luke was a huge recruiting tool for me," Johnson says. "I knew he was the real deal. He was a great player and beat my butt everyday. Coach Goss is also one of the best teachers and coaches in the nation, not to mention a great person. He's first class."
Donald would up finishing his career at Northwestern in 2001 as a four-time All-American, three-time Big Ten Player of the Year, two-time Big Ten Champion and 13-time tournament medalist. Just a year after turning professional, Donald won the 2002 Southern Farm Bureau Classic and is 26th on the PGA Tour money list this year. He placed second this year at the Buick Invitational, after falling in a playoff to John Daly.
"Personally, I know I get better when I play with people better than me," Johnson says. "Some like to go to college and be a big fish in a small pond, but I'm not that way. I knew that if I could play with (Luke) everyday, he would help make me a good golfer."
And he did.
Johnson currently holds the second-lowest career stroke average (72.62) in school history, behind Donald's amazing 70.95.
"Luke's career-stroke average is unbelievable," Johnson says. "People don't understand just how good that really is. Being two strokes behind makes me extremely proud. There have been several other good players to play at Northwestern. To be among them is amazing."
One can even tell the joy in Johnson's tone when he recalls the "few" times he beat Donald on the links.
"After he beat me a number of times, I got him back in a few rounds," he says. "I was on cloud nine. I got him the last couple of tournaments in the fall and my stroke average was barely lower. He was forced to sit on that the whole winter. I used my trash-talking privileges for awhile, but I don't think I beat him once in the spring."
Johnson is proud of being a part of a group that is establishing a tradition at Northwestern. Prior to the late-1990s, Northwestern struggled in the Big Ten for more than 50 years.
The Wildcats won the 1948 Big Ten Championship, but was winless in the Conference tournament until 1999. From 1967 to 1983, Northwestern finished last in the league every year with the exception of the 1976 season when NU didn't even field a team.
But 1999 proved to be the turning point for the Wildcats, as Goss and NU began the road to three straight Big Ten titles, and set the two lowest four-round Championship totals of 1,131 (1999) and 1,132 (2001) as well. The Wildcats also registered top-10 finishes at NCAAs along the way.
Playing his first year of collegiate golf in 2001, Johnson earned Ping All-America honorable mention honors, and finished second on the team with a stroke average of 72.62 - the second best average for a freshman (behind Donald) in school history.
Last year, Johnson won his first collegiate event by shooting a tournament-record 10-under-par 206 at Northwestern's Windon Memorial Classic. He posted a tournament-record 66 in the final round to win the event by four strokes and help the Wildcats capture the team title. Johnson then went on to finish second at the Big Ten Championships with a 7-under 277, earning All-Big Ten Championship and first-team All-Big Ten honors in the process.
Just recently, Johnson finished third at the Boilermaker Invitational, marking his fourth top-five finish of the year. He carded a pair of 69s to lead the tournament after the first two rounds, and finished 4-under for the tournament.
"It's definitely a tradition here now," Johnson says. "We are very privileged to have what we have now. So many players before me didn't have the budget and the Gleacher Center."
The Gleacher Center is one of the top indoor training golf facilities in the nation and was named after the man who essentially recruited Johnson to Northwestern. Gleacher donated over six million dollars to have the facility built.
"All of the players throughout our history really paved the way for players like Luke, Jess Daley (2000 All-American) and myself to come in and benefit," Johnson says. "People think Northwestern is too small, too academic, and too cold. They're forced to think twice when we put up the low scores. Whenever you have good players at the school, it obviously makes recruits want to come."
Johnson also notes that it helps to have a great coach such as Goss. He talks adamantly about the man who is the "perfect mix" between a coach and a friend. There is never any doubt on the team when it is time to work and when it is time to play. Johnson says that when the team is on the course, Goss is the coach and teacher, but off the course, he is just one of the guys.
"We drive and fly for hours on end during road trips and the last thing you want is an old grumpy man," he says. "Coach isn't. He's young, great, and just the perfect mix. Actually, Luke and him are probably best friends. That's pretty neat."
Johnson, a communications major who will finish his two final classes in the summer and look to earn his Tour card next fall, says the team is always reminded by Goss of the "Indomitable Will". In Johnson's words, it's Goss' way of saying "you have to have the heart and desire to be successful in each and every goal or task set forth."
Goss has also been quoted as saying that Johnson is "as talented a player we've had at Northwestern." To him, Johnson takes the compliment to heart knowing that Donald and Daley are among that company. It humbles and flatters him. When asked where he thinks he stands among the greats of Northwestern men's golf program, Johnson is reluctant to answer, simply because there is still work left unfinished.
"Right now I think it's just flattering," he says. "Once I move on, it will be more special to me. No matter how the rest of my senior season works out, I just continue to be more and more proud of where I am today. I feel like I'm starting to bleed a little bit more purple each day."