Johnson Enjoying Brief Stint as a Pro

Friday, December 8th 2006, 6:27 am
By: News On 6

ST. JAMES, Barbados (AP) _ James Johnson spent years planning and training to become a professional golfer. On Thursday, he played as a true pro for the first time. On Sunday, he'll play as a pro for the last time.

Johnson's tale is one of the most unusual at this year's World Cup. A native of Barbados who went to college in the United States but never actually turned pro _ ``I don't feel like I'm good enough, basically,'' he said _ Johnson qualified to represent the tiny host nation at this week's World Golf Championships event.

But to play in the World Cup, he had to give up his amateur status, something he didn't want to do. So he contacted the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, which oversees the rules of golf outside the U.S., and asked something they'd never heard before: Could he turn pro to play World Cup, give his winnings away and immediately become an amateur again?

The answer was yes, and Johnson got his chance to represent Barbados this week. He and Roger Beale Jr. shot a 2-under 69 Thursday in the opening round, five strokes behind leaders South Africa, Argentina and Sweden.

``All in all, the score wasn't real low, but we're ahead of some teams and happy with how we played and we hit some good shots,'' Johnson said. ``So we're going to try hard for the next three days.''

Argentina, South Africa and Sweden all shared the lead at 7-under after the first round, with Germany and defending champion Wales both one shot back. The United States' team of Stewart Cink and J.J. Henry was another stroke off the pace, along with England and South Korea.

In all, 15 teams, or nearly two-thirds of the field, finished within four shots of the lead in Thursday's fourball format.

The 24 nations will play foursomes Friday and Sunday, with another fourball round Saturday.

Johnson left Barbados as a 10-year-old for boarding school in England, then headed to the U.S. five years later for prep school at Hilton Head, S.C. From there, he wound up enrolling at East Tennessee State, playing in the NCAA Division I tournament twice as a student there.

Along the way, he realized that his odds of making it as a professional were simply too long for his liking.

``So I had a choice,'' Johnson said. ``Do I bang my head against the wall trying to play the tour, or do I come back to Barbados and enjoy my life here?''

Easy choice.

He put his degree in advertising marketing to use and joined the family business; they own restaurants and operate some slot machines on the island. And when Johnson has time, he plays in amateur competitions, mainly on Barbados. Plus, he played in three events on the Hooters Tour this past year.

None of those events, obviously, compared to the thrill he and Beale _ who's based in Canada and still is trying to make it as a pro _ felt Thursday while representing their country.

``This event for Barbados is huge, huge for Barbados golf,'' Johnson said. ``We've been trying to promote Barbados through it for the last month or so, couple of months. It's a big deal.''

Johnson is guaranteed a prize of at least $20,000 for his efforts this week _ which, because he can't accept the money and reclaim his amateur status, he'll give to the Barbados Golf Association.

But he will take away at least one memory to keep.

It came on the 10th hole Thursday, when he was 60 feet from the cup and eyeing a long birdie try in rainy, windy conditions _ and with about 200 fellow Barbadians following he and Beale around.

The putt somehow found its way into the hole, and a loud roar went up _ which Johnson said was the biggest thrill of his golf career.

``I played in some big NCAA events,'' Johnson said. ``But I think the fact that we know so many of the people there and we're representing Barbados in Barbados in the World Cup is just so unique.''