COLUMBIA- Chris Johnson arrived a few minutes late to golf practice last Wednesday. Missouri coach Mark Leroux was not irritated and demanded no explanation. Johnson gave him one anyway.
“I was talking to a teacher,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to get that 4.0, Coach.”
Leroux is more than happy with that excuse. He remembers a time when Johnson carried himself in a different, less mature way, both on and off the course.
Johnson’s grades are only one way in which the sophomore’s growth at MU is evident. Leroux classified Johnson’s GPA in his first semester at school as “dismal." Last semester, he earned better than a 3.0.
Johnson and Leroux’s relationship began when Johnson was a 16-year-old working at AL Gustin Golf Course, which at the time was the Missouri golf team’s home course.
“I would see him on a daily basis,” Leroux said. “Jim Knoesel (the head golf pro at Gustin) was always pointing out Chris’s attitude. The consensus was he was a gutsy kid.”
At the time, gutsy wasn’t enough for Leroux. He said the Hickman player's results were only marginal for a prospect. And too often, Johnson’s intensity on the course turned into anger. That anger then turned into bad results on the course.
That attitude was illustrated as Leroux recalled Johnson’s performance in the 2006 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in Sante Fe, Calif. Johnson played well in the first round, finishing near the top of the leader board. Then he made a few bad shots to start the back nine of the second round. Johnson turned into the perfect picture of a defeated athlete — head down, shoulders slumped, round and tournament ruined.
But Johnson was not about to let Leroux’s doubt stop him from becoming a Tiger. Growing up in Columbia, most of his friends and family wanted to see him compete for MU. He worked hard in his last couple years of high school, developing his skill and attitude.
“Initially he (Leroux) didn’t think I had what it took,” Johnson said. “That motivated me and I ended up here.”
When he arrived on campus, Johnson knew he had to change. While acknowledging golf doesn’t carry the weight of football or basketball, he knows there are golf loyalists paying attention to how the golfers perform and how they carry themselves.
“Today he’s more willing to lead by example,” Leroux said. “When he was younger he tried to be a tough guy who was self-centered.”
Johnson’s toughness and killer instinct still exist. Gone is his 16-year-old macho-man walk. Gone is the golfer who let one bad hole ruin a tournament. Leroux contrasted what he saw in 2006 with this past year’s city championship. Johnson had the lead in the last round when he triple-bogeyed a hole. In the past it would have set him over the edge. Instead, he calmly stepped up to the next tee-box and hit a perfect drive. Johnson ended up winning that tournament.
As he has grown, so has his role with Missouri. Johnson redshirted his first year, competed in a couple tournaments last season and has been a consistent starter in the fall of 2009.
It has been special for Leroux to see Johnson develop over the past five years. The coach has been able to see a kid from Columbia, improve and blossom right in front of him.
“It’s great to have a Columbia kid,” Leroux said. “I’ve seen him become a young man rather than a teenage kid.”
Their relationship extends beyond reading greens and long tee-shots. Leroux said the most rewarding aspect of their time together have been the intimate times where they talk about issues other than golf.
“He went from being my coach to now he’s my friend,” Johnson said. “Anything he asks me to do I try to do to the best of my ability.”