Female athlete of year: Johnson back on right track

Johnson back on right track

Malinda Johnson wasn't sure what to expect in her return to competitive golf.

And while she's happy with the year as a whole, she can't help but think back to her last competitive round and wonder "What if?"

Johnson, who had a standout career at Eau Claire Memorial and the University of Wisconsin, shot a poor score and missed the cut for the final round of a 90-hole qualifying tournament for the LPGA earlier this month.

But the year was far from a failure. Johnson, who took a two-year absence after shoulder surgery, won her third Wisconsin Women's State Open, competed in 16 Futures Tour events and nearly earned an LPGA card.

That made her the pick for the Leader-Telegram's female athlete of the year.

Johnson, who also won the award in 2002 and 2004, is the first three-time winner since the award's inception in 1983.

"I've really improved throughout the year," Johnson said. "I'm happy with where it all came out. Of course, I'd be a lot happier if I made the LPGA Tour. But I was happy to give myself the opportunity and worked really hard to get there."

Johnson earned an LPGA Tour card in 2005 but injured her shoulder and had surgery in 2006. During her break from competitive golf, she took a job at The Legend at Brandybrook in Wales and worked with younger golfers.

After winning the 2008 Women's State Open, Johnson gave golf a second shot. In the fall she qualified for the 2009 Futures Tour.

Johnson said she was a different golfer than before her injury.

"I'm much more mature," Johnson said. "Less hot-headed. Able to handle disappointment better. If I have a bad hole or a bad shot, I don't let it upset me."

She made eight cuts at 15 Futures Tour events and earned $5,232, getting better as the year progressed. She finished tied for 18th at the Texas Hill Country Classic in May and tied for 20th at the I Love NY Championship in September.

She also repeated as the Women's State Open champion, beating one of her students in a playoff at Whispering Springs Golf Club in Fond du Lac.

"There was more pressure (to win this year than in 2008) because I was playing more," she said. "The first round I played like absolute crap. I don't know what happened."

Johnson said she switched clubs the night before the last round and fired a 3-under-par 69 to tie Jacyln Shepherd, a University of Minnesota recruit who considered Johnson her mentor.

Johnson then won the playoff on the first hole.

"It was kind of weird standing on the first tee with her," Johnson said. "But it was kind of cool too. I'd been working with her for two years, and to see her get to that level was just great."

Likewise, Johnson started crawling back toward the level she was at before her shoulder injury. A return to the LPGA Tour became a possibility.

Johnson was in position to earn some playing privileges on the LPGA Tour after the first three days of the final state meet of Qualifying School. She was tied for 21st after shooting a 68 in the third round, but shot an 81 in the fourth round and missed the cut for the fifth and final round by two strokes.

"It was just a bunch of little things," Johnson said. "My front nine I had 20 putts; that's awful. That's more than two putts per hole.

"My game just left me; I don't know what to say. It was just one of those things where I couldn't keep it together.

The top 20 players earned full exempt status, while the next 10 earn partial exempt status and the following 10 earn conditionally exempt status. Johnson will return to the Futures Tour as a non-exempt player in 2010. If she finishes in the top five on the Futures Tour, she earns a LPGA Tour card for the following season.

In all, 2009 was a step toward a future in professional golf for Johnson, who knows she's close to getting back to the LPGA Tour.

"I had a little taste of that taste when I had the 68," Johnson said. "I really felt fired up. I think that it made me realize that I can do this again.

"I really think I can get back to that level at some point."

ALSO NOMINATED

Katie Bethke,  Minnesota soccer: Led the Gophers in goals (11), assists (7) and points (29). Had three game-winning goals.

Liz Kooistra, UW-Eau Claire track: Named the WIAC woman of the year and won the  national title in the 400-meter dash. Also finished fourth in the 200.

Mary Theisen, Regis track: Won a Division 3 state championship in the shot put and was an inch short from gold in the  discus. Ended her career with three state  championships, two  second-place finishes and a third.

Heidi Arciszewski, UW-Eau Claire basketball:  Averaged 14.4 points and 6.3 rebounds to earn first-team all-conference honors.

Honorable mention: Sam Price, North  basketball;  Brittany  Gregorich, Altoona  basketball.

PREVIOUS WINNERS

2008 - Michelle Burns (basketball). 2007 - Katie Bethke (soccer). 2006 -  Mallory McKinney (softball). 2005 - Maggie Loney (golf). 2004 - Malinda Johnson (golf). 2003 - Chandra Johnson (basketball). 2002 - Malinda Johnson (golf). 2001 - Vanessa Schley (basketball). 2000 - Sis Paulsen (hockey).

1999 - Jayme Anderson (basketball). 1998 - Tanya Bauer (basketball). 1997 - Erika Schmidt (basketball). 1996 - Kris Ihle (running). 1995 - Arlene Meinholz ( basketball). 1994 - (tie) Katrina Hannaford (basketball), Kristina Betzold (cross country). 1993 - Katrina Hannaford (basketball). 1992 - Trina Thames (swimming). 1991 - Trina Thames (swimming). 1990 - Sara Ryder (diving).

1989 - Sue Christiansen (basketball). 1988 - Debby Bestul (horseshoes). 1987 - Karen Schoenrock (running). 1986 - Ellen Holterman (diving). 1985 - Katie  Somers (track and field). 1984 - Karen Schoenrock (running). 1983 - Carolyn Scheild (track and field).