Johnson Wagner is Ready

Johnson Wagner
Karen Kuehn

Johnson Wagner was a Nationwide Tour cliche when he started the 2005 season: He oozed talent but lacked seasoning. Over his first two years he'd made 28 cuts, with an unremarkable five top-10s, in 50 starts. Once, upon finding himself in the lead and live on The Golf Channel, he panicked and played himself out of contention over the weekend. He knew the value of a good caddie — he'd looped for three summers at Hudson National in Westchester County, N.Y. — but for the sake of comfort he'd initially used his older brother T.J. on the bag. When T.J. went back to his day job, Wagner upgraded to a career caddie, a fatherly Englishman named Tim Pressman who was so pierced full of holes he went by the nickname "Rings." It was a start.

  Steve Hale hadn't caddied since he left the PGA Tour in 1992. He'd gone home to Denver to work in golf retail, then for Charles Schwab, and finally on an Internet venture that ended badly. It was January 2005 when Hale wrote a letter to Nationwide player and neighbor Shane Bertsch, stuck it to his door down the street and hoped. Bertsch called an hour later with a one-week offer, and the next day the two were on a plane bound for the BellSouth Panama Championship. Hale is a big believer in fate, and why not? Not only did Bertsch tie for second, he also played a practice round with Wagner, the man who would bring Hale back to the Show a dozen years after he left.

  "From the very first time I saw Johnson there was a crispness to every single shot," says Hale, 41. "He just hit the ball solid. Nearly every single shot sounded so pure. The ball striking was heads and tails from what you saw from other people, especially on that tour."

  If Wagner could ever chip and putt as well as he hit full shots, Hale thought, the kid would be more than dangerous. Not wanting to step on any toes, Hale bided his time, lugging clubs for former U.S. Public Links champion Brandt Snedeker and then a New Zealander named Steve Alker. In late June, Rings had to return to England to attend a wedding, which left an opening on Wagner's bag at the Northeast Pennsylvania Classic in Scranton. Alker was off that week, so Hale was free to jump when he got the call. Wagner fired an opening 66, and a partnership was born.

  File this one alongside Hepburn and Tracy, and Hope and Crosby. The relationship between Wagner and Hale sounds like a love story because it is one. Hale was completely deflated after his Internet implosion. "I was sitting around on my ass feeling sorry for myself," he says. Wagner, a Virginia Tech graduate, was spinning his FootJoys, even though his ability was beyond question, a big kid (6' 3, 230 lbs.) whose physical skills had always amazed. When Wagner played dodgeball at James I. O'Neill High School in the Hudson Valley town of Highland Falls, N.Y., his gym teacher worried he might decapitate the other kids.

  "I coached the baseball team, and he threw harder than anyone I had ever seen," teacher Skip Feinberg says. "I told him, 'Pitch for me. You don't even have to come to practice.'" (Johnson politely declined.)

  And yet Wagner wasn't winning on the Nationwide Tour, and remained known only in New York as the first player in the 105-year history of the Metropolitan Golf Association to hold the Ike (the MGA's premier stroke-play amateur), Met Amateur and Met Open titles at the same time — the Wagner Slam. He qualified for the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., but missed the cut.

  It wasn't until he clicked with Hale, in his fourth season on the Nationwide in 2006, that Wagner notched his first victory, and then his second. He made more eagles (18) and birdies (418) than any of his counterparts, is second on the money list ($356,319, behind Ken Duke) and missed just three cuts in 25 events, earning him not only a PGA Tour card for 2007, but also the distinction of being the big tour's most-hyped rookie.

  "I'm more consistent," Wagner says after his first round in the Albertsons Boise Open. "Like today. I didn't have it today and made a lot of two-putts and scrambled around and shot 2-under. Two years ago I would have shot 3- or 4-over. The biggest difference in my game is I have a caddie who's the best. He won't ever let me have bad thoughts. He's also a slave driver."

  Says Hale, "All I've ever wanted him to do is chip and putt."

  Wagner has, and his practice has paid off: he went from 85th in putting in 2005 to 43rd last year.

  In Hale, Wagner saw a slightly quirky, cola-guzzling numbers guy who knew the value of a good yardage. Hale is known for his meticulous mapping of courses, right down to the best places to hide sodas to drink along the way, hence his nickname on the circuit: Pepsi. He walks courses after dinner to glean what he can in the gloaming, and is schooled in the art of player psychology, having worked the PGA Tour from 1989 through 1992.

In Wagner, Hale saw a polite kid who looked you in the eye when he shook your hand. And he saw the game. Johnson's swing is a study in pretty, powerful strikes that recalls Chad Campbell — although Wagner may be a better putter. "It's the kind of swing everybody wants to have," says his coach, Bobby Heins, of Old Oaks Country Club in Purchase, N.Y. "It's like pornography: it's hard to put it into words but you know it when you see it."

  Still, it wasn't until the Chitimacha Louisiana Open late last March that Wagner found his game for 72 straight holes, shooting four rounds in the 60s to nab his first "W." Four months later, with no trace of nerves, he shot an 8-under 63 in the final round to win the Cox Classic in Omaha, Neb. "I didn't even notice the cameras," Wagner says, "and if I did I was enjoying it. Like, 'Hey, I'm on TV, and my family gets to see me play golf!'"

  As he did on the Nationwide, Wagner, 26, will travel the PGA Tour in a 36-foot Winnebago, which he shares with his new wife, Katie, a former Virginia Tech soccer player. (The two also own a townhouse in Charlotte, N.C.)

  It's hard to predict how Wagner will fare at the next level because Shinnecock remains his only foray into the big leagues. What's more, his results at every level — he didn't win in college until his senior year — suggest a slow start. Hale has been studying the Tour schedule and professes delight that "there are only a half dozen new courses" from 15 years ago. He's thrilled to be working again, and was so lit up after his 2005 trip to Panama that upon his return his wife's first words were, "What happened to you?"

  To work for Wagner is better still. The bag-toter knows who's hitting the shots, and that he could get the hook at any time, but he's determined to stop and drink the pop along the verdant fairways of golf's Shangri-la.

  "Caddying is so different from when I was out here before," Hale says. "I was in my 20s, still chasing skirts. When I came back it was all about the job, and it was so easy to do the right thing. Johnson can be a world-beater. I just hope I'm lucky enough to be there."

 

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