by Jim Hight

Arcata native Chris Johnson has played golf since she was a 5-year-old struggling to keep up with her older siblings at Baywood Golf & Country Club.

Today she's almost 40 and having her best year ever, winning the prestigious Ladies Professional Golf Association Championship in May, and garnering earnings this year of more than half a million dollars. She regularly earns $200,000-$300,000 per year.

The Journal interviewed Johnson by phone last month from Sunningdale, England, where she placed ninth in the Women's British Open.

Recalling her childhood, Johnson said her passion for golf emerged in part because it was more accessible to her than other sports. "I liked baseball and everything else (but) when I was coming up girls didn't play Little League. We could play certain sports in high school, but I could play golf all the time."

With the passage of Title IX equal rights legislation in 1973, Johnson joined the Arcata High School boys' golf team in her sophomore year. In 1975 she won the Northern California Junior Girls Championship. After graduating from high school in 1976, she entered University of Arizona in Tucson, where she has lived since.

An outstanding player at University of Arizona, she joined the LPGA tour in July 1980. To qualify for the LPGA tour, she played in a tournament against other would-be professionals. "In my year, 109 golfers teed up, and 13 earned cards that week. I was one of the 13."

Her first tournament win "occurred in Phoenix in 1984, and it was followed up with a win in Tucson the next week. I'd been on the tour a while by then, and it was good to win, especially so close to home."

Since then her LPGA rankings have ranged from 61st place to her current eighth place among today's 360 touring members.

Johnson said her game took a big stride forward about six years ago when she began working on revamping her swing with the help of golf pro Mike LaBauve. "I felt like I could either play the tour and have some success or I could improve my swing and play better, play longer, with less frustration. That's what happened."

Johnson is married to Bill Shearman. They have no children, but she still finds long absences from her home and husband tiresome. "I've probably played over 30 events this year.... I've been out of the country a little more than usual this year. Those are always hard trips."

She comes back to Arcata once a year for the Chris Johnson Tournament, a benefit held at Baywood to raise funds for the Humboldt County Junior Golf Fund.

This year's event is Sept. 8. There's a free exhibition at 11 a.m. and a shotgun tournament at noon. The entry fee is $50 to $75, and advance sign-up is required.

"(The funds raised) help kids go down to tournaments in other areas, and it sends some kids to golf camp," said Johnson.

Tim Crowley Jr. & Chris JohnsonChris Johnson with Tim Crowley Jr.

Johnson said she's noticed with satisfaction that more teens and children are picking up golf clubs, but she still wishes "there were more girls that played.... I think (junior golfer clinics) are only running at about 10 percent females. I don't know exactly why.

"Perhaps it's a generational thing. More men have played golf, fathers take their sons out, (but most girls) don't see their mothers doing it." And that lack of popularity among girls makes it an exceptional challenge to those girls who are interested. "If a girl doesn't have friends who are interested in golf then she may not keep it up.

"If you have a buddy that will go golfing with you that's great, but sometimes you have to be willing to go it alone."

Experiences, costs, courses.

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