"I was too easily satisfied when I was a young player," she says, analyzing a career that saw her finish most seasons between 20th and 50th on the money list. "Then I married Bill Shearman. He said, 'Why aren't you with the best teachers in the country? There's no reason for us to be apart, for you to travel, if you aren't trying to win.' "
At Shearman's urging, Johnson took her powerful but jerry-built swing to Dallas teaching pro Hank Haney, who told her she was inconsistent because she swayed off the ball and relied too much on perfect timing. Johnson worked with Haney for several years, and in '97 she had her breakthrough season, with two wins, a fourth-place finish on the money list and a stroke average almost two shots lower than the year before. She now takes lessons from Mike LaBauve in Phoenix—to be closer to home.
To power her swing, however, Johnson requires some exotic fuel. For a typical round she packs her golf bag with smelly dietary supplements, almond-butter sandwiches on spelt bread (a whole grain bread made from sprouted wheat) and a plastic jug of protein shake. ("We call her bag the refrigerator," says her caddie, Rob Caliolo.) The diet is not simple faddishness but Johnson's answer to a fast metabolism and protection against a variant of chronic-fatigue syndrome that sidelined her for parts of the '95 and '96 LPGA seasons. Without her fuel, she tends to wilt—as happened at the 1996 Titleholders Championship, during which she was so depleted after a round that her caddie had to drive her to her hotel.
Johnson concedes that she feels isolated because she spurns the "social foods and drinks"—the conversation lubricants like ice cream, coffee and wine. "People don't have the same feeling about you," she says, "when you only want a glass of water." It doesn't help that she requires a hotel room with a refrigerator, which often puts her in lodgings miles from the other players.
"I think I've been pigeonholed," she says—that is, typecast as a sweet but flaky loner—"but that's O.K. as long as I don't pigeonhole myself." Johnson's pro-am partners find her to be gracious and enthusiastic, and she displays an almost animal joy on the range, smiling at the long, high flight of a well-struck fairway wood or driver.
The sad irony, of course, is that it's hard for Johnson to fully enjoy the success that she is now achieving. Making the Solheim Cup team fulfills one of her career goals, but while her mother and father will be at Muirfield Village to cheer her on, her husband won't be. Tucson is now a place where love and responsibility mix in ways that can be dispiriting. "I've allowed a little self-pity to get to me this year," Johnson said before she left the practice range last Friday. "I guess I've got to be tougher."
She smiled suddenly, almost jarringly. "Here's what you need to understand," she said. "I really love to play golf."
She held her smile, and held it, and held it—the way a golfer sometimes freezes on a perfect follow-through. Behind her, spectators drifted along the fairways, pine trees cast long shadows on the greens, and a snow-capped Mount Rainier rode the horizon, providing inspiration.
On second thought, the mountain merely looked good. Chris Johnson provided the inspiration.