Few know Chris Johnson, and even fewer know her well. At 40, Johnson has won nine LPGA events in 19 seasons, including one major title, last year's LPGA Championship. This week she will get a small dose of attention as the oldest rookie on the U.S. Solheim Cup team, when the American women defend the Cup against the women pros of Europe in Dublin, Ohio. She is tall, slender and plays golf with her brown hair tied in a knot a sailor couldn't loosen. "She's quiet and sweet," says tour veteran Michelle McGann, "but she's a very private person."
When Johnson is written about, which is seldom, reporters focus on her allergy to turfgrass (highly exaggerated, Johnson says), her accounting degree from Arizona and her unusual practice of wolfing down almond-butter sandwiches and moss-colored pills during a round. So it was unusual when Johnson, at last week's Safeco Classic in Kent, Wash., permitted a question or two on the mystery of her domestic life—a subject of rumor for years on the LPGA tour. She probably thought the venue odd for personal revelation: a sun-washed stretch of practice range at Meridian Valley Country Club. She stood smiling by a gallery rope, a visor shadowing her green eyes. Birds chirped, pennants flapped and a fountain splashed in a bordering pond. But then sunshine and golf, as she tried to make clear, help sustain her in difficult times.
"I don't want people giving me that sympathy look," she said, and then demonstrated the look: eyebrows wrinkled with concern, mouth pooched out, sad puppy eyes. It was a comical exaggeration, but the underlying point was clear. Johnson dreads a future in which well-meaning fans stop her between green and tee to say, "I'm so sorry about your husband."
But here's the curious part. She stopped short of revealing exactly why those fans might look on her with sympathy.
Johnson doesn't mean to be mysterious. She's no Garbo. Ask her why she doesn't have a higher profile and she offers a litany of reasons. "I don't have a manager who bugs people to write about me," she says, a hint of mischief in her eyes. "I'm not real flashy. I've never gone head-to-head with the best players in the game, and maybe I don't shake the right hands."
Her answer is surprising, since it is widely assumed that she's a cipher by choice. Can this quiet, secretive woman be envious of players who get more ink and camera time? "Every now and then I get a twinge," she admits, "but I don't let it get to me. Working hard, shooting low scores, winning tournaments—that's how you get noticed." Grinning, she notes that the most attention she ever received came one year at the JCPenney Classic, when the cameras caught her walking backward between shots to relieve pressure on a sore knee.
If only heartache could be so easily assuaged. In 1990 Johnson married for the second time, taking as her husband an honest-to-goodness rodeo cowboy and horse trader named Bill Shearman. Her new mate turned up regularly at LPGA events, serving as Johnson's manager and as her biggest booster. "He's the Marlboro Man," says an acquaintance in Tucson, where Johnson and Shearman live with two rottweilers in a house at the end of a gravel road. "He's a true-blooded Texan," says Chris's father, Bob Johnson, a retired forest-products company manager from Areata, Calif.
But then, several years ago, Shearman vanished from public view—suddenly and with no explanation from Johnson. The story took root among the tour players that her husband had unspecified health problems and required around-the-clock nursing. A Johnson family friend adds these details: That Shearman's injury was horse-related; that he has shown some improvement over the years; and that his treatment has absorbed much of Johnson's time and energy, to the point that she has had to withdraw from tournaments to return home. "The way she played last year, with that distraction, is simply amazing," the friend says.
Last week Johnson put to rest some, but not all, of the speculation. She said her husband's disability is not directly connected to his rodeo life, and "to see him, you wouldn't know anything is wrong." Further details, she quiedy added, will not be forthcoming. "I love him a lot, and because of that we've kept our personal lives private."
Which is not to say that she doesn't speak of her husband. Asked how she likes to relax, Johnson replies, "Riding a gentle horse, one that Bill thinks is safe for me," or, "We like to go trout fishing out in the middle of nowhere." Shearman remains her manager of record, and when reporters ask why her game has improved in recent years, she answers reflexively: Bill.