PLAYER OF THE YEAR: North Muskegon’s Aya Johnson Makes Memorable Return From Injury
FARMINGTON HILLS – Aya Johnson’s return to golf following back surgery came full circle when she won the 2017 Michigan Women’s Amateur Championship at Saginaw Country Club.
That win also propelled the North Muskegon golfer to being named the 2017 Golf Association of Michigan Women’s Player of the Year today, Ken Hartmann, senior director of rules and competitions for the GAM announced.
GAM Honor Roll points, earned via performance in GAM, USGA and other sanctioned golf tournaments, and are used to determine the Players of the Year among men, women and senior/junior age group tournament golfers. Tom Werkmeister of Grandville was previously announced as the Men’s Player of the Year. The remaining Players of the Year will be announced in the next few weeks.
Aya Johnson, 22 and a senior on the University of Wisconsin golf team, also qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur as a sectional medalist in her first full summer of golf after two years of back issues.
“Looking back on the last two years; at one point I was wondering if I was ever going to be able to live without shooting pain through the lower half of my body,” she said. “It means a lot that I was able to play again, and then play consistently well, have a great summer and then play well in the fall for my team. It showed my resilience, and it showed the hard work I have put in for several years. It was exciting that everything kind of turned around.”
Aya Johnson scored 525 Honor Roll points to win the honor. Kerrigan Parks of Flushing and Marshall University, the GAM Championship winner, was second with 475 points. Katelyn Chipman of Canton and Grand Valley State University was third with 435 followed by Sarah White of Kentwood and Texas State University with 393 and Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll of Haslett, the women’s head golf coach at Michigan State University, with 375. See the Honor Roll lists at gam.org under the Championships tab.
“I think her play this summer was quite remarkable,” Hartmann said. “Anybody that has that type of injury where every swing is painful, it’s a real challenge to get healthy and then play again. It was discouraging two years ago when we saw her at the Amateur at Spring Lake and she could barely walk up the fairway without pain. She is obviously a great competitor. With what she dealt with in her health, she’s clearly not afraid to battle on the golf course.”
Johnson, who hurt her back weight lifting, said following surgery and dealing with the back pain during recovery sent her back to the basics on her golf swing.
“I really just found some swing positions that felt good and then executed good golf shots,” she said. “Before the back injury I spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect golf swing. After I hurt my back I decided I would swing my way. I’m naturally athletic and I let the athleticism take over and tried not to be super mechanical. I let the natural patterns back into my swing.”
Always a hard worker on her short game, Johnson said she learned to lean on that part of her game while at the same time keep a better frame of mind on the golf course.
“Putting has always been a security net for me, and I know when I miss a green that I can still make par,” she said. “It takes pressure off the iron game and scoring. I also figured out this summer how to stay in a round mentally and not give up. My coach (Wisconsin coach Todd Oehrlein) asked me how I had such a great year after the fall season. I really didn’t have an answer for him, but I think now the answer is letting my natural swing happen, my short game and a better mental game.”
Johnson, who had a 74 scoring average for the Badgers in the fall, will finish out her collegiate golf in the spring and graduate with a degree in film, radio and television. The daughter of Trip and Nina Johnson will be seeking a career in sports radio and television, and is not sure where competitive golf will fit in.
“I’m sure I will want to compete and play at some level, but I don’t know when or where that will be,” she said.
The golf year of 2017 will stay especially memorable in three ways, Johnson said.
“I surprised myself, took all the pressure off and just played golf and really had a lot of fun doing it,” she said. “Second, winning the Amateur and qualifying for the U.S. Amateur gave me so much confidence going into the school year and I played really great for my team this fall.
“And the third thing is my friend Jacqueline Setas, who came through for me as my caddie at the Michigan Amateur. We just had so much fun winning, and right now she is going through so much because she was diagnosed with Cancer. It’s a good prognosis, but she had to give up her golf (at Michigan State) to go through treatments, and I just know she would love to be playing. I know how it feels when you can’t do something you love. What she is going through puts it all in perspective, and we talk about it and we will always remember how much fun we had on the golf course that day.”
ABOUT THE GAM: Founded in 1919, the Golf Association of Michigan is the governing body for amateur golf in the state. As a not-for-profit organization, the GAM’s purpose is to promote, preserve and serve the game of golf. The GAM, served by over 250 dedicated volunteers as well as a full-time staff, provides membership to almost 60,000 golfers and more than 470 Michigan golf courses, conducts over 30 amateur championships, oversees 18 USGA qualifying events, administers the GAM/USGA Handicap System and measures and rates almost 70 courses a year for the USGA. Learn more at www.gam.org.
VIA Greg Johnson