She immediately rolled her eyes. Then came a murmur, something that could have been “Oh my god” or a less printable variant. And that was two minutes later.
The venue was the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, venue of the Tour Championship on the PGA TOUR, where the FedExCup is awarded every year, as well as the place where the lesser-known East Lake Cup, a match play college event with the final Four teams of men and women from last season’s NCAA championships are played each fall. For the umpteenth year in a row, I was invited to play in the morning of the East Lake Cup. This time my partner was Julia Johnson, star of the reigning national champions Ole Miss women’s golf team. And while many of my play partners end up rolling their eyes and mumbling, it usually takes a while. Julia’s reaction came when we introduced ourselves at the first tee.
But it had nothing to do with me. It was the story that I passed on to the other members of our group. “Julia is responsible for the best athletic performance this year,” I said, enjoying my role as a storyteller. “Immediately after Ole Miss won the NCAAs, the Marathon Classic gave Julia a sponsorship waiver, who turned around and gave it to her teammate Kennedy Swann because Kennedy turned pro and could use it.”
When I finished, Julia looked up at the sky. No doubt she had been asked a thousand times about what she had done. And like many others, I misunderstood some details. “Marathon actually made one member of the winning team the exception,” she said. “The coaches have decided who gets it.” When Julia’s coaches told her the choice was her, she immediately said she would give it to Swann, who would be competing in the first stage of the LPGA Tour qualifier later that year.
A Golf Channel producer overheard the conversation and said, “Can you do this on camera?”
The result was television gold. “Yes, Kennedy didn’t know it was coming until that moment,” said Johnson. “That made it very special.”
Congratulations to Kennedy Swann from @OleMissWGolf 👏
She receives the marathon exemption and will tee off at the Marathon Classic on the LPGA. pic.twitter.com/vuxRZqfJQw
– Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) May 27, 2021
Meanwhile, just as I was interacting with Johnson, Swann was teeing off on the final lap of Stage II. At the time, she was in the bladder and needed a solid finish to make it into the Q-series.
She ultimately failed and shot a 1 over par 73 on Sunday to miss advancing by a single shot.
“Having only just turned pro in the last two months, I still don’t have the competitive advantage that a lot of the girls out here have,” said Swann. “I think I just need to get a little more confident when I’m 3 under (par) to nine (holes) and really able to capitalize on it.”
She also said that she needs to understand the time management aspect of professional gaming.
“It’s been really, really busy,” she said. “But it was a lot of fun. I made a lot of wonderful memories. Winning a national championship with my team is like a great end to my college career and it definitely gives me a lot of confidence for the future.
“My team and I just got a tattoo for the national championship. My caddy said to me this week, ‘If you ever feel like you don’t belong, just look at your ankle and remember that you belong.’ ”
The tattoo is a shark fin with a ’21 next to it, denoting the Ole Miss’ informal nickname, the Landsharks, and the year the women’s golf team won a national title as the first program in school history.
Johnson didn’t talk about tattoos, although she talked a lot about Swann and her journey. The two are best friends. They drove from Oxford, Mississippi to Cartersville, Georgia a few days early to visit their swing coach, Scott Hamilton. Johnson hung around and then played East Lake while Swann flew to Florida for Stage II.
“I knew I was coming back for my fifth year (of college),” Johnson said, further explaining that she was giving Swann the marathon exemption. “I could try (to play on the LPGA tour). People keep telling me that if I don’t at least try, I’ll regret it one day. So I guess I’ll try. But it’s not the be-all and end-all for me. ”
Johnson already has an MBA and will have another master’s degree in sports analytics through next spring’s NCAA championships. “It’s my fifth year at Oxford, which only highlights the fact that it’s almost time for me to leave Oxford,” she said.
The friends share more than one championship. They are similar personalities – fiery, intense, engaging, curious, and mature.
“I think my personality has developed the growth of my game,” said Swann in Florida ahead of the Phase II finals. “I think a lot of people develop their game and then their personality. But I would say when I was 20 I was more like an 18 or 17 year old. I’m almost 23 years old now and I feel more on the mature side of a 25-year-old. ”
She may be feeling in her mid-twenties, but Swann still looks back on days gone by with nostalgia. “Transitions are tough, really tough,” she said. “Especially to see my team. I went back to Oxford for a bit and practiced with them for a week before coming here. It was great to see them, but it was just weird to be back and not on this team. ”
On Sunday, after our round, the Landsharks gathered in the Jones Room on East Lake for a buffalo sleigh lunch and sweet southern tea. Not much was said. They all hung on their phones and the Symetra Tour scoring page.
They had a friend and teammate to draw for.
This time it didn’t work out. Swann will have Symetra Tour status for 2022 and one more season to transform and refine her craft. Johnson can join her. Or she couldn’t. This is how life works. But no matter where you end up in your career, you will always have a connection and a memory – a shark fin and a 21 that will be there forever. A memory that no one can take anymore.