Trish Johnson of Swansea, Wales, is a real homegirl. In her sixth season on the LPGA tour, she retains her membership in the Women Professional Golfers' European Tour along with her plum-pudding-thick accent and her devotion to her favorite English League soccer club. So it should come as no surprise that, despite being on a jolly good roll in the U.S., Johnson, who has won two LPGA tournaments in a row, including last week's Atlanta Women's Championship, is passing up the tour's richest event, this week's $1.2 million Sprint Classic in Tallahassee, Fla., to play in the Ford Ladies Classic in Woburn, England, a $105,000 tournament in which $15,000 goes to the winner.
You see, the 27-year-old Johnson, the LPGA's top money winner this year, with $184,857, is on a rescue mission. The women's European tour is on the brink of collapse. For two years it has suffered from weak leadership, paltry purses and skimpy schedules. While the tour's board works to get its house in order—last month it hired a marketing specialist as its executive director—Johnson, the long-hitting Laura Davies and other European stars who play regularly on the LPGA tour continue to enter European tournaments in the hope that their presence will attract sponsors for next season. Johnson's other motive for playing in Europe is selfish. "Winning at home," she says, "is a bigger thrill."
American pros would be thrilled if Johnson and other foreigners spent more time overseas. Europeans have won the last three LPGA events. In March, Helen Alfredsson of Sweden won the Nabisco Dinah Shore, the year's first major. A week later, Johnson, in a prelude to Sunday's victory, navigated gale-force winds and putted brilliantly to win by four strokes in Las Vegas.
Johnson, who took up golf because her father, who is an insurance inspector, and three brothers played the game, has not always enjoyed success on the LPGA tour. Before this year she had never won an LPGA event, and she had finished in the top 10 only four times. Last year she was a lowly 52nd on the LPGA's scoring-average list. The change in her fortunes began at last October's Solheim Cup competition, at which her upset of Patty Sheehan helped the Europeans trounce the heavily favored Americans, 11½ to 6½. "That did wonders for my confidence," she says.
It also fostered esprit de corps in the foreign contingent. "We get on well as mates and root for one another," says Johnson, who on Sunday night joined her European tour buddies to celebrate her beloved Arsenal's victory earlier in the day in the English soccer league championship game as well as her win in Atlanta. When it was time to toast what she called "her great day all around," Johnson tipped her glass to her home away from home. She passed on the British ale and instead ordered an American wine cooler.
The LPGA's hottest player is one of many Europeans tearing up the tour.