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
"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
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 quietly 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.
"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
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.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN GOING SOLO Johnson's parents will join her in Dublin, Ohio, at this week's Solheim Cup, but, as usual, her husband will remain in Tucson. [Chris Johnson]
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN STEADY DIET To combat fatigue while she plays, Johnson downs a dose of supplements, plus almond-butter sandwiches and protein shakes. [Series of Chris Johnson eating and drinking]
"I think I've been pigeonholed," Johnson says, "but that's O.K.
as long as I don't pigeonhole myself."