It was the short but challenging 15th hole at The Cascades where I got my first glimpse of Johnny Manziel on the golf course.
Having started his round on the 10th, Johnny Football (what a great nickname) was playing his sixth hole of the 51st Higginbotham Texas State Open last month. He was given an exemption like fellow former quarterback Tony Romo to juice the interest in an event known for unknown pros shooting ridiculously low scores.
And the crowds came out, despite the heat, and were assembled behind the 15th green. I noticed Johnny right away because he was far enough down the fairway to have just a “flip wedge” over a pond to a hole cut close to the front of the green.
Don’t get too cute with this one, I thought to myself. And sure enough, Johnny “chunked” his wedge just a smidgeon and his ball found water short of the green.
Golf is a hard game.
After taking his drop just short of the penalty area, Manziel hit a nice pitch shot past the hole some 10 or 15 feet and then canned the putt for a hard-earned bogey. It was a microcosm of his efforts for two days, some good shots and some poor shots, as the former Heisman Trophy winner shot 154 (79-75), to miss the cut in his Texas Open debut.
Disappointing perhaps, but not the real story. With his dad Paul caddying for him and friends and family coming out to watch, it was more of an entertainment opportunity than just watching some serious, grind it out golf. That was the case for me, my brother Tim and Cascades member Gary Cooper as we watched from the shade on a toasty summer day.
Most golfers learn the game from their fathers and Johnny’s dad Paul is an accomplished amateur. Paul was working hard in concert with his son to get the best results. Paul has one Texas Golf Association title beside his name, playing with Darin Newhouse and the late Reggie Howell to win a team championship for Hollytree in 2005.
Fast twitch muscles — is something no one can coach and Johnny Football had them in high school and college and still have them now. He rotates and just crushes the tee ball. So Johnny’s golf was fun to watch but not yet on the pro level that he aspires to reach in the future.
What was more on display than golfing prowess was a more mature and poised Manziel who accepted his lumps on the course with a smile and later conducted interviews on questions ranging from how golf compares to football and what about those newcomers Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference.
Manziel, let us recall, was the starting quarterback for Texas A&M during its inaugural season in the SEC when the Aggies made some noise with a win over Nick Saban and Alabama at Tuscaloosa and finished 11-2. That season ended with a 41-13 thrashing of the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl. Those wins and more highlights led to the Tyler native becoming the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy for the best player in college football.
Winning the Heisman was heady stuff for a 20-year-old and Manziel struggled at times dealing with his instant fame. He had a great sophomore season but A&M had to beat Duke in the Peach Bowl for a 9-4 record. Manziel’s two-year career stats are absurdly good — almost 10,000 total yards in 26 games. Chew on that for a moment.
Then came the NFL and a disappointing and short career with the Cleveland Browns. But not every college star makes that transition and Manziel did not. However, Johnny Manziel was the most compelling college football player of my lifetime. My father used to talk about Doak Walker and I think a comparison is in order because both players had this effect on the spectator — what is he going to do on this play?
But back to golf, nerves can be a problem and you can’t just react with a scrambling run or take a good hit to settle down. Manziel addressed that with the media.
“The nervousness is different,” Manziel said after his first round. “I didn’t accept the invitation to play thinking I could win but rather I wanted to play and find out what it’s like. And what better place to begin than at my old home track with family and friends here to watch.”
As Manziel approached the 16th tee that first round, I marveled at his small and thin body, thinking, how did he ever survive college and pro football. Though he was listed at 6-foot-1 and 215 at A&M, he appears now to weigh much less, though still strong and impressive with his swing speed. I remember seeing Atlanta Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler years ago at a PGA Championship in Atlanta and he seemed huge, almost like a lineman. Not so with Johnny.
Another thing I noticed was his cap with HACK on it. Most golfers can relate to that, we are mostly hackers dreaming of that one good round somewhere in us if we can just draw it out. It seems Manziel started a company for hip golfing apparel.
“Some of my golfing buddies in Scottsdale and I decided that if we are going to play this crazy game, then why not start a golf company,” Manziel said.
Watching him play several holes, Manziel’s tee shots were impressive bombs with a dependable high fade that seldom gets in trouble.
Where he seemed to struggle was around the greens with an almost predictable three-putt on the 12th hole the second round. The 12th is a long and difficult par 4 up the hill over water, the least changed hole from the original nine built in 1957. Manziel crushed a drive in the middle of the fairway and was the last to hit into the green.
The hole was near the back of the 12th green and Manziel’s iron shot was good but just trickled over into the fringe. Manziel and his dad studied the line tediously when perhaps more attention should have been given to the speed. Manziel’s putt rolled some five feet past and he missed his comeback putt. Ouch, an unforced error for a bogey.
Another bogey from the fringe on the 13th had Johnny a little down but again he ripped a drive on the par 5 14th and was on his way down the fairway, determined to finish strong.
Tony Romo said playing golf for him is all about the competition and the same can be said for Manziel. Though he was smiling and polite, it was clear to see that Johnny’s competitive fire still burns brightly.
So, just keep swinging Johnny and we hope to see you again on the links.