DUPONT, Wash. – Sometimes Torey Johnson will catch herself walking down fairways, imitating dance steps with her fingers as she strolls to her next shot.
A former competitive dancer, Johnson has performed with the South Carolina-based StarMakers Dance Company at Walt Disney World and has been on two national championship dance teams. But those high-energy steps always started simply.
“We learned dancing on our fingers first because you use your fingers to learn the steps,” said Johnson, 22, of Conway, S.C. “Even now, I’ll find myself doing that when I’m playing golf.”
Johnson is competing in her second U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship this week at The Home Course, where she opened with a 6-over 78 in Monday’s first round. She recently completed her college eligibility at Charleston Southern University, where she played for four years.
But there was a time when Johnson had to choose between competitive dance and competitive golf.
As a second-grader, she first saw some fellow students clogging – a rhythmic, tap-like dance with origins in the U.K.– at a school talent show. Johnson told her mother that she wanted to try it and the next year, she was clogging in the elementary school talent show.
Johnson first learned to clog in the garage of a friend, who eventually opened a dance studio. She went on to take classes at two different studios, adding Irish step dancing, jazz and hip-hop to her fleet-footed repertoire.
Her dance troupe performed not only at Disney World in Florida, but also at street festivals and national competitions. She was too young the year her squad’s Irish step dancing team performed in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.
“Dancers had to be older than 12 to perform in the parade, so my team went and I watched the older girls on television at home,” said Johnson.
But when she turned 14, Johnson began thinking more about her future. The teen still loved dancing, but decided she wanted to try to earn a college golf scholarship.
“Dance is still a passion and that love never dies, but golf did win,” she said. “I knew if
I wanted to play golf in college, I had to buckle down and work hard to make it happen.”
Her father, Terry Johnson, a Class A PGA professional, was careful never to force the game on his daughter. He watched her compete in dance and dabble in golf, and let his daughter make decisions about activities she would pursue.
“Because of my job as a club pro, she knew if she wanted to be around her father, she was going to have to be around golf,” said Terry , who served as the head professional at River Falls Plantation Golf in Spartanburg, S.C. for 19 years. “She was talented at an early age in golf and I knew it would eventually click.”
Because he was always busy on the weekends at the golf course, it was difficult for Terry to attend dance competitions. But when he could attend, Torey showed off her moves with flair.
“If she had chosen dance, I would have been perfectly happy with that, too,” said Terry, who is caddying for his daughter this week.
But the diminutive Johnson, who is 5 feet tall, danced her way right back to golf, was dubbed by her college teammates as “Mighty Mouse” and earned a humanities and fine arts degree playing a game that she had grown up seeing for as long as she could remember.
She also was the instigator for the “birdie dances” she and her college teammates performed along the fairways as a signal to each other about how they were playing.
On the course, Johnson won the 2008 and 2010 Caddie Classic – a one-day annual event conducted by the South Carolina Junior Golf Association in which an honorary caddie spot is awarded to a celebratory pro-am. One year, she caddied for fellow South Carolinian and 2000 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion D.J. Trahan and former Playboy model Samantha Cole, who played in the group.
“I didn’t get a lot of attention that year,” quipped Johnson.
The second year she won, she caddied for 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and musician Darius Rucker, the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish. Pro-am contestants ride in carts, so caddies walk along, clean golf balls and help read putts if asked.
“Darius got mad at me because I kept calling him Mr. Rucker and said, ‘That’s my dad, not me,’” laughed Johnson.
Since college graduation, Johnson has moved back home and is working with her father on her golf game, along with former touring pro Hugh Royer.
“I’d like to keep working on my game and see where I go, but right now, I’m just playing amateur golf and working,” said Johnson, who is employed by Jockey as a manager and certified bra fitter in South Carolina.
Her work schedule allows her to come in late to practice her golf game in the mornings. And every now and then, she’ll visit the studios of friends who are now dance instructors to “mess around with new dance steps.”
But this week, the Johnsons are enjoying the final WAPL. Torey competed in the 2011 WAPL at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, so her affinity for the Pacific Northwest has continued this week.
“Anytime you get to a USGA event, it’s special, and with this being the last WAPL, I’m very proud that she has qualified for this championship,” said her dad.
As for Torey, she says they have a “game plan” for Tuesday’s final round of stroke-play qualifying. And you can bet if things work out and she qualifies for match play, there might be a special celebration dance.
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.