Johnson Overcomes Multiple Physical Issues to Play at Wellesley September 17, 2016 | Wellesley, Mass. By Rob Duca

Considering her recent physical issues, it's remarkable that Ann Johnson is competing this week at Wellesley Country Club. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

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For any athlete, rotator cuff surgery is a major deal. But when you’ve endured as many health issues as Ann Johnson, it’s just another blip on the radar screen.

“It was only arthroscopic surgery,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I don’t even count that.”

Since 1999, Johnson has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), received a back fusion, had both hips replaced and underwent emergency gall bladder surgery that morphed into pancreatitis. That the resident of Kent, Wash., is competing in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at Wellesley Country Club is one of the championship’s most unlikely stories.

Last December she underwent a left-hip replacement. The inside of her body looks like a hardware store.

“I feel confident that Humpty Dumpty has put me back together again and nothing else can go wrong,” said Johnson, 58. “I have rods and screws [in my back] and there is titanium in my hips, so I’m doing great.

“I’ve had a bumpy road since turning 40. I didn’t have much adversity when I was growing up playing golf, but with every surgery there has been some, and each time you wonder if you’re going to recover and not be in pain.”

Johnson has found ways to overcome her physical setbacks. A year after her back fusion, she won the 2010 Washington State Senior Women’s Golf Association Senior Women’s Championship in a sudden-death playoff.

“That made me cry,” she said. “I was nervous to start playing again. I had to learn to trust again, to believe I could swing hard without hurting. I didn’t really feel 100 percent again until this year. But I feel I’m good to go now.”

Good enough to qualify for her first U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, 33 years removed from her last USGA championship, the 1983 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

“Getting here was a bucket-list item for me,” she said.

Johnson has been able to find other positives from her travails. The MS diagnosis led to a career as a personal trainer. Fearing she might lose the ability to walk, Johnson began working out at a gym, where she took notice of the fitness trainers.

“I thought I could do better than them and I could also work the job around my kids’ sports schedules,” said Johnson, who has three daughters: Elizabeth, 27, Courtney, 23, and Jenny, 20.

Johnson is also a volunteer at the American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Tacoma, a facility dedicated to healing wounded veterans through the benefits of golf. Although she assists with instruction twice a week, she feels that she is the one learning from the veterans.

“If you want to be humbled, go there,” she said. “That has grounded me so that I don’t get too upset if I hit a bad shot. I love hanging out with them.”

No doubt, a factor in Johnson’s resilience is her athletic lineage – four generations of her family have played college sports. Her father and grandfather ran track at Cornell University; her husband, Bill, rowed and played football at the Coast Guard Academy. Johnson played golf at Michigan State, and two of her daughters played collegiate basketball, while another played rugby.

Johnson’s middle daughter, Courtney, is her caddie at Wellesley, located just miles from Dedham Country and Polo Club, where Johnson competed in the 1974 U.S. Girls’ Junior. During the four decades between competitive visits to Massachusetts, Johnson took a break from golf, not only due to her medical condition but to raise her daughters.

“I wasn’t willing to give up watching them compete in sports to do my thing,” said Johnson. “I think [the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur] means a lot to my daughters because they know I put golf aside to raise them. What touches me about being here is having my daughters see me compete and be so supportive of me. They have all told me how proud they are, and that means the world to me.”

Perhaps her family’s presence will help her move beyond stroke play for the first time at a USGA championship.

“I was just excited to be there back then,” she said. “This time I’d like to make match play and go deep. I feel like with the perspective that I now have it will help me focus. When I was younger I didn’t reach my full potential. So why not start at 58, right?

“I think I’m a bit of an inspiration to people who know what I’ve been through,” she added. “At 50, I was on crutches and couldn’t walk. Now I’m playing in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur.”

Rob Duca is a Massachusetts-based writer.

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