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Down for a day … up for the year

Ron Green Jr.
Ron Green Jr., a former Observer staff writer, will write golf columns occasionally for the newspaper.

Late Monday afternoon, the sting of not winning the Greenbrier Classic lingered with Johnson Wagner.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Wagner had taken a two-stroke lead into the final round and he still led with nine holes to play. But racing darkness after a three-hour rain delay and unable to match birdies with eventual champion Jonas Blixt, Wagner wound up tied for second and disappointed.

By Tuesday, the disappointment had begun to fade and with a weekend of friendly golf awaiting in Scotland in advance of the Open Championship at Muirfield next week, Wagner gradually allowed the positives to overcome the negative.

“It was a huge relief,” Wagner said during some down time at home in Charlotte before heading overseas.

“It’s been tough. Being a PGA tour player and a winner you don’t want to say you’re depressed but I was really down on myself. I feel bad saying that because I am so blessed that even my bad days are great days but I’ve been completely stressed out.

“I feel like it’s the beginning of an incredible weight being lifted off me.”

Wagner has been one of the tour’s lost souls for the better part of a year. He won the Sony Open in Hawaii to start the 2012 season but lost his mojo late in the year. It got worse this year.

He tied for the 13th in the limited field season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions and tied for 18th at the RBC Heritage in April – and that was the last time anyone saw Wagner on a PGA Tour weekend until the Greenbrier. Seven starts produced six missed cuts and a withdrawal.

A three-time tour winner with the comfort of being fully exempt through 2014, Wagner went searching. He talked with other instructors about what to do but ultimately returned to his long-time coach Bobby Heins, who suggested a significant swing change.

“Bobby said come with an open mind and let’s figure this out,” Wagner said.

Wagner has relied on a power draw throughout his career but his consistency disappeared. He ranks 177th in total driving on the PGA Tour this year, a reason why he also ranks 173rd in birdies. It’s hard to make birdies from behind trees.

Heins sold Wagner on the idea of hitting a power cut, a reliable left to right shot that could effectively eliminate the left side of each hole off the tee. A similar approach helped Wagner win the season-opening event in 2012 but he gradually worked into other habits.

To Wagner, the swing feels like a dramatic outside-in swipe but, in fact, it’s put the club on a better line through impact and the results were immediate.

“Hands down, (last week) was the best I’ve ever struck the ball,” said Wagner, who shot 62 on Thursday and 66 on Saturday but closed with 73.

Wagner didn’t agree with the decision by tournament officials to send the leaders out in twosomes at 2 p.m. Sunday, knowing there was a strong threat of storms. He wanted to play threesomes early to potentially beat the weather.

As it turned out, Wagner didn’t tee off until 5 p.m. Sunday and found himself racing darkness while trying to win the tournament. It was a bad combination.

“I got out of my comfort zone with the pace we were playing, not having to wait on any shot,” Wagner said.

Despite not winning, Wagner changed the direction of his season and his mindset. He feels aggressive again, confident and excited about playing the Open Championship at Muirfield.

Last season, a good start went flat at the end. This year, Wagner’s goal is to finish strong.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at rongreenjr@gmail.com.
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