She rolled her eyes right away. Then came a mutter, something that could have been “oh my God,” or a less-printable variation. And that was two minutes in.
The setting was East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, host venue of the Tour Championship on the PGA TOUR, where the FedExCup is awarded every year, as well as the place where the lesser-known East Lake Cup, a match-play collegiate event featuring the men’s and women’s Final Four teams from the previous season’s NCAA Championships, is contested every fall. For the umpteenth year in a row, I was invited to play in the am-am the day before the East Lake Cup. This time my partner was Julia Johnson, star of the defending national champion Ole Miss women’s golf team. And while a lot of my playing partners ultimately roll their eyes and mutter, it normally takes a while. Julia’s reaction came as we were introducing ourselves on the first tee.
But it had nothing to do with me. It was the story I relayed to the other members of our group. “Julia is responsible for the best act of sportsmanship this year,” I said, relishing my role as first-tee storyteller. “Right after Ole Miss won the NCAAs, the Marathon Classic gave a sponsor’s exemption to Julia, who turned around and gave it to her teammate Kennedy Swann, because Kennedy was turning pro and could use it.”
By the time I finished, Julia was looking at the sky. She’d no doubt been asked about her actions a thousand times. And, like many others, I got some of the details wrong. “Marathon actually gave the exemption to a member of the winning team,” she said. “The coaches decided who would get it.” When Julia’s coaches told her that she was the choice, she immediately said she wanted to give it to Swann, who would be attending Stage I of the LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament later in the year.
A Golf Channel producer overheard the conversation and said, “Can you do it on camera?”
The result was television gold. “Yeah, Kennedy didn’t know it was coming until that moment,” Johnson said. “That made it really special.”
Meanwhile, at the exact moment of my interaction with Johnson, Swann was teeing off in the final round of Stage II. At the time she was on the bubble, needing a solid finish to make it to Q-Series.
She ultimately didn’t make it, shooting a 1-over par 73 on Sunday to miss advancing by a single shot.
“With just having turned pro in the last two months, you know, I still don't have that competitive edge under my belt that a lot of the girls out here have,” Swann said. “I think I’ve just got to get a little bit more confident being 3-under (par) through nine (holes) and really being able to capitalize on that.”
She also said she needed to grasp the time-management aspect of the professional game.
“It's been really, really busy,” she said. “But it's been a lot of fun. I've made a lot of good memories. Winning a National Championship with my team is like a great note to end my college career on, and it definitely gives me a lot of confidence going forward.
“My team and I actually just got tattoos for the National Championship. My caddie told me this week, ‘If you ever feel like you don't belong, just look at your ankle and remember that you do belong.’”
The tattoo is a shark fin with a ’21 beside it, denoting the informal Ole Miss nickname, the Landsharks, and the year the women’s golf team became the first program in school history to win a national title.
Johnson didn’t talk about tattoos, although she did speak a lot about Swann and her journey. The two are best friends. They drove from Oxford, Mississippi to Cartersville, Georgia a few days early to visit their swing coach, Scott Hamilton. Johnson hung around and played East Lake afterward while Swann flew to Florida for Stage II.
“I knew I was coming back for my fifth year (of college),” Johnson said, further explaining her gifting the Marathon exemption to Swann. “I might try (to play on the LPGA Tour). People keep telling me that if I don’t at least give it a shot, I will one day regret it. So, I’m probably going to try. But it’s not the be-all and end-all for me.”
Johnson already has an MBA and will have another master’s degree in sports analytics by the time next spring’s NCAA Championships roll around. “It’s my fifth year in Oxford, which just reinforces the fact that it’s almost time for me to get out of Oxford,” she said.
The friends share more than a championship. They are similar personalities - fiery, intense, engaging, curious, and mature.
“I think my personality has developed the growth of my game,” Swann said in Florida before the final round of Stage II. “I think a lot of people grow their game and then they grow their personality. But I would say that when I was 20 years old, I was more like an 18- or a 17-year-old. I'm almost 23 now and I feel like I'm more on the mature side of like a 25-year-old.”
She may feel like she’s in her mid-twenties, but Swann still looks back with some wistful pangs at days gone by. “Transitions are hard, really hard,” she said. “Especially seeing my team. I went back to Oxford for a little bit and practiced with them for a week before I came here. It was great to see them, but it was just weird being back and not being on that team.”
On Sunday, after our round, the Landsharks gathered in the Jones Room at East Lake for a lunch of buffalo sliders and southern sweet tea. Not much was said. They were all glued to their phones and the Symetra Tour scoring page.
They had a friend and teammate to pull for.
It didn’t work out this time. Swann will have Symetra Tour status for 2022 and another season to transition and hone her craft. Johnson may join her. Or she might not. That’s how life works. But no matter where they end up in their careers, they will always have a bond and a reminder - a shark fin and a ’21 that will be there forever. A memory that no one can take away.