Finals update: Michael Johnson seeks first TOUR card on dynamic journey
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One back of lead into weekend at Simmons Bank Open
Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
COLLEGE GROVE, Tenn. – Michael Johnson was “young and dumb” – his words – as he embarked on his professional golf career some seven years ago.
An older, wiser version of Johnson has a chance at his first PGA TOUR card across the next three Korn Ferry Tour Finals events.
Johnson, 30, opened the Simmons Bank Open for the Snedeker Foundation in rounds of 68-67 at The Grove, just one off the pace of leader Pontus Nyholm, who stands 10 under through two rounds in Music City. The Alabama native will play in Saturday’s final grouping at the Simmons Bank Open, the second leg of the four-event Korn Ferry Tour Finals, and the stakes are high. He knows it, and he relishes the stage.
“I’m sure tomorrow will be hard, but that’s what we play for,” said Johnson, who entered the week at No. 74 on the Korn Ferry Tour Points List, precariously close to the top-75 line that will assure full 2024 Korn Ferry Tour status, finalized after next week’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship.
Michael Johnson rolls in birdie putt at Simmons Bank Open
Johnson thought back to the 2018 UNC Health Championship presented by STITCH, where he contended throughout the week en route to a T4 finish. Similar vibes of contending for a title, but an evolved perspective as he aims to cement his top-75 status – and chase his first PGA TOUR card as well. Thirty TOUR cards will be finalized after next month’s Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance.
“Technically, I think it’s better,” Johnson said of his game, “and mentally I know more about my own game. I didn’t know a lot, and I think that helps certain guys, but I think I know my tendencies a little bit more … My wife has a real job, so I’m consistently reminded what it’s like to be in an office, but just the fact that I didn’t have status two years ago and now I have status, you have to have better perspective, and if not, you’re just a negative person. I’ve been known to be pretty negative at times, but I’d like to think I have a little better perspective.”
That perspective has been shaped through an uneven road. The college standout at Auburn was named a Golfweek First Team All-American as senior in 2015-16; he won three times that season, then finished third at the 2016 Barbasol Championship in his professional debut. The sky was the limit.
Then the reality of professional golf set in. Johnson spent three seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour before losing his card at No. 125 on the 2019 standings. He returned to the Korn Ferry Tour with conditional status in 2022, then earned back guaranteed starts for 2023 with a top-40 finish at Final Stage of Q-School last fall – which was set up by a final-round 65 at Second Stage, when he needed 66 or better to advance.
No longer a young hotshot, Johnson has embraced his role as one of the Korn Ferry Tour’s veteran presences. “Perspective” as a popular term around the household; his wife Rachel is a mergers and acquisitions associate at Southern Power, a “real job,” as he said. He laughed Friday that Rachel’s manager recently quizzed him on what she does for work. He was ready.
“She works for Southern Power on the acquisitions team,” he explained Friday.
Johnson feels appreciation for the ability to play golf for a living, healthy and happy. As he reflected on his week so far, he thought back to summers as a kid, traveling to junior golf tournaments and honing his craft.
“All of us out here, I think we all know we can make it,” Johnson said. “Other people grew up going to summer camp and all this stuff; we were playing golf tournaments. Not that that’s a terrible life, but we were focused on playing the PGA TOUR at a very young age. So I think that’s just fulfilling that dream.”
He has a chance this fall to do just that.
Evan Harmeling makes cut in heroic fashion
Veteran Korn Ferry Tour officials had never seen anything like it. Neither had Evan Harmeling.
The Princeton alum stood six strokes outside the cut line with five holes remaining Friday at the Simmons Bank Open, before authoring one of perhaps the most unlikely rallies to make the weekend in professional golf history. Harmeling played his last five holes at The Grove in 6 under, flying up the leaderboard for a course-record, 8-under 64 that moved him onto the cut line at 3-under total.
Harmeling notched back-to-back birdies at Nos. 5 and 6, then holed out for eagle at the par-5 seventh – his tee shot found a fairway bunker and he played out to 64 yards short of the green before letting his wedge do the work. He added birdies at Nos. 8 and 9 to punch his ticket to Saturday’s third round in Music City.
“I’ve never done anything like that,” Harmeling said. “Birdie barrage … it was pretty crazy. I played really well all day … that finish was insane. I made a bomb to get it going on 5 and then stuffed it on 6. Made a crazy eagle on 7; I tried to hit 3-wood from the fairway bunker because I knew I needed eagle-birdie-birdie and I was like, ‘I’ve got to go for it,’ and I basically topped it, but it covered the lip and topped it really hard and rolled out to 64 yards, and then holed it.
“After that, it was weird. The whole time, I felt like, ‘I’ve got it today. I don’t see myself not getting there,’ and then even at that point I was like, ‘I feel like I can do something crazy coming in.’ And then I made the eagle, and 8 and 9 are birdie holes. Didn’t hit a very good shot into 9 and then made a bomb. That was sweet.”
Harmeling entered the week at No. 92 on the Korn Ferry Tour Points List, on the strength of a T13 finish at the Finals-opening Albertsons Boise Open presented by Chevron that boosted his position from No. 108.
He knows that much work remains to be done – the all-important top 75 to maintain full status for 2024 will be finalized after next week’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. Time is scarce.
As for his time in Music City? He’ll have two more days at The Grove to increase his position on the leaderboard and chip away toward that top 75. Not a bad scenario, considering where he stood with five holes to play Friday.
“I don’t even know,” Harmeling said of his emotions. “I’m not done. We’ve got two rounds of golf and I’m ready to make a move. I’m not satisfied making the cut on the number. It’s great to be playing, especially at this point in the season. It’s time to do something, so I’m ready to go tomorrow.”
Pontus Nyholm (No. 79 on Points List): The Sweden native entered the week just outside the all-important top 75 – which is finalized after next week’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship and provides full 2024 Korn Ferry Tour status.
With his play so far at The Grove, Nyholm might have designs on cracking the top 30 (finalized after the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance) for his first PGA TOUR card. The Campbell University alum has opened the Simmons Bank Open with rounds of 69-65 and carries a one-stroke lead over Michael Johnson, Scott Stevens and Grayson Murray into the weekend.
Nyholm, 25, made seven birdies on a clean-card Friday in Music City to ascend the leaderboard, crediting his driver and putter for his second-round success. Now he’ll take aim at his first Korn Ferry Tour title.
“I’ve had some pretty rough stretches where my golf’s been pretty bad,” said Nyholm, who is still seeking his first top-10 finish of the season. “It’s easy to get down on yourself, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of just sticking to my process and keep doing what I’m doing and working on my things.”
Cliché as that all is, it has earned Nyholm the 36-hole lead at the second leg of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
The Korn Ferry Tour Finals features progressive field reductions after each event; the third Finals event, the Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship, will have a 120-player field, filled directly off the season-long Points List.
For the first three Finals events, the Points List will extend to fill the field to the corresponding numbers of players (e.g., the field for the 144-player Simmons Bank Open extended to No. 159 Scott Stevens, as 15 eligible players elected not to compete).
Stevens has maximized his opportunity and then some. The last man in the field will compete in Saturday’s final grouping at The Grove after opening in rounds of 66-69, one back of 36-hole leader Pontus Nyholm. It’s a far cry from nine missed cuts in his previous 10 starts – he had signed up for Q-School back in July, and he was planning to compete in a GProTour event next week.
Now he might need to reroute his travel to central Ohio for next week’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship.
Here's a look at players outside the top 120 who have advanced to the weekend at the Simmons Bank Open, with an eye on punching their ticket to the third leg of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals:
No. 121 Chris Naegel: T31, projected No. 120
No. 125 Vince India: T15, projected No. 114
No. 126 A.J. Crouch: T31, projected No. 127
No. 128 Yuto Katsuragawa: T15, projected No. 118
No. 130 Jamie Lovemark: T7, projected No. 108
No. 135 Spencer Ralston: T7, projected No. 113
No. 136 Ashton Van Horne: T45, projected No. 136
No. 137 Cooper Musselman: T54, projected No. 141
No. 141 Rob Oppenheim: T15, projected No. 130
No. 149 Spencer Cross: T15, projected No. 134
No. 153 Alex Weiss: T54, projected No. 152
No. 154 Yuxin Lin: T15, projected No. 135
No. 159 Scott Stevens: T2, projected No. 78
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.