Senior Golf : Howie Johnson, Still Learning, Goes to Head of Class

Times Staff Writer

At 60, Howie Johnson is one of the real veterans on the Senior golf tour. He is not, however, too old to make some changes in his game.

After playing poorly last week at Sun City, Ariz., Johnson, who lives down the road a few miles at Rancho Mirage, made two adjustments. At the halfway point of the 72-hole Vintage Invitational, there has been a marked improvement.

Johnson shot a four-under-par 68 Friday over the 6,907-yard Mountain Course at the Vintage Golf Club and moved into a tie for first place with the still sizzling "rookie" Dale Douglass. Douglass, the first-day leader with a 67, came back with a 70 on the Mountain Course, and he and Johnson are at 137.

A stroke behind are two more senior veterans, Jim Ferree and Dan Sikes. Both played the 6,271-yard Desert Course on Friday. Ferree, overcoming the disappointment of watching his alma mater, North Carolina, get knocked out of the NCAA basketball tournament by Louisville, shot a 68. Sikes shot a 69.

Contention runs deep at the halfway point. A trio of tour stars is at 139, just two strokes behind the leader. Arnold Palmer, his back continuing to improve, Lee Elder and Billy Casper make up that trio. Casper shot a 66 for a tournament record on the Desert Course.

Another shot back at 140 are Chi Chi Rodriguez and Gary Player. With two more days of 90-degree weather forecast, the finish figures to be just as hot.

Johnson, a member of the senior PGA group since it started to blossom in 1981, has played consistently and earned nearly $250,000, but he last won a tournament in 1960 when he won the Mexico Open.

"I made a change in my swing and in my putting after last week, and, at the moment, they are paying off," Johnson said.

His finish, he hopes, will pump him up for today's third round when it will be just the 51 pros--no more amateurs and no more 5 1/2-hour rounds.

After getting bogeys on 16 and 17, Johnson chipped in from what he figured was 42 yards away for an eagle on the par-5 18th to move into a tie for the lead.

"I'm happy with the round, but it could have been better," he said. "All day long I putted well, so it was a shock when I missed a five-footer on 16 and then again on 17. Maybe I wouldn't have chipped in on 18, if I had (made those putts)."

He said that his problem in putting last week, when he finished tied for 36th, was that he had been moving his body with the putter as he hit the ball. His caddie noticed it and has kept reminding him.

"It's amazing about caddies," Johnson said. "If you pay them 10% (of your earnings), they do a tremendous job for you. But, if you pay them only 2% or 3%, forget it.

"In my driving, I had been forcing it with my hands and arms. What I did the last two rounds is move into the swing with my legs and I really am hitting the ball well."

The 70 Friday was the worst of the five rounds Douglass has played as a 50-year-old. Before losing a playoff to Charlie Owens in his first tournament last week, Douglass shot 67-67-68.

"I'm not that good and this tour isn't that easy," Douglass said. "I'm just on a roll and I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.

"I think what happened is that I became all pumped up at the thought of joining the seniors. I worked hard to get ready. Right now everything is going well, although I didn't feel I played too well today. I missed some putts I had been making."

Sikes, after winning six tournaments on the regular tour, has won three on the senior trail. He earned $138,700 last year without winning a tournament. He said he should have played better today.

He missed several short birdie putts and twice three-putted from 20 feet. He started his run at the leaders with an eagle two on the 254-yard 11th hole. He drove the green and rolled in a six-footer.

"On the next hole, a par 5, I put a 4-iron within 12 feet, but my makeable putt for an eagle stopped right in the jaws. I can't say I'm unhappy about the round, it just could have been better."

Although contention runs deep, it doesn't include defending champion Peter Thomson, the popular Australian. He has a 36-hole total of 149, 12 strokes off the pace.

"Well, I improved one shot with a 74," he said. "I should be ready by December."

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