By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala - At the time, it was a real pain in the hip for Auburn golfer Michael Johnson.
In the summer of 2013, while playing in the Porter Cup in Niagara Falls, NY, before his junior season, Johnson knew something wasn't quite right with his left hip.
He came back to Auburn, where the injury was diagnosed as bursitis, inflammation that's treated by rest.
Michael had a choice: sit out in the fall while recovering, then play in the spring, or take a redshirt season.
He chose the latter, a decision that paid off handsomely for Michael and for Auburn.
"It really helped me out," Johnson says. "Helped me mature. It gave me half a year to just practice on things I wouldn't normally get to practice on."
A blessing in disguise, perhaps?
"Oh, absolutely. Being five years at Auburn is not a bad deal," he says.
Johnson came back strong in 2014-15, named to the All-SEC second-team.
This season, as a fifth-year senior, Johnson is going lower than any Auburn golfer has gone before.
His 69.69 strokes per round average is lowest in the SEC, second in the nation, and lowest in Auburn history.
If Johnson can keep shooting in the 60's in the postseason, he'll break Blayne Barber's school record (70.76 in 2011-12).
"It's been a good year," Johnson says modestly. "I haven't changed anything. Just stuck with the game plan with my teacher. Our coaches are always making sure that we're doing what we're supposed to do. They're going to make you get better. That's the great thing about Auburn golf."
Three tournament wins, a single-season school-record. The SEC Golfer of the Week, twice.
With five career wins, Michael is one away from tying Jimmy Green's Auburn record.
"I think I've just grown up. When you get older, you get more mature," Johnson says. "I came in here as an 18-year-old. Now, I'm 23. I think I'm just more mature. You know what works and what doesn't work. It doesn't help to get really frustrated out there."
"He's such a great talent," Auburn coach Nick Clinard says. "He's a guy who has all of the tools. He gets it mentally. He knows how to practice. He has discipline. He has a lot of speed. He's very athletic. He's really developed his short game. His pitch game, his bunker game. All of those areas, he's really developed in the past four-and-a-half, five years."
Clinard says Johnson's athleticism is a huge asset, but his mental approach is just as important.
"He's really developed. He's really matured, not only as a young man but as a golfer. He's more emotionally stable. He's older now. Just more mature when he's out there. Knowing how to deal with adversity. His understanding of the game is better. I think that's something that he's continued to develop. I think he's going to be a very, very good pro," Clinard said.
It's not as if Johnson threw tantrums on the course in his earlier years. It's just that, now, he's locked in on the next shot regardless of what happened on the last one.
"I was never one to throw clubs in tournament play," he says. "But I would just kind of get down, but I don't really do that anymore."
Besides, Johnson has endured far more suffering than any errant golf shot could ever cause.
Growing up in Birmingham in an Auburn family, Michael became a standout golfer at Spain Park High School, just like his older brother, Bradley.
Ten years ago, when Bradley was 17, he died in a car accident. Michael was 13.
"He was a phenomenal golfer," Michael says. Bradley finished second in the 2005 U.S. Junior.
The Johnsons and the Spain Park community honor his memory by hosting the Bradley Johnson Memorial golf tournament each spring.
The Bradley Johnson Memorial Foundation provides scholarships for junior golfers to compete in tournaments.
One golfer who has benefited from the Foundation's support is Will Wilcox, who's now in his third year on the PGA Tour.
"It's been pretty cool to see that it helps a lot of people," Johnson says.
Johnson and the No. 6 Tigers will compete in the SEC Championship this week in Sea Island, Ga., with NCAA Regionals, and perhaps the NCAA Championship up next.
"It's nice to get some credit for good play for sure," he says. "We've had a great season. Golf is so highlighted on one week, instead of the entire season. So it's nice to show up to the tournaments, and they're like, `Auburn's here, we're going to have to play pretty well.' It's a good feeling."
-- Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) April 12, 2016
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer