Montana’s Next Great Golfer

Libby prodigy Ryggs Johnston is taking the junior golf world by storm

By Dillon Tabish
Ryggs Johnston competes in the Earl Hunt Memorial Fourth of July Tournament in Whitefish on June 30, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

From Michigan to California, Ryggs Johnston has spent the summer teeing off far away from his home in Libby.

Last week the torrential tour of top amateur golf tournaments even sent the 16-year-old soon-to-be sophomore to Mexico, where he competed in the Junior America’s Cup in Guadalajara.

Johnston was one of four players from Montana, including Bigfork graduate Joseph Potkonjak, to compete against the other top amateur golfers from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The state champion from Libby tied for fifth overall, shooting a 3-under par total of 69-71-73 — 213. He was the fourth best golfer from the U.S. and finished only three strokes out of second place and five out of first.

Potkonjak finished tied for 69th along with Billings’ Caleb Trost; both shot 247. Joey Moore of Billings placed 10th with an even par 216.

The impressive finish in Mexico was just the latest standout performance for the Libby prodigy, who has already rocketed himself into the national spotlight as one of the nation’s best junior golfers.

In late June, as Johnston was on his way to shooting a tournament-low 6-under 66 on the final day of the Western Junior Championship in Royal Park, Michigan to finish third overall, Yahoo! Sports National Columnist Dan Wetzel wrote about the herd of top college coaches following this wonder kid from Northwest Montana, who “is probably the top rated uncommitted player out there.”

As Wetzel noted, the Western Junior Championship annually draws over 150 of the nation’s best junior players, mostly high school kids. Previous champions and competitors have gone on to become household names on the PGA Tour — Jim Furyk, Rickie Fowler, Tiger Woods.

And at this year’s tourney, Ryggs Johnston, a “lanky player” who could “hit the ball a Montana mile,” was the subject of everyone’s attention.

Golfers and fans alike in Northwest Montana have known about him since before he could legally drive a vehicle.

To recap: By 18 months old, Johnston had his first set of clubs, a gift from his parents. By 5, he was swinging with exceptional ease. By 9, he was navigating the narrow fairways of Cabinet View with success and developing a notable short game. By 11, he was known around town as the kid who already had two hole-in-ones and had qualified for regional junior tournaments.

When he was 14, he posted the best score in tournament history at the Teen World Championship, a 10-under 62 that included nine birdies and an eagle. Just as incredible, he achieved that record score on the Pinehurst No. 6 course in North Carolina, the same site that has hosted the U.S. Open.

This spring, as a freshman at Libby, he steamrolled through the Class B golf season and shattered the all-class state record by five strokes. He finished with a 68-63 — 131 on the Johnny Walker Course at Pryor Creek Golf Club in Huntley. Glacier’s Larry Iverson, who went on to compete at the University of Washington, held the previous best two-round score of 136, which he set in 2008. Three other golfers held the previous best mark in Class B of 139.

Since then his dominance has only continued in more competitive venues and at some of the toughest courses, garnering national attention.

Johnston told the Beacon he has already received full-ride scholarship offers from UNLV, Arizona, Michigan and Oregon, the reigning Division I national championship program.

He said he has definitely noticed the heightened attention this year, but it hasn’t bothered him.

“It would be pretty hard not to notice it. You’d be lying if you said you didn’t,” he said. “It just makes you focus more.”

Being from Montana can be tough for an athlete trying to catch the attention of top-tier college programs. Athletes in all sports can struggle with breaking onto national radars, but especially in golf, which is a sport that only gets played for half the year, at best, in Montana.

“We’re in such a small golf market up here; it’s part-time golf,” said Jess Roper, who coached golf at Flathead High School for four seasons and is a PGA professional and club manager at Village Greens in Kalispell.

“To have any success, you basically have to get out of state. Ryggs has been traveling the country and that’s the road people have to take to become truly successful.”

Tate Tatom, a Big Sky native who is playing golf at the Air Force Academy, knows how hard it can be proving yourself from Montana.

“They don’t like to watch you if you’re from Montana. But Ryggs is doing a good job and he’s doing everything right.”

Coaches have even called Tatom to ask about the stellar sophomore from Libby.

“I’ve gotten several calls from college coaches asking about him. They want to know about him,” Tatom said. “He’s got a good game and a good future ahead of him. He’s the next Montana kid. It’s cool.”

The questions surrounding Johnston are now less focused on whether he is the real deal but just how good could he be.

“Everything he does seems to be off the charts,” Roper said. “He is absolutely dominating. He’s better than anybody in the state right now.”

Though he is still three years from even graduating high school, Johnston is already drawing comparisons to Brandon McIver, a Billings native who won three individual Class AA state championships before earning a scholarship to compete at Oregon. When McIver graduated high school in 2012, he was being called one of Montana’s all-time great golfers. In 2014, he qualified for the U.S. Open.

For Johnston, it’s become less about proving himself or living up to anybody else’s expectations and more about sharpening his game.

“He practices hard and has a lot of determination,” his grandmother, Vicki Ostrem, said. “He never gives up. It goes in ups and downs and he’s had to learn how to do that. It’s not easy. His determination stands out.”

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