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Thursday, April 29, 2010
Updated: May 6, 11:54 AM ET
Golf proves to be JJ's kryptonite

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson was nervous. Can't-eat-lunch nervous. Ready-to-lose-lunch-if-he-could-have-eaten-lunch nervous.

It had nothing to do with his feud with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, which he really doesn't consider a feud. It had nothing to do with his position in the Sprint Cup standings because you can't do better than first. It had nothing to do with the setup for Saturday night's race at Richmond.

It was all about making solid contact with a tiny white ball, enough to land it in a strip of grass narrower than his front yard -- or at least somewhere he could find it.

"This is the most nerve-racking thing I do," Johnson said during Wednesday's Pro-Am for the Quail Hollow Championship. "You have no idea the stress level involved."

Yes, he was intimidated, worse than if he had the late Dale Earnhardt in his rearview mirror with one lap remaining at Bristol.

This is a side of the four-time defending Cup champion you never see at the track, where he's willing to drive millimeters from the wall at more than 200 mph, where he'll shove a 3,500-pound piece of sheet metal and steel through a hole barely beyond the dimensions of the car.

This is the same person whose focus and nerves are so strong that Mark Martin calls him "Superman."

But put Johnson on a golf course, and he becomes Clark Kent.

Four-Time becomes Fore-Time.

Jimmie Johnson This is the most nerve-wracking thing I do. You have no idea the stress level involved.

-- Jimmie Johnson

Early in this round he once shouted "fore" before hitting the ball.

"Man, it's amazing how relaxed you need to be to make good contact with the ball," Johnson said as he walked the lush fairways that are far removed from his normal surroundings. "The jitters and stress, you end up squeezing the heck out of the grip and your swing is kind of butchered. Then you're just hoping to make contact. It's just the whole process mentally that takes place. I don't have the confidence in what I do. It's intimidating for sure."

That's not an indictment against Johnson. The world's best golfer, Tiger Woods, would be intimidated if you put him in a 20-car pack at Talladega or asked him to drive hard into the turns at Darlington Raceway, where the wall comes at you faster than Johnson's tee shots came into the gallery.

Davis Love III, Johnson's playing partner on this sun-splashed day, understands. He's driven stock cars around nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway and knows the intense pressure and danger the competitors feel.

"I'm not sure I could do it with all these people watching," Love said.

It's all about what you're accustomed to. Put Johnson on concrete and he's as comfortable as Woods is between the tall pines and azaleas that line Quail Hollow Country Club.

You can't intimidate Johnson or or get in his head on the track, even though it appears Gordon is trying his best lately by talking about his teammate in ways we haven't heard before.

In case you missed it, Johnson got into the side of Gordon's car at Texas and followed that at Talladega by forcing Gordon below the yellow line with a miscalculated move that dropped his teammate back just in time to get caught in a big wreck.

Johnson admitted he made a mistake at Talladega and took full blame. He didn't realize Gordon was so upset until later reading, "It takes a lot to make me mad, and I am pissed right now."

"Things are good with Jeff and I," Johnson insisted. "At the track when he got out of the racecar I think his blood pressure was high. It certainly looked that way. Now everything is smooth and in good shape and we'll go to the track this week at Richmond."

These things happen. Johnson had a string of races last year with 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch where it seemed every time the two got near each other they clashed.

"Why does this happen?" Johnson said. "I don't know why that magnet develops between two cars. Right now, unfortunately, it's been with the 24. We're doing everything we can to demagnetize our cars."

But Johnson won't be intimidated by anything his teammate says or does. He didn't win 50 races and four titles this fast by worrying about what everybody else says or does. His ability to stay focused on his own game is comparable to what Woods does between the ropes.

"When I'm in the racecar it's what I know, what I do," Johnson said. "It's easy to find a rhythm. When you don't do this all the time it's tough."

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson was not the best golfer at Quail Hollow, but he remained a championship-caliber autograph signer.

That's why Johnson was so nervous before Wednesday's round. His friends who heckled him throughout the day knew it but never let up despite a start that looked like the Big One at Talladega.

Let's digress. After Johnson's opening tee shot sailed so far left into the trees it almost went into the ninth fairway, a fan shouted, "Way to prove you can go left."

Four shots later on the par-4 hole, Johnson picked up for an X.

"He's horrible, but I love watching him," a fan said.

After double-bogeys on the second and third holes, Johnson picked up again on the fourth after seven shots. At one point one of the marshals literally ran to get behind the driver on the tee box, saying, "I've seen him hit before."

When a few friendly faces congratulated Johnson on a tee shot on No. 5 that barely went into the right rough, he responded, "You should have seen the other 72 shots I've taken."

At least he has a sense of humor.

After following Woods for 18 holes earlier in the day, this truly was like watching a different game. Or as a security guard who toured the course with both groups said, "This is more like 'Animal House.'"

But Johnson didn't become the best driver in NASCAR by giving in, and that competitive nature kicked in here as well. He gutted out a par on the fifth hole and made consecutive pars on 14 and 15 with a little help from Carolina Panthers coach John Fox, who lives just off the 14th fairway.

"I just told him go for it," Fox said. "Grip it and rip it. It's all mental."

That's easier said than done for Johnson, who claimed the best thing Fox did was "let me use his restroom, which was very helpful."

No, Johnson doesn't have a swing like Woods. Not even close. But Woods can't drive like Johnson and he doesn't sign autographs like him, either.

For every stroke Johnson took, he signed his name 10 times. You do the math, understanding Johnson wasn't close to par 72. With that, he arguably was more relaxed than anybody else on the course.

By the end of the round the jitters that showed vulnerability not seen on the track were gone. When challenged on the last hole, Johnson immediately changed from a 3-wood to a driver, then spanked the ball far and straight.

He even got a little cocky.

"What's the wind look like?" Johnson said.

Say what you want about the guy on the track or the golf course, but he's a good closer.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.