Johnson wins NAIA championship, leads Master’s golf to runner-up finish 

Photo Courtesy of Master's Athletics.

For the second straight season, a Mustang was forced into a playoff hole for the individual NAIA championship.  

The Master’s University freshman Easton Johnson and Bellevue’s Hugo Ronnberg needed two extra holes to determine a champion after each finished four under at the NAIA Men’s Golf Championship at Las Sendas Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona. 

The two returned to the 18th hole par-5, where Johnson whiffed a putt to finish with an even par, giving Ronnberg the chance to birdie and force a playoff hole. The calm and collected Johnson wasn’t fazed and birdied the hole twice.  

Johnson was in the zone but still relaxed before hitting what ended up being the title-winning putt, even surprising his head coach Jacob Hicks. 

“We’re walking down the fairway and Easton’s cracking jokes,” Hicks said in a phone interview. “He was so unfazed in the biggest moment of his golf career.” 

Ronnberg also birdied the first playoff hole, but just missed on his second putt for birdie, making Johnson the national champion. 

Johnson had been near the top of tournaments all season, but the victory over Ronnberg marked the first of his collegiate career. Hicks had seen his young star be so close to victory all year but Johnson got it done when it mattered most. 

Easton Johnson. Photo Courtesy of Master’s Athletics.

“Easton was so consistent the entire year,” Hicks said. “Going into Nationals, I knew he’d be right there to win it. He was arguably the best player in the NAIA without a win but he never finished outside the top 11. As a freshman, you’d think he’d have a bad tournament.” 

Hicks and the team raced onto the course and celebrated Johnson, who became the second Master’s golfer in program history to win an NAIA title and helped the Mustangs clinch a runner-up finish for the tournament as a team. The freshman was also able to embrace the moment with mother and his lifelong coach, his father. 

“From there on it was blurry,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “I didn’t even know what was going on. I put my club in my bag and the team rushed out to celebrate with me. I got to hug my mom and dad. My dad’s been my coach my whole life, so it was pretty sweet to do it with him there. I realized I had done it there but even during the trophy presentation, it still didn’t feel real. It was kind of surreal.” 

Last year, Master’s standout Jack Dudeck fell just short in a playoff hole for a national title. This year, the senior was crucial in the Mustangs’ team runner-up finish. Dudeck finished in the top five of all NAIA golfers. The senior and the freshman led the team with 17 birdies in the national championship, while Dudeck also led with two eagles. 

Johnson felt confident heading into the tournament. Master’s had already won at Las Sendas and just needed another strong outing on the green to win a national title.  

“We had already played that course in the fall,” Johnson said. “We won the national preview there. We were comfortable on the course. I had good expectations knowing the golf course, so staying in it mentally was going to be key. I was thinking bogeys aren’t going to hurt me and there will be birdie opportunities. Whatever happens on this hole, I can make up for it on the next hole and not worry about what’s behind me.” 

However, the season was filled with highs and humbling lows. The Mustangs brought in six team wins over the year, but battled injuries and an untimely slump just before conference championships. 

TMU won its opener, the CA State Intercollegiate Tournament at Olivas Links Golf Course in Ventura. The Mustangs won with an 849-stroke finish (-15), winning by 11 strokes. Dudeck and Mitchell Briley led with seven-under finishes with Johnson (-6) right behind. 

Jack Dudeck. Photo Courtesy of Master’s Athletics.

Injuries then hammered the Mustangs from there on out. Dudeck fought through a wrist injury, freshman Lucas Odell missed time with a knee ligament sprain and Seth Bishop went down with a shoulder injury. 

Master’s won its own Spring Invite but hit rock bottom in the final regular season tournament. The team finished 11th (+64) at the Roadrunner Classic in Rocky Face, Georgia. The Mustangs needed a Golden State Athletic Conference championship for a shot at the NAIA Championships. 

“We had a lot of discussions with our team about what we were struggling with on the course and why,” Johnson said. “We decided we were going to play confident and free golf, just not worrying about where the ball or our scores. We knew our backs were up against the wall, we hadn’t got an auto-bid to Nationals, so we had to win conference get in. It sparked us to practice hard for extra hours, even during finals with a lot of tough hours on the green.” 

The group came through and hit their goal by one stroke. Master’s won with a low 854 score on the day, just squeaking by Ottawa University of Arizona. Dudeck led the conference with 203 strokes (-13) while Johnson finished in third with 207 strokes (-9) 

Hicks had believed all year his team could reach the summit and now Master’s finally had its shot. 

“From the beginning of the season, it was getting the guys to believe they could win a national championship,” Hicks said. “I believed it but they didn’t see it yet. It showed up in the final three rounds, the belief that they could win it all.” 

Johnson entered the NAIA Championships with a calmer demeanor and found comfort playing the game he loves with less worries, no matter the stage. The freshman got off to a hot start but said nerves became a factor in the second of four rounds. Even after playing not up to his own standards, Johnson finished the first two rounds 3 under, helping Master’s make the cut for the final two rounds nine strokes out from the lead. 

“We had a team meeting after making the cut,” Johnson said. “Coach Hicks told us that now we’re here for the weekend and we just have to keep playing our game. We’ve won at this course before and we’ve come back from a six-shot deficit before. We knew we could get it done.” 

Johnson and Dudeck led the way for the Mustangs’ comeback. Dudeck hit seven birdies in the third round, and both of his eagles in the fourth. Johnson finished -4 in the last two rounds and hit over par on just one hole in the fourth. 

Sophomore DonDon Bumacod was critical in the comeback. Bumacod had shot 11 over in the first two rounds but caught fire after the cut. The sophomore finished +2 in the final two rounds with the highlight of his tournament coming in the third, where Bumacod hit four straight birdies.  

DonDon Bumacod. Photo Courtesy of Master’s Athletics.

Their efforts fell just two strokes short of an NAIA title, but the team was elated seeing how far they climbed along with seeing their freshman take the individual crown. 

One of Hicks’ favorite memories was simply praying with his guys after their tremendous accomplishment. 

“After Nationals, that was last time the team was together,” Hicks said. “I encouraged the guys and we got to pray together one last time. That was a really special moment etched in my mind.” 

One of Johnson’s favorite golf moments came in the ensuing weeks, as he found out he was receiving the Jack Nicklaus award for being the top player in his conference. The freshman was already on vacation, traveling with his family. Hicks called Johnson to let him know someone would be calling him with some exciting news soon. When he finally got the news, he was so surprised he didn’t even retain what happened. 

“My jaw dropped,” Johnson said. “I kind of checked out for a second. I was in shock, I didn’t even realize if I was being considered for it or won it. I had to text him to check if I won it or if I was being considered. I was wowed that I won it. I was super quiet and taking it all in in the car. I was dumbfounded. That was so crazy.” 

Johnson would be presented the award by Nicklaus himself and the news brought his grandfather, a lifetime golf fan, to tears. 

Easton Johnson and Jack Nicklaus. Photo Courtesy of Master’s Athletics.

The Mustang was presented the award in Dublin, Ohio, among the top golfers from each of the top three divisions of the NCAA. 

“Getting to meet (Nicklaus) was amazing,” Johnson said. “We had a press conference with him and the three other recipients of the award. Right after that ended, he pulled us aside and talked to us for a while about golf and his favorite memories. We asked him all kinds of questions and he was so nice to talk with us for 30 minutes. That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done with golf.” 

Johnson finishes his inaugural collegiate year as a national champion, NAIA Golfer of the Year, NAIA Freshman of the Year and an NAIA All-American. Dudeck also received All-American honors for the second straight year. 

The senior Dudeck will now graduate and likely go pro, with mini tours and qualifying school on his horizon.  

Hicks has taken at least one golfer to national championships in each of his five seasons at the helm of the program. The coach will return the core of his team in 2024 and look to return to the pinnacle again, as expectations begin to rise for Master’s men’s golf. 

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