Small town to big city: Ryggs Johnston finds success with ASU golf

Even though he is far from his Montana home, Ryggs Johnston saw a great opportunity with Arizona State golf, where he is off to a strong start for a freshman. (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Steak, white rice, black beans, salsa and cheese, please.

It’s a combination of burrito ingredients known to almost anyone who has visited a Chipotle Mexican Grill, but not so familiar to Arizona State golfer Ryggs Johnston.

Hailing from Libby, Montana, a small town of 2,700 about an hour south of the Canadian border – and a 3½-hour drive to the nearest Chipotle in Missoula – Johnston had never been to one of the popular restaurants before coming to Arizona in August.

Of course, his new Sun Devil teammates took advantage of Johnston’s first encounter.

“I mean, I’ve been to fast food restaurants like it before but never that one,” Johnston said. “So I didn’t have a clue what I was ordering. All the guys, they go there all the time, so they were making a bunch of freshman jokes.”

It’s the price one pays for being a newcomer, not that Johnston is playing like one.

In four tournaments the Sun Devils played during their fall semester schedule, Johnston finished 12th or higher in each of them, including a third-place finish in his collegiate debut at the Maui Jim Individual tournament. The Sun Devils won two of the four events and return to action on Jan. 27 at the Southwestern Intercollegiate.

Johnston impressed his new teammates.

“That’s really solid for a freshman,” senior Alex Del Rey said of Johnston’s early record. “You come out here, and you barely know anyone in the tournaments because it’s not high school anymore. And you’re traveling with new guys and you’re playing new courses. To do what he has done, he has great potential here.”

When he arrived in the desert, he fulfilled a goal that he set for himself as a kid.

“It has always been his dream school,” said ASU golf coach Matt Thurmond. “He had a little paper he wrote when he was in sixth grade that his dream was to go to ASU and play golf.”

And Johnston has proven he can handle pressure on the golf course, if not in the burrito line.

He won four consecutive high school state titles in Montana, qualified for the U.S. Amatuer tournament as a 15-year-old, placed third at the Western Junior Championship at 16 and won the 2018 Montana Men’s Amateur Championship by eight strokes, shooting an opening-round 62 that is the all-time low in the 102-year-old tournament.

Little wonder that he had Thurmond’s attention.

Four years ago, before Thurmond took the ASU job, he was coaching the Washington Huskies and hoped to lure Johnston to Seattle. But in 2015, Johnston told Thurmond he didn’t have much interest in Washington, so Thurmond ended his pursuit.

But when Thurmond was hired by ASU in 2016, he took another shot at Ryggs. From there, the recruiting process was “pretty easy,” Thurmond said.

Johnston verbally committed to ASU following his freshman year at Libby High, after he won the first of his Montana state titles.

“That’s what you love. When a guy just says, ‘Hey this is where I want to be,'” Thurmond said. “We made it happen. He committed early, and it’s been a long time waiting to get him here.”

It was an easy decision for Johnston, and he realized that long-standing goal to play for the Sun Devils. He made it official in November 2018 when he signed a national letter of intent to attend ASU.

“I saw a great opportunity,” Johnston said. “(They’ve) got world-class practice facilities, world-class coaches, a bunch of great golfers here and a great team. There really wasn’t any downside for me.”

The adjustments for Ryggs haven’t stopped, though, and not just to traffic in the fast-food line. Driving on the Valley’s crowded roadways has proven just as challenging as the Chipotle menu.

“I remember the first time I went home from the golf course,” Johnston said. “I went home at, like, 5:30 p.m. without even thinking about anything. And it took me 45 minutes when it’s usually 15 minutes.”

And that Chipotle line? It’s practically a daily ritual for Sun Devil golfers. They give Johnston an earful.

“This guy has never been there and is making a mess on the line, and we are just pressuring him, ‘Come on Ryggs, get it over with! Order, please,'” Del Rey said

But Johnston didn’t come here to navigate traffic jams and eat burritos. He came to the desert to play golf and compete with the best in the Pac-12 Conference.

So far, so good.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix