Inside the Ropes

U.S. Open 2024: Johnson Wagner's 'folk hero' rise is a blend of yips, shanks, and passion

The rising Golf Channel star is committed to making the game relatable, even if occasionally at his own expense

PINEHURST, N.C. — Johnson Wagner was beaming. This was back in April, and the 44-year-old Golf Channel analyst was asked about his first week broadcasting the Masters.

“Pinching myself,” Wagner said then. “I can’t believe I’m here.”

The excitement alone wasn’t noteworthy. People usually are when they make their first trip to Augusta National. The weird part is Wagner had been there before. Twice, in fact—as a player in the tournament.

To understand Wagner’s transformation from PGA Tour veteran to rising television star, you might start here. Wagner won three times on the PGA Tour. When he showed up to play the Masters the second time, in 2012, he was atop the FedEx Cup points list. There was a lot about playing the tour that Wagner loved. But he hated the uncertainty, especially at the end.

“The last couple of years, I was so stressed out,” he said. “It was a lot of, ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do with my life after golf?’ I would be fine Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at a tournament. And then Thursday morning came. I had so much anxiety the last few years of my career. So much anxiety.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, and Wagner was talking about his new gig while navigating a cart through the back nine at Pinehurst No. 2. He had just filmed a segment at the 16th green with Cam Smith and was headed to do another with Xander Schauffele. He was approached by a local politician who said he was a big fan. Parking by the practice green, Wagner questioned whether he should leave two clubs he had with him unattended. He left the wedges in the cart. “If it was my putter, I’d be worried,” he said.

Wagner confesses he has never been a good chipper, at least by PGA Tour standards. The golf world was given a glimpse last month at the PGA Championship at Valhalla, first during a live segment in which he yipped three chips in succession on the fourth green following the conclusion of play on Friday night. Technique aside, the three-plus minute performance was masterful. Wagner explained the advantage power players held on the hole. He then chunked a wedge. Then he bladed the next. None of this was part of the plan, but Wagner kept going unfazed. He transitioned to discuss the next day’s hole location, yipped one more wedge, then went on to project scoring conditions for the weekend.

“It all comes very naturally to him,” said Matt Hegarty, a veteran Golf Channel producer. “He’s really trying to bring the audience as close to the action as possible, and to show what these guys are doing—like hitting a chip shot off a tight lie—is hard, man. And when you have an issue like that, it’s very relatable. And his reaction to it makes people embrace him even more.”

Professional pride compelled Wagner to note only his bad shots tend to go viral on social media, and that the PGA segment was filmed on the heels of a six-hour shift calling the second round on the radio. “And then I go straight out to a tight fairway of major championship conditions and have to hit a shot that I hadn't hit in a month,” he said. “But I get it. I know people enjoy the failure. I think it resonates with the average golfer that you know, ‘Hey everybody makes mistakes.’”

'You have to really work at it and dig in to be good. And Johnson is all in.'
Golf Channel host Rich Lerner

It could be easy to forget then that Wagner once stood on the precipice of the game’s upper tier. After a standout amateur career in New York’s Met Section, followed by college golf at Virginia Tech, he went on to make more than $12 million on the PGA Tour. But the end was rocky, and not very fun. There was a golf cart accident in February 2022. He recovered, but then aggravated an old knee injury, and his confidence sagged. A clarifying moment was his last tour start in Bermuda that fall. He sensed he had no chance of making the cut. Even worse, he didn’t want to be there.

Professional golf careers usually end as slow bleeds, but Wagner’s transition was abrupt. First given a chance with Golf Channel in October 2022, he showed promise, but still had enough status to play some events early the next year. When the network contacted him for more work, he sensed they were testing him.

“I think they chose some weeks early that they knew I would get in to see what my interest level and commitment to doing TV was like,” he said. “I chose TV.”

Plenty of golfers before him have attempted to keep a foot in both worlds. Whether conscious or not, Wagner avoided a common pitfall.

“What happens sometimes with former players is they hit a rough patch in their careers, and they’ll say, ‘Let me try broadcasting. I know the game. I can talk about it,’” longtime Golf Channel host Rich Lerner said. “But they soon learn you have to really work at it and dig in to be good. And Johnson is all in.”

More than just unscripted comedy, Wagner’s viral moments work because they’re rooted in his curiosity. As the son of a former computer science professor at West Point, it’s likely no surpise he has gravitated toward intricate concepts he can make understandable, even if occasionally at his own expense.

During a “Live From …” segment at the Players Championship in March, he showed off his arm strength to recreate a Rory McIlroy ball landing in the water. At Quail Hollow, he brought in a rules official to explain a controversial drop taken by Schauffele. On Sunday night at the PGA, his explanation of a chip out of the rough resulted in a cold shank, leading to a series of players, caddies and teachers approaching him with chipping advice at Pinehurst.

“Never have I seen someone become a folk hero so quickly,” Lerner said. “A lot of guys would ask for these segments to be taped. That would be their right, and if they flubbed a chip, they’d wait until they got a good one to use. But in TV, live is better, and Johnson has been willing to take it on and be vulnerable.”

The U.S. Open will be Wagner’s eighth straight week on the road, which is a strain with his wife and teenage son and daughter at home in Charlotte. He’ll be ready for a break, but he also wants to keep going in his new career, with hopes of one day occupying the lead analyst chair in a network broadcast. It’s often difficult for subjects to pinpoint what makes them good at something, but Wagner didn’t waver. It starts with his love of golf, even when it surfaces the ugly parts once in a while.

“I love this job,” he said. “I am having a blast working the majors. I think I only played, I think, nine majors in my career. And so, to be at every one this year, and to see it through a completely different lens, is really cool.”