When she left Madison in December for winter break, Aya Johnson had every intention of returning to the University of Wisconsin for the final semester of her sixth season in the Badgers women's golf program.
She expected great things during UW's spring season with fellow veterans Jessica Reinecke, Nat Zeng and Tess Hackworthy. Johnson, whose 74.2 stroke average in 11 events last fall was second on the team, looked forward getting started Sunday at the UCF Challenge at Eagle Creek Golf Club in Orlando.
But then the real world called — no, really, out of the blue, while she was on vacation — and a dream come true was on the other end.
"I had applied for a production job at Golf Channel over Christmas, not really knowing what the timeframe would be," Johnson said. "They called me when my family and I were in Jamaica and said 'We need you to come in for an interview kind of ASAP.' So we flew to Orlando, I had to go shopping for interview clothes. It was all just very sudden."
Two weeks later, Johnson's phone buzzed again. It was good news for the 23-year-old Communication Arts graduate, who listed a career at Golf Channel as her dream job in her biography on the Badgers' Website several years ago.
"They said 'You got the job. We need you to start at the end of February,'" said Johnson, who will work 3:30 a.m. to noon daily as a producer on Golf Channel's popular show "Morning Drive." "It was an opportunity I had been waiting for, for as long as I can remember. So I just felt I couldn't pass on this opportunity. Technically, I'm fresh out of college. Getting a job at Golf Channel is hard to do."
There were two things, however, that might have been even more difficult: Telling her UW teammates and then telling Badgers coach Todd Oehrlein.
"Obviously, the timing golf-wise wasn't ideal, but I had to take the job," said Johnson, a native of North Muskegon, Mich., who had missed two years of her college career dealing with a lower-back injury — allowing her to extend her time in Madison, which began in 2013. "I sent an email to my teammates (during winter break) and said 'I had this opportunity pop up and I have to take it.' I hope they play well this spring. I wish them all the best, really."
Johnson said she had hoped to talk to Oehrlein in person about the sudden opportunity in front of her and its impact on the team. Ironically, he was in Florida — now president of the Women's Golf Coaches Association, Oehrlein was in Orlando to lead a presentation on recruiting at the PGA Merchandise Show — and that conversation ultimately had to take place over the phone.
As difficult as it was to see his longest-tenured golfer suddenly exit UW's program, it was easy for Oehrlein to be happy for Johnson.
"I'm excited for her," Oehrlein said. "It's been a dream of hers and I think she's going to be fantastic at it. It's going to be a great career for her.
"It's also going to be hard to not have her be part of the team in the spring, but graduation and employment and finding jobs, that's a big part of what we do, right? We need to support that and I'm happy for her on that side of things."
So while the Badgers tee it up this weekend at Eagle Creek, Johnson hopes to stop by at least once during the three-day event. The rest of the time will be spent "adulting" and getting settled into an apartment before joining her new team — anchors Lauren Thompson, Gary Williams, Damon Hack and Cara Banks, analysts Charlie Rymer, Paige Mackenzie, Robert Damron and John Cook and contributor Matt Ginella — on "Morning Drive" later next month.
"It is a good group of people, so I'm thinking 'No better way to start the day,'" Johnson told Wisconsin.Golf during a telephone interview Thursday while furniture shopping in Orlando. "Getting off work at noon, I'll be able to take a quick nap and maybe play at least a quick nine. That was another thing; I knew I'd still be involved in golf. That made the decision a lot easier. I'm not leaving the sport completely; I'm still all-in on the sport, which is really exciting."
Johnson said she is excited to use her background to champion the network's efforts in college golf and eventually work in front of the camera. She was an intern at NBC-15 in Madison and UW's Athletics Communications department.
For now, she looks forward to the twists and turns of a live television show on "Morning Drive."
"It's such a great vibe at Golf Channel," Johnson said. "Like they were telling me in the interview, this job is so much fun. It's not brain surgery. We take it seriously, but it's just so much fun. It's creative. Everyone has a good time with it. It can go so many different ways. You plan for the show to go one way, but if it takes a different turn, that's OK. We just go with it."
After all, that's how Johnson wound up there in the first place.