When you hear the name Kevin Johnson in sports, it might take a little time placing him. There were four NFL players with the popular name. One NBA superstar. A heavyweight boxer. A soccer midfielder. Even a Bahamian sprinter.
Kevin Johnson, the golfer, did the name justice. The former Clemson All-American helped put coach Larry Penley’s Tigers program on the map as a national contender in the late 1980s, leading them to a third-place NCAA Championship finish as a senior, winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links and representing the United States in a Walker Cup and Eisenhower Trophy. Clemson enshrined Johnson in its Ring of Honor.
“Kevin Johnson and Chris Patton (former U.S. Amateur champion) were two guys that got everything started for me,” said Penley, who will retire at the end of this season after 38 years at the helm in Clemson.
As a professional, Johnson won on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour before collecting six tournament victories in a 12-year span on what is now called the Korn Ferry Tour – a success total second only to Jason Gore’s seven on the PGA Tour’s top developmental circuit. Johnson climbed as high as No. 235 in the world rankings when he won twice in 2009, earning his second promotion to the PGA Tour.
“Golf has provided me 50 years of playing and doing something I love,” said Johnson, now 53 and playing in an occasional Champions Tour event when he can qualify. “I didn’t get rich on it but it’s something I was able to do for a long, long time. Most people would’ve liked that shot. I definitely would have wanted to play more on the PGA Tour, but that’s probably the only thing that’s disappointing. But winning on what’s now the Korn Ferry Tour showed me that I could do it at a pretty high level. It’s been great.”
Johnson is not one to complain, but he certainly had more than his share of opportunities to grumble. His most famous chance came at the 1989 NCAA Championship in Oklahoma. After assuming the top spot on the leaderboard with an opening 66, Johnson shot a 1-under 69 in the second round to stay in front. But before signing and turning in his scorecard, a tournament official rushed Johnson to talk to reporters on deadline. When he returned, his unsigned scorecard had been turned in and the next morning it was decided his second-round score was disqualified.
“You never know what would have happened if they counted my score,” he said. “We would have had a lot more momentum. It was a bizarre 24 hours. Back then the scoring area was a picnic table and everyone was running around. Nothing like it is now. Maybe I helped the cause for changing that.”
Had it counted, Clemson would have finished second instead of third and Johnson would have been medalist and the individual champion. Instead, that title went to a freshman from Arizona State, Phil Mickelson – the first of a record three NCAA individual titles by the World Golf Hall of Famer.
“He’s become such a superstar now,” Johnson said of Mickelson. “I played the last two rounds with him and when we finished he shook my hand and said, ‘Hey, I know exactly what happened. You deserve this more than I do.’ His coach, Steve Loy, pulled me aside as well and talked to me for 10 minutes after the fact, which I thought was really cool.”
“Back then I was just thinking I was going to go out on the PGA Tour, make millions of dollars … you know? I would have loved to have played more years on the PGA Tour but that just didn’t work out.” – Kevin Johnson
It wasn’t the first time Johnson got the short end. His timing cost him the chance to play in three consecutive Masters from 1988-90. He is the most pronounced victim of what might as well be known as the “Great Amateur Purge” at Augusta when the club made sweeping changes to its qualifying rules for amateurs starting in 1989. That was the year all amateur team pathways to the Masters were eliminated and the U.S. Amateur allotment was reduced to one-year invitations to its finalists and the British Amateur champion received a one-year invitation.
In lieu of the Walker Cup and Eisenhower Trophy qualifications for Americans that had existed for decades, one-year exemptions were given to the winners of the previous year’s U.S. Amateur Public Links and U.S. Mid-Amateur.
Johnson won the Publinx in 1987 the year before it was recognized by Augusta. In 1988, he reached the final again but lost playoff to a chip-in by Ralph Howe on the 37th hole, giving Howe the first Publinx ticket to Augusta. Johnson also was a member of the 1988 Eisenhower Trophy team that finished second in Sweden and the 1989 U.S. Walker team – the first two collective U.S. teams not granted Masters exemptions.
“If I had had the same résumé in different years I would have made it three straight years,” Johnson says. “They used to take the Walker Cup and the Eisenhower Trophy teams and I won the Publinx the year prior. Then the following year they said they’ll put the Publinx champion in and that’s the year Ralph Howe beat me and he went to the Masters and I didn’t.”
“He really got screwed on that deal,” said Penley, who laments that Johnson didn’t get his Masters chance like eight other Clemson players with eligibility did under him – Patton, Parker Moore, Corbin Mills, Ben Martin, Doc Redman, D.J. Trahan, Danny Ellis and Michael Hoey.
Johnson got to play Augusta National four times with his Clemson team and once on a three-day team-building trip with his Eisenhower Trophy teammates. But he acknowledges in hindsight that never getting to play in the Masters stings: “That was always my dream event and that would be one thing I wish I could’ve done.” At the time, however, he didn’t worry about it.
“Back then I was just thinking I was going to go out on the PGA Tour, make millions of dollars and that would have been a hiccup, you know? I would have loved to have played more years on the PGA Tour but that just didn’t work out.”
That Johnson’s talents never translated to success on the PGA Tour illustrates just how hard it is to make it on golf’s most elite level. Twice he played full PGA Tour seasons as a member, but he failed to retain his card both times – making 22 cuts in 67 career starts, earning $323,478.
“I’ve thought about that a lot, I just couldn’t figure it out,” Johnson said of his PGA Tour struggles. “I had a ton of confidence playing on the (Korn Ferry), but I think I was more like starstruck when I was on the PGA Tour. You’re walking around and Greg Norman’s out there, Curtis Strange, Tiger Woods. I used to get nervous around those guys. I’d grown up watching them on TV. Now the kids come out and instead of being nervous around them they want to beat those guys. I just never really did that. I was thinking how cool it was that I was out there.”
In another way, Johnson was a victim of timing in that regard, too. Top collegians didn’t get head starts with sponsor’s exemptions to try to establish themselves quickly. What was then the Hogan Tour started a year after Johnson graduated from Clemson, so he ended up trying to make it in South Africa and Canada and didn’t even get his card on the then Buy.com Tour until 1996, blunting his collegiate momentum.
“I was coming out of college real confident and obviously played well my senior year,” he said. “Now they basically give you a bunch of starts on the tour and sponsor exemptions. I graduated ’89 and didn’t get my (Korn Ferry) card until ’96. So I was floundering. You’re doing all you can, and back then you weren’t making much money.”
Johnson eventually played in 371 events in every incarnation of the Hogan, Nike, Buy.com, Nationwide and Web.com tours in 21 seasons, earning $1,156,636. After his best season in 2009 when he won twice in a span of three weeks to all but secure his PGA Tour card for 2010, Johnson made a calculated misstep that sabotaged his chances.
“I started struggling at the very end of that last ’09 season and I think I was trying to change too many things,” he said. “I knew I was going out on tour and had a little time now to change this and this. I just never really got playing any good in 2010 out there.”
His efforts to gain any traction on the PGA Tour Champions since turning 50 in 2017 have met with similar frustration, with COVID-19 cancelling 2020 Q School and limiting qualifying opportunities. It also scuttled his foray into rules officiating on the Korn Ferry Tour last year, finally forcing Johnson to take his first private sector job as an insurance advisor in Palm Beach, Florida, last summer.
“I’m not going to say it’s my calling,” he said with a laugh. “I’d much rather be playing out on the (PGA Tour Champions). But I really do like it.”
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour Champions hired Johnson to be a full-time rules official beginning with the Chubb Classic in April, a gig he said is“too good to pass on.”
“At first I better be ready to work then I will see how scheduling is,” he said about the possibility of still trying to qualify to play senior events. “I will try to keep sharp.”
Despite any setbacks or disappointments along the way, Johnson has gone further than he ever imagined as a kid from Massachusetts who found his way to Clemson on the recommendation to Penley from his older brother Chip Johnson – who won the 1984 NAIA individual and team championship with Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina.
“What Clemson has given me and Larry Penley,” Johnson said, “he took a shot with me coming out of New England with no résumé and I just got better and better and probably wouldn’t have been able to do that anywhere else.”
Top: Kevin Johnson’s run through professional golf has not been conventional, but he says it has been enjoyable. Photo: Chris Condon, PGA Tour, via Getty Images
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