Sunday, August 1, 2021

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Kamaiu Johnson finally gets his opportunity at AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The words on the back of his wedges remind Kamaiu Johnson that while nothing in golf has ever come easily, he is determined not to let that get in the way of his dreams.

“Enjoy the process” is stamped on one of them. “Never give up” is engraved on the other.

He had reason to break both wedges over his knee two weeks ago.

Johnson, a 27-year-old Black man with a most serendipitous entry into the white world of golf, had done well enough on the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour that he was awarded a sponsor exemption into the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, his first taste of the PGA TOUR.

And then he tested positive for the coronavirus and had to withdraw.

“I was talking to him that Tuesday and he was barely coherent,” said Ken Bentley, the CEO and co-founder of the APGA, which aims to develop minorities for careers in golf. “I talked to him the next day and he was all fired up.”

The Honda Classic reacted quickly by offering him a sponsor exemption. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was right behind, along with a Korn Ferry Tour event, the Emeral Coast Classic at Sandestin.

Johnson makes his PGA TOUR debut Thursday.

The first step. The ultimate goal is be a regular out here.

“I can do it,” Johnson said. “For sure. I just have to keep grinding. I’ve come way too far to give up now. I’m in too deep. The biggest thing in life is to surround myself with good people.”

Bentley is one of those people. He started the APGA in 2010 with Adrian Stills, who briefly played the TOUR. The hope was that it would not only groom Black players for tournament golf but open eyes and doors to opportunities in the industry.

The PGA TOUR has invested enough in the APGA to make available some of its TPC network. Instead of going to public courses in hardscrabble conditions, the schedule this year takes the 60-man fields to Valhalla and the TPC Sugarloaf, TPC Louisiana and TPC Scottsdale, all of them with a history of hosting the world’s best.

“We can play a tournament on a municipal course and it’s not going to prepare us for this,” Johnson said. “Just the PGA TOUR allowing that is going to go a long way. I guarantee you’re going to see more guys who look like me out here.”

And now there is a chance for some real momentum.

Willie Mack filled in for Johnson at Torrey Pines and already received the Charlie Sifford exemption for the Genesis Invitational next week at Riviera. Johnson is at Pebble and the Honda Classic.

Pebble’s tournament director, Steve John, gave another spot this week to Kevin Hall, a former Big 10 champion from Ohio State who is Black and has been deaf since birth. Hall played the tournament 15 years ago. He was most recently was featured on CBS when it began coverage of the Masters as someone who knows what it’s like not to hear the roars.

That’s four PGA TOUR stops over two months with APGA members in the field.

“It is a chance for people to see how much talent there is on the APGA Tour,” Hall said in an email interview. “All those players need is a fair shake in being able to have access to everything they need to be able to get to the next level, and the APGA Tour is part of the maturing process of being a professional golfer.

“The tour is only going to get bigger and better in the coming years.”

For Johnson, it always has been about access and relationships. Only one of those has come easily.

Johnson dropped out of school in the eighth grade, beaten down by being stuck in a class of slow learners. He was living with his grandmother in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment adjacent to a public golf course. One day, he was outside swinging a stick when Jan Auger approached.

“She could have come up and said, `Hey, you’re trespassing,’ or `Get back in the house before you get hit by a golf ball.’ Instead, she gave me a 9-iron and a bucket of balls,” Johnson said. “When she did that, I found purpose in my life.”

Unbeknownst to her supervisors, she charged him $1 a day to play all he wanted. Johnson helped out around the course that became a second home. By 18, he qualified for the Florida Open. He moved to New York with a friend to caddie and earned enough to qualify for tournaments in one of the strongest golf sections in America.

He has won a dozen times on mini-tours, and his big one came last year at the APGA Tour Championship, which led to an exemption to a PGA TOUR event — not the one he thought, but Pebble Beach works just fine.

“I wouldn’t be here without the APGA,” Johnson said. He told stories of Bentley covering his entry fees when he was low on money, all in the name of access and opportunity.

He has ambassador roles with Farmers Insurance. Titleist provides equipment, which included the first time Johnson was ever fitted for golf clubs. “An eye-opener,” said Johnson, who for years bought clubs off the rack at discount prices.

Bentley said along with access, members of the APGA are still lacking when it comes to equipment and top coaching.

“We surveyed the players and were shocked to learn some had never been fitted for clubs, they were using wedges that were three or four years old,” he said. “We’re starting to give guys tools to level the playing field.”

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