Kamaiu Johnson Making Most of His Opportunities

While the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open was in full swing at Torrey Pines in late January, 16 golfers teed off on the neighboring North Course that Saturday beginning at 7 a.m. as part of an Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour event.

For many on the APGA Tour, which was created in 2010 to prepare Black and other minority golfers to compete and gain better access in the golf industry, it was the first time playing on a PGA Tour-quality course and enjoying the fans and atmosphere that come along with it.

The one-day, 27-hole event not only gave golfers like Kamaiu Johnson an opportunity to be closer to their dream of being on the PGA Tour—as he teed off at No. 10 on the North Course, Tiger Woods was doing the same at No. 1 on the neighboring South Course during the Farmers Insurance Open third round—it also gave Johnson an opportunity to tell his story.

A story that includes sleeping under the living room table as his mother, grandmother and six kids were crammed into a two-bedroom, Section 8 apartment in Tallahassee, Florida. A story that includes surviving on food stamps and eating Cheerios for dinner, if they had dinner at all. A story that includes dropping out of school in eighth grade. A story that includes never knowing his father. A story that includes having a bank account at zero as recent as 2019.

Little did Johnson know that his story coupled with his success on the APGA Tour, which included winning the 2020 APGA Championship that September and top-10 finishes in the tour’s final five events, would earn him another opportunity.

Johnson, 27, will be making his PGA Tour debut on Thursday, January 28, at the 2021 Farmers Insurance Open after receiving a sponsor exemption from Farmers Insurance.

“It just goes to show how quickly your life can change in a year when you work hard and believe in yourself and get a little opportunity,” Johnson told me. “It’s amazing how far you can go.”

After hearing Johnson’s harrowing tale, Farmers CEO Jeff Dailey reached out to APGA Tour founder and CEO Ken Bentley, who is also a Farmers board member. In June, Farmers Insurance announced multi-year sponsorships for Johnson and fellow APGA Tour player Willie Mack III, a former Michigan amateur champion, to help cover travel expenses. Four months later, Johnson was awarded a sponsor’s exemption—his mouth agape with shock before a smile from ear to ear when he was told the news.

“I listened to Kamaiu’s story as he was questioned by reporters and I was blown away by a kid who had literally not a single thing or advantage in his life most of us take for granted and how much he worked for what he got,” Dailey said. “When we walked out of the tent I grabbed Ken and said, ‘We have to do something.’”

His first opportunity

Growing up, Johnson loved baseball—it’s where he learned how to be a leader and how to keep calm under pressure. Starring as a catcher on a youth travel team that won the 2006 Dizzy Dean World Series, Johnson dreamed of getting drafted out of high school, though he never advanced past eighth grade (he later got his GED).

Outside his apartment complex which bordered Hilaman Golf Course in Tallahassee, Florida, Johnson was practicing his swing. His natural, fluid motion caught the eye of assistant course pro and former LPGA golfer Jan Auger, who was equally curious as to why the teenager wasn’t in school. As she began approaching Johnson, Auger realized he wasn’t taking cuts with a baseball bat or golf club, he was wielding a stick.

The two talked and Auger offered the 14-year-old a chance to hit golf balls using a real club—a 9-iron and a bucket of balls would be waiting for him at the clubhouse.

Eventually a bucket of balls turned into another opportunity. Auger made a deal with Johnson: if he helped around the course with tasks including picking up range balls, washing golf carts and painting in the pro shop, he could play the course for $1 a round.

Hilaman Golf Course became Johnson’s second home for the next five years. He’d do his work around the course and clubhouse then play round after round after round. He’d learn about the game from older members, while honing his own. From there, Johnson would go on to win 10 events on mini-tours and the Tallahassee Open three times. 

All he needed was an opportunity, like many young players of color.

“Golf is a different kind of sport,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to do something when you’re not introduced to it or nobody in your family has ever done it. It’s hard for us to take on golf. We don’t have golf in our community. If we do, there’s not much opportunity there.”

A lack of opportunities

While out of the approximately 400 card-carrying members on the PGA Tour there were 94 international players from 29 countries and territories outside the United States in 2020, the Tour confirmed to Golfweek there were just four current players with Black heritage: Joseph Bramlett, Cameron Champ, Harold Varner III and Tiger Woods.

Of the 582 members on the LPGA and Symetra Tours, 323 are white (55%), 183 are Asian (31%), 51 are Latina or Hispanic (9%), 10 are Black or African American (2%), eight are Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, six identify as multiracial, and one American Indian or Alaskan Native.

First Tee, a youth development program organization that introduces golf and its values to young people, offers its programming at 1,200 golf facilities. Participants in these chapters are 52% white or caucasian, 19% Latino or Hispanic, 14% Black or African American, and 6% Asian.

The lack of opportunities for golfers of color can even be traced to a “Caucasian-only clause” that existed in the PGA of America from 1934-61, which was part of the association’s bylaws preventing non-whites from membership and from competing on the PGA Tour. 

Not only were organizations preventing golfers of color from joining, but many courses and country clubs also remained segregated. Founded in 1932, Augusta National, the home of the Masters, didn’t admit its first Black member until 1990, and its first female members until 2012.

“It’s just opportunities, well, a lack of opportunities, but when we do get those opportunities we have to be ready to showcase our talents,” Johnson said. “I’ve been helped by so many people whether it’s Black people, white people, male or female—it’s been a village who raised me. I’m a prime example of what can happen when everybody comes together and works together.”

The lack of diversity in the game of golf, especially at its upper ranks is what spurred Bentley to create the APGA Tour. Not only is the game not as accessible, but it’s expensive, especially on the journey to the PGA and LPGA—travel, personalized equipment, lessons, membership fees, clothing, entrance fees, and on and on.

“PGA Tour players change wedges probably every month or two, but we had guys using 3-year-old wedges who had never been fitted for clubs,” Bentley said. “You can’t compete at the highest level if you don’t have access to get fitted for the right clubs. I think money will take care of a lot of that. It’s also the access to technology and the opportunity to get into a tournament.”

Providing a pathway

More than 10 years since its founding, the APGA Tour continues to grow, thanks in part to its partners and sponsors.

Its debut season featured just three tournaments at inner-city courses with 50 golfers competing for a grand total of $4,000. The Tour not only gained credibility but much-needed funding thanks to a deal with the PGA Tour in 2012. 

Farmers Insurance, Lexus, PGA Tour of America, and Enterprise/National are also vital sponsors and partners of the APGA Tour. Farmers will again host an APGA Tour event in conjunction with the Farmers Insurance Open and is more than tripling the prize money from last year’s tournament. Lexus is the Tour’s presenting sponsor and sponsors the Lexus Cup, which is similar to the PGA Tour’s points-based FedEx Cup.

“Golf needs to think about how they create opportunities for everyone, especially youth,” Dailey said. “Talking to the PGA and (commissioner) Jay Monahan, they understand this and how they can broaden the reach of golf. The next Tiger Woods is probably going to come from a place we don’t currently expect.”

In 2020, 120 different golfers participated in APGA Tour events, though the Tour made a strategic decision to limit membership to 60. This year the APGA Tour will host 13 tournaments with prize money eclipsing $300,000. Two events will be played on courses that have hosted PGA Tour major tournaments (Valhalla and Torrey Pines) with six others on TPC courses.

Bentley said the Tour has a five-year goal of placing a golfer on the PGA Tour. In order to achieve this, they began a player development program that assists with lessons, equipment and entry fees, while top golf coaches and instructors including Todd Anderson, Sean Foley, John Graham and Jon Hardesty have donated their services to help APGA Tour golfers get to the next level.

“We really wanted to put our guys in a situation playing on courses they’d play on if they made it to the PGA Tour or Korn Ferry Tour,” Bentley said. “Overall our Tour has grown tremendously. Scores are significantly lower than when we started even though we’re playing on much better golf courses. We’re extremely excited about this year and the future.”

Kamaiu’s chance

Kamaiu Johnson is looking at his first-ever PGA Tour event as another round of golf. He isn’t putting any extra pressure on himself as he goes up against a field featuring some of the game’s best players including Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth; Woods will miss the event after undergoing another procedure on his back.

“My mentality is to take what I’ve been through and apply it that week,” Johnson said. “This is just another golf tournament. This is where I always wanted to be, so I can’t go out there doubting myself.

“There’s a lot of good players on the APGA Tour who can be in my shoes right now, so I think it’s important to me that I play well and represent the APGA Tour well to give other guys an opportunity like this.”

Johnson won’t only be representing the APGA Tour and Farmers Insurance. Titleist equipped him with shirts, shoes, gloves and clubs; in fact, he had his first-ever club fitting last year. Cambridge Mobile Telematics also recently named Johnson a brand ambassador.

The support and opportunities will continue this year. Not only will Johnson be making his PGA Tour debut in 2021, his Korn Ferry Tour debut is also awaiting after he was awarded a sponsor’s exemption from Korn Ferry to the 2021 Emerald Coast Golf Classic at Sandestin from March 29 to April 4.

“Kamaiu is a great example of how lives can be changed through the game of golf thanks to people like Jan Auger paying it forward and the support of partners like Farmers Insurance,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “As a fan of the sport, I’m looking forward to seeing him compete at the Farmers Insurance Open and I’m certain he will inspire me and many others along the way.”

On his Instagram bio, Johnson lists Jeremiah 29:11, which reads: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Johnson hopes his journey and that of fellow APGA Tour golfers including Willie Mack III, who is making his PGA Tour debut at the Genesis Invitational (February 18-21) and Kevin Hall, who is playing in his sixth PGA Tour event at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am (February 8-14), will help inspire others, especially in golf.

“It’s amazing right now in 2021 to be young, black and gifted,” Johnson said. “There are opportunities now and people are starting to open their eyes to make changes, including in the game of golf. I think it’s amazing and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s only good for golf. It goes to show what kind of direction we are moving in.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney


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