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After a remarkable journey, Kamaiu Johnson set for Farmers Insurance Open

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After a remarkable journey, Kamaiu Johnson set for Farmers Insurance Open

Kamaiu Johnson, once an eighth-grade dropout, has eyes on PGA TOUR

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

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    At the old muni they called him My-My, the eighth-grade dropout who was raised by golf. The men at the course treated him like a son, offering guidance he’d never known, while the assistant pro gave him work in exchange for $1 rounds of golf.

    Gradually, he found a home. Gradually, he became a player. Earlier this week Kamaiu (Cam-My-You) Johnson, who never knew his father and never felt welcomed in school, was prepared to make his first PGA TOUR start at the Farmers Insurance Open.

    “It’s kind of surreal,” says Jan Auger, the assistant pro who has since become General Manager of Tallahassee’s Hilaman Golf Course. “It’s hard to put into words. Kamaiu is like my son.”

    Alas, Johnson, 27, who has since gotten his GED, withdrew Tuesday after testing positive for COVID-19. Fellow Farmers ambassador and friend Willie Mack III will replace him in the field.

    “To say that I’m disappointed would be a massive understatement,” Johnson said in a prepared statement. “I’ve dreamed of playing on the PGA TOUR for a long, long time, but health and safety come first. It’s times like these where you have to keep focusing on the bigger picture at hand, and from my experience, a fork in the road often has an interesting way of leading to new opportunities.”

    Johnson would know.

    Opportunity knocks

    The men at the old muni were all fathers to Johnson, who also found help along the way from the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour (APGA), which aims to promote diversity in golf and which the PGA TOUR has supported with its courses and facilities since 2012.

    All fueled Johnson’s wild ride, but it’s the adults who practically raised him at Hilaman and nine-hole Jake Gaither G.C. who have most closely followed his career. “Kamaiu is the next legend,” says Hank Sykes, 66, an ex-swimming pool installer and one of the Hilaman regulars.

    How the legend expanded beyond Tallahassee goes back to the APGA’s first-ever one-day tournament at Torrey North while the Farmers Insurance Open played out on the South last year. Farmers CEO Jeff Dailey, wowed by Johnson’s story, made him and former Michigan Amateur winner Willie Mack III brand ambassadors, easing their financial burdens.

    It was just the start. While a summer of tragedies and racial unrest roiled America, Johnson posted five straight top-10s on the APGA Tour, culminating with a victory over Tim O’Neal and former TOUR pro Brad Adamonis at the APGA Tour Championship in September. His best-ever payday of $16,000 was sweet; he didn’t know a spot in the Farmers was just around the corner.

    “We value diversity and are proud to help support the APGA Tour in its mission to level the playing field for many talented golfers,” Farmers CEO Dailey said in announcing the invitation in October. “The APGA is doing incredible work to expand the game of golf, and we are thrilled to be able to provide Kamaiu the chance to play in his first-ever PGA TOUR tournament.”

    What happens when APGA Tour meets PGA TOUR? Johnson, who lives in Orlando with roommate and PGA TOUR Latinoamérica player Keith Greene, says the two aren’t always worlds apart. “There are really good players on the APGA Tour that, if they got more opportunities, could play on the PGA TOUR,” he says. “People don’t understand how much it takes to get through Q school and everything. It’s a lot of money.

    “We have to put ourselves in position to take advantage of those opportunities,” he continues. “Make it to the weekend and show we can play out there just like those guys.”

    The key word there is opportunities. Last summer TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan pledged $100 million to help address disparities faced by African Americans and other under-represented groups. The TOUR’s alliance with the Advocates (APGA) Tour, and Farmers, is part of that.

    Ken Bentley, CEO of APGA Tour, says success stories like Johnson show the APGA living into its mission to place people of color not just on TOUR but also in pro shops and boardrooms. And while Johnson will miss out this week, he’s also been given a sponsor’s exemption to compete in the Korn Ferry Tour’s Emerald Coast Golf Classic at Sandestin in Destin, Florida, in early April.

    A bed under the table

    Johnson was lost before he found golf. Put in slow-learner classes in school, he got discouraged and dropped out. Living with his grandmother and six other family members in a two-bedroom apartment in Section 8 housing, he slept under the dining room table.

    Golf came into his life by chance on a day when he was skipping school and swinging a stick outside his grandmother’s apartment complex, which bordered Hilaman.

    “I thought it was a golf club,” Auger says. “When I saw that it was a stick it made me laugh. It wasn’t like he was addressing the ball, but it had the fluidity of a golf swing.”

    She invited him back to Hilaman, and they cobbled together some clubs. He showed promise even if he couldn’t beat Johnnie Lee Brown, a Hilaman regular who once shot 59 at Gaither. Local businesses and others chipped in for equipment, lessons and tournament entry fees.

    When his mom temporarily relocated for work, Johnson lived with Ramon Alexander, who mentored young Black men and later became a member of the Florida House of Representatives. For two years, the arrangement provided Johnson much-needed stability. He kept playing golf.

    At 19, he finally beat Brown, and when he won the first of his four Tallahassee Opens, the first thing he did was bring Sykes to the pro shop to buy him a hat with his merchandise credit.

    For Auger, who was standing behind the counter, the gesture meant even more than the victory.

    “I thought wow, he’s grown up to be such a good person,” she says. “I’d call Hank sometimes if Kamaiu was giving me a hard time, and Hank would straighten him out.”

    Adds Sykes, whose brother, Freddie, played wide receiver for the New England Patriots, “It’s a good hat. Seminoles. I still got it. He was 12 or 13 when I first seen him and started talkin’ to him, and we became real good friends. I didn’t teach him a lot of golf, but I taught him how to act. Yes, sir. No, ma’am. It was a community thing to teach him how to play golf.”

    ‘He’s got big-show game’

    Johnson’s career low is 62. He practices at Orlando’s Lake Nona Golf and Country Club but has lately been picking the brain of former TOUR and PGA TOUR Champions pro Jim Thorpe at nearby Heathrow Golf Club. What’s it like on TOUR? What should he do? What to avoid?

    “Just feeling like I belong there; that’s kind of how I’m taking it,” Johnson says.

    Andy Walker, one of his coaches, insists he really does belong.

    “He’s got big-show game,” says Walker, who played the Korn Ferry Tour and is now the golf coach at Div. II Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. “He has a couple of intangibles, one of which is the length. For a thin guy he has plenty of clubhead speed and can move it. That’s going to be one of his major assets. We’re making sure he’s committing to and hitting the right shots.

    “The maturation in his game, especially the last six or seven months, has been awesome,” he continues. “His background – Kamaiu is a fighter. He’s worked for what he’s got. Nothing was handed to him, so I think he’s used to being in a situation where you’ve got to go get it.”

    Johnson occasionally ran into FSU golfers Daniel Berger and Brooks Koepka in Tallahassee, but the local kid and the collegiate superstars were essentially living in different worlds.

    “There just hasn’t been a lot of money in Black golf,” says Johnson, who also represents Titleist and Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a software company in Massachusetts. Those companies plus Farmers, the APGA, the TOUR, and NBA star Stephen Curry’s support for HBCU Howard Univerity’s golf teams, not to mention other initiatives, are helping to change that.

    “I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction,” Johnson says.

    Back in Tallahassee recently, he visited Sykes, who marveled at Johnson’s staff bag. Brown, who also taught Johnson on and off the course, died suddenly at 81 earlier this month. Employed by the city of Tallahassee, he worked at Gaither and passed shortly after shooting his age.

    The pool of pioneering minority golfers shrinks each year, and Gaither, one of the first courses to allow Blacks, will soon be entered into the historic registry. There is much work to be done; golf is less diverse than it was in the 1980s, the heyday of Thorpe, Calvin Peete and others.

    The APGA Tour will play at Torrey North again this week while Johnson quarantines. He thanked Farmers and the Century Club of San Diego for the opportunity and for promoting diversity in golf and beyond, partly by giving friend Willie Mack the nod as his replacement.

    “Getting a brief glimpse of the Farmers Insurance Open and what it would be like to play on the PGA TOUR only further ignites the fire inside me to work that much harder to chase the dream of playing on TOUR full-time,” Johnson said as part of his statement.

    In other words, his first TOUR start can’t hide forever. There is, he says, no Plan B.

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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