Two-time TOUR winner Bill Johnston dies at age 96
April 26, 2021
By Laury Livsey, PGATOUR.COM
- April 26, 2021
- Bill Johnston, right, during his 2018 Arizona Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony. (Courtesy of Arizona Golf Hall of Fame)
When Bill Johnston won the 1960 Utah Open, he did it at a familiar place. In college, Johnston, a Pennsylvania native who grew up in Ogden, Utah, played many rounds at the Salt Lake Country Club while attending the University of Utah. Ten years after his college career ended, Johnston returned to the venerable Salt Lake City private club in September for the Utah Open, and all he did was put on a virtuoso performance on the final day, shooting the low round by a PGA TOUR winner that season—a 9-under 63—that allowed him to pass five players in the final round and win the tournament by two shots.
That turned out to be quite a season for Johnston. Not only did he win on the PGA TOUR, he battled Argentina’s Roberto De Vicenzo all week in the French Open at Saint-Cloud, eventually settling for second. Also, that summer, he joined Arnold Palmer as the only two Americans to make the cut at The Open Championship.
While continuing his playing career, Johnston began a lucrative and successful golf course design business, a job he pursued well into his 80s.
Johnston peacefull passed away in Idaho on April 23, 2021. He was 96.
As a child, Johnston learned the game caddying at Ogden’s El Monte Country Club, where he recalled being able to play usually once a month—if he was lucky enough to convince a member to loan Johnston his clubs. He eventually honed his game, playing well in Utah amateur circles and captaining the Weber State College golf team as a freshman. Johnston then joined the U.S. Army in 1945. Upon his return, Johnston enrolled at the University of Utah. He served as a three-year captain (1948-50) of the golf team and enjoyed great success in Intermountain West tournaments, taking the title at the 1947 Utah Amateur, the 1948 Idaho State Amateur and the 1949 Salt Lake City Amateur. He was also the low amateur at the 1948 Utah Open, a PGA TOUR event that season. He turned pro in 1950, accepting the job as head pro at Empire Golf and Country Club in Vernal, Utah, a course he designed.
Johnston made his PGA TOUR debut as a professional in 1951, tying for 47th in the Los Angeles Open. Between 1952 and 1955, Johnston played a smattering of tournaments while tending to his various head pro positions. He became the head pro at Provo’s Timpanogos Golf Course in 1952 and moved to Arizona Country Club in 1958.
As a touring pro, Johnston finally broke through in 1956 at the PGA Championship at Blue Hill Country Club in Canton, Massachusetts. Johnston defeated Guy Paulsen, Jay Hebert, Tony Fortino, Walter Burkemo and Henry Ransom before falling to Ted Kroll in the semifinals, 10 and 8. Johnston shared third-place money with Ed Furgol, who lost in 37 holes in the semifinals to eventual champion Jack Burke, Jr.
Johnston’s big breakthrough came in 1958 at San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park Golf Course. At the Texas Open, Johnston was tied for second through 36 holes, six strokes behind Dave Marr. In the 36-hole finale, Johnston fired scores of 66-68 to coast past Marr and hold off Bob Rosburg for a three-shot triumph.
He followed that with his second TOUR title in his adopted home state. He never matched or bettered his final-round 63 in any of his other 645 career TOUR rounds.
As he curtailed his playing career—between 1964 and 1974 he only reached double figures in starts once (11 in 1972)—his course-design business continued to flourish. After constructing the course in Vernal, he went on to design Continental Country Club in Flagstaff, Arizona (1960), two courses in Phoenix—the Links Course at Arizona Biltmore Country Club (1978) and Pointe Hilton Golf Club on Lookout Mountain (1989)—and Rancho Manana in Cave Creek, Arizona (1987) and four courses in Texas: Tapatio Springs Resort in Boerne (1981), The Dominion Country Club in San Antonio (1984), Legacy Ridge Country Club in Bonham, (2003) and The Hideout Golf Club in Brownwood (2008).
“I do everything on site. I walk the land until I determine which way I want to go. I walk backward and forward. Not quite sideways, but every which way,” Johnston said of his design philosophy in a 2014 interview. “I learned a lot about shaping and putting things into perspective as far as turns. I always try to get slight doglegs into golf courses, six or seven of them, at least, and I built them for fun and possibly (to host) a tournament.
“From then on, it seemed like invitations kept rolling in to build courses,” Johnston added.
In addition to his TOUR titles, Johnston was a three-time winner of the Arizona Open, while also winning the 1972 Colorado PGA Championship and the 1973 Colorado Open.
Although he turned 50 in 1975, well before PGA TOUR Champions played its inaugural season, in 1980, Johnston was an active senior player, appearing in 196 tournaments between 1980 and 1999. His best showing came in the circuit’s first event—the Atlantic City Senior International. Johnston finished third, four shots behind winner Don January.
In 1994, Johnston became a member of the Utah Golf Hall of Fame and the Arizona Golf Hall of Fame inducting Johnston in 2018.
He is survived by his wife of nearly 64 years, JoAnne, and their four sons: Brad, Blake, Brice and Burke.
A private family service will be held in Utah at a future date.