Billy Horschel APGA Tour Invitational provides opportunity for minority role models to shine
Two-day event held at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass
July 30, 2021
By Jeff Babineau, PGATOUR.COM
- July 30, 2021
- Willie Mack III shot 3-under 69 on Friday to take the tournament lead. (Max Mai)
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There are days when Jan Auger watches Kamaiu Johnson play golf and finds it difficult not to cry. Friday at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass during the inaugural Billy Horschel APGA Tour Invitational presented by Cisco was one of those mornings.
Auger, general manager of two golf courses for the City of Tallahassee, frequently reflects to her chance meeting years ago with Johnson. As does he, and both are grateful the universe put them together. Johnson was a 12-year-old who already had dropped out of middle school in the small town of Madison. He did not have a father figure in his life, and had no direction. He was swinging a stick like a golf club, walking on the fringes near the fourth hole of Hilaman Golf Course, where Auger works, imitating the golfers he would see each day outside the two-bedroom unit he shared with his grandmother and six others.
Auger could have told Johnson that he was trespassing. She easily could have sent him on his way. Who knows how his life would have turned out but for a random act of kindness? She made him an offer from the heart. She sent him to the clubhouse, fetched a 9-iron and gave him a bucket of balls to hit. From there, Johnson was hooked. The club let him play for $1 a day, and it changed his life. Completely. Today, Johnson, 28, is a professional golfer, a man who rises each day chasing a dream. He started his own foundation (My My Foundation) to help introduce inner-city minority youths to golf. Johnson opened with a 1-under 71 on Friday, two shots behind leader Willie Mack III.
“He’s like my son,” Auger said as she watched Johnson play the back nine. Johnson lives in Orlando now, but the two talk or text most every day. “It’s emotional for me to watch him. I told him last week, we’re going to come and see you play, and I don’t care if you shoot wide receiver (high) numbers. I just love watching you play.”
This week at TPC Sawgrass, Johnson is competing among a select field of minority golfers (17 professionals and 15-year-old amateur Awesome Burnett comprise the field) in a two-day shootout, playing an event organized by Horschel, his management team and his generous sponsors under the umbrella of the 11-year-old Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour. The APGA was formed to try to make golf more diversified, and to provide playing opportunities that would help to develop Black golfers and other minority players to reach higher levels. Ken Bentley, a retired Nestle USA executive who serves as the unsalaried director of the APGA, once said that when he looks into his crystal ball, he sees “America out on the golf course. That’s our goal.”
Horschel, 34, is a successful PGA TOUR professional, a six-time winner with $28.2 million in career earnings who remembers his own humble lower-middle-class beginnings. He wasn’t always able to afford the junior tournaments he wanted to play. He acknowledges how financially challenging the game can be, and he is passionate about giving back. Know this: He doesn’t attach his name to any venture without diving in fully.
Horschel said he wants to see more minorities playing on the PGA TOUR in five or 10 years, and for that to happen, young golfers will need role models in order to make golf their choice. All efforts with his new tournament are aimed to help create those role models.
“These are the guys who are going to reach kids in the inner cities, to reach kids that have a different background than what mine is, of my skin color, and how I grew up,” Horschel said. “These players are how the game is going to be, and that’s how the game is going to grow.”
Horschel has been hanging around with players at TPC Sawgrass the last few days. He played in the pro-am and sat with players at lunch on Friday, answering their questions. He plans to work with a few on the practice tee. He is making sure that players will leave one of America’s iconic courses with more than just the memories of birdies and bogeys and how they performed on TPC Sawgrass’ famed island 17th. There was a pro-am for players to network with business executives on Thursday, and a business roundtable that featured big corporate hitters such as CEOs Jeff Dailey (Farmers Insurance) and Chuck Robbins (Cisco). Players rotated to different tables during dinner. This week is all about connections.
The golf is a great opportunity, too: Experience one of the best tests on the PGA TOUR each year, where all the great players have competed, and play for an $80,000 purse that includes a winner’s check of $25,000.
“We’re fortunate to be able to play pro-ams (on the PGA TOUR),” Horschel said. “You connect with sponsors and other people in the corporate world, and if you’re able to create relationships and grow them organically, then these people are going to want to help you with your dream of chasing the PGA TOUR.
“Maybe they’ll sponsor you. If that dream (to play) doesn’t come to fruition, those people who you have met, who you have created this relationship with, more than likely are going to be there to help you if you need to figure out that next path in life.”
Willie Mack III, who made the cut in his two most recent summer PGA TOUR starts (Rocket Mortgage Classic and John Deere Classic), shot 3-under 69 on Friday to take the tournament lead. Johnson, Troy Taylor II and APGA rookie Mahindra Lutchman, who recently graduated from Florida A&M University, will start Saturday’s final round two shots back.
Kevin Hall is one of the APGA’s more seasoned players at age 38, and has been with the APGA since the start. When the tour began, there were three events on public courses and total purses of $40,000. Hall shot 73 on Friday. Ten days earlier, a closing 63 at TPC John Deere in Silvis, Ill., lifted him to his first APGA victory since 2018.
Why still chase the dream? “Every morning I have fire in my belly,” he said. “What can I do today to get better? When I win, this game just pulls me back in.”
Hall is a huge inspiration and terrific role model. He is deaf, and answers questions through his saintly mom, Jackie, who translates a writer’s questions into sign language. Hall is a great barometer to measure how golf is doing as the sport tries to better diversify its playing field. He marvels at the quality of venues on this season’s schedule, which include courses that play host to big-time events. The APGA is at the home of THE PLAYERS this week, and earlier competed at Valhalla, site of four PGA Championships a Ryder Cup.
“To have a tournament at TPC Sawgrass … five, six, seven years ago, I never thought this would happen,” Hall said. “All 18 of us that are here are very blessed to have Billy and his sponsors do this.”
Mack, 32, from Flint, Mich., has seen momentum in his game this summer growing with each new opportunity. After missing the cut in his first two PGA TOUR starts, he played solidly for three rounds at the Korn Ferry Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am, shooting 66 in the third round, and played on the weekend at the PGA TOUR’s Rocket Mortgage Classic and John Deere Classic.
How different can life be in the big leagues? At the Rocket Mortgage, Mack tied for 71st and collected $15,000. It’s nice to have some money in the bank. In order to keep his dream alive, Mack has slept in his car when finances were tight.
“I was excited when I heard about this event, not only for me, but for everybody else,” Mack said. “To play for that kind of money, and to play in this environment, it’s really special.”
For Mack, with each start at a big tournament, big venue, the lights do not seem to feel so bright, and the stage is not nearly as intimidating. His next step when the APGA season wraps up will be Korn Ferry Q-School, which can be a path to the PGA TOUR.
It’s just golf,” Mack said, smiling. “I’ve talked to Billy a lot, and Rickie (Fowler), played with them a couple of times. I feel I have the game, I just have to get those opportunities. When I do, I just need to play well, and to have fun.”
Fun wasn’t really on the radar on Friday for Awesome Burnett. He is a 15-year-old from Flower Mound, Texas, who doesn’t yet have his learner’s permit. On Friday, on an incredibly difficult test of golf, he struggled off the tee with the driver. For a player out of position, the Stadium Course can less forgiving than an IRS audit.
Burnett is a nice story though, a player to watch, and he has a long runway ahead as he takes his own journey in golf. He and his parents, Brittany and Mark (Awesome’s caddie this week), are immersed in the game. (“Even our family dog plays with golf balls,” Brittany says, laughing.) Already their son has made most every sports fans’ All-Name team. Awesome Burnett? It’s, well, awesome. There is purpose in the name.
Said Brittany, “I tell him all the time, you have a chance to wake up in the morning and be Awesome.” She and Mark also have a 13-year-old daughter named Amazing. Brittany smiles. “I tell her, ‘When you go to bed, you’re Amazing. And you’ll be Amazing when you wake up. You have no choice.’ So when Awesome is having some troubles on the course, I just tell him, ‘Go out and be Awesome. Be you.’”
Awesome shot 89 on Friday, losing a couple sleeves of balls in Stadium Course penalty areas. He hung tough, holing a beautiful pitch for birdie at 15 and hitting it onto the green at No. 17. It’s golf, and he is very, very young. He dealt with a neck injury earlier this year, and a growth spurt has pushed Awesome to nearly 6 feet to carry his 122 pounds. He’ll add muscle. He is getting used to swinging with his new body. Before Wednesday, he’d only seen the Stadium Course when he played video games at home. And despite a tough day, he was a happy kid at the end of it.
“I’ve been having a great time,” Awesome said. “It lets me see a lot of different things, meet people, and see what has to be improved in my game.”
Playing alongside him was Johnson, who offered encouragement when he could. Johnson has had his share of tough days, too. Johnson knows Awesome Burnett and others like him represent the future of golf. Johnson could only imagine trying to take on such a difficult test of golf at age 15.
“Fifteen,” Johnson said, pausing, thinking, looking back. “Kind of reminds me of how I was stepping out on the PGA TOUR this year.”
With that, he smiled. Fortunately, with opportunities such as this one so graciously hosted by Billy Horschel, things will only get better. Johnson finds himself in a pretty good place these days.
“He is such a good person,” Auger says as she stands in the shadows on a hot day and watches Johnson play. “Kamaiu could have gone down the wrong road, and he knows that. Golf saved him.”