Earlier this year, before his first start on the Phoenix-based Gateway tour, Vincent Johnson got a call from Charlie Sifford, golf's Jackie Robinson. "Anything worth doing is never easy," the 86-year-old Sifford said to the 22-year-old rookie, "so stick with it and work hard on your game."
Johnson took the advice to heart and on Monday was named the first recipient of the Northern Trust Open's Charlie Sifford Exemption, awarded to a golfer of high character and accomplishment who advances the cause of diversity. Johnson, who first earned wide attention in 2007, when he won the PGA of America's National Minority Collegiate Golf Championship by 12 shots, will tee it up with 143 other players when the Northern Trust begins on Feb. 19 at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
"Mr. Sifford endured a lot for me to be able to play pro golf," says Johnson, who had met Sifford years ago at an awards banquet. "It's important to know your history and to know where the game has come from."
Johnson comes from Portland, Ore., where his father, Darren, taught him and his three older brothers to play. Vincent went on to win 68 junior events and two collegiate titles while attending Oregon State from 2005 to '08. A team captain for two seasons, Johnson graduated in three years with a degree in finance and turned pro late last year.
Since then he has struggled with both of his Corvallis pursuits: golf and financing. "I didn't have a consistent track record in college and that's your resume," he says. Two weeks ago at the third tournament of the Gateway tour's winter series, he earned his first check, for $800, by finishing 65th. "I have felt better and better about my game every week," Johnson says.
He'll have a chance to earn a lot more at the Northern Trust, which has a purse of $6.3 million, but he's not getting ahead of himself. Johnson plans to enjoy the moment and soak up as much as he can from the other players. Johnson hopes to find an experienced Tour caddie who is familiar with the intricacies of Riviera, where in 1969 Sifford earned the second of his two PGA Tour victories. "I don't want to worry too much about my scores," says Johnson. "I would like to contend and play well, but I know this is a bigger cause than me: to bring greater awareness to minorities and diversity in golf."