LOS ANGELES (AP) — On the clubhouse balcony at Riviera, high enough to see the Pacific Ocean over the tops of eucalyptus trees that frame fairways, Vincent Johnson hardly looked like a player about to make his PGA Tour debut.
For one thing, he was dressed smartly in a dark suit and tie.
He also stood out because of the color of his skin.
In the dozen years since Tiger Woods joined the PGA Tour, the number of players with African-American heritage at PGA events have been few. Kevin Hall, who is black and deaf, has received sponsor exemptions in New Orleans and Pebble Beach. Tim O’Neal has made it as far as the final stage of Q-school. Tony Smith qualified for the Buick Invitational two weeks ago.
Johnson, a two-time winner in college at Oregon State, might not have received the chance to play in the Northern Trust Open alongside defending champion Phil Mickelson if not for a newly created exemption that honors a pioneer.
In a ceremony Wednesday afternoon, he was introduced as the first recipient of the Charlie Sifford Exemption, which goes to a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf
“It’s just been a little surreal, this whole thing,” Johnson said. “Finding out that I was just a candidate, I was really honored because of what Mr. Sifford stands for. And to receive it … things like this don’t happen to me.”
Sifford was the first black to become a PGA Tour member in 1961 after spending the prime of his career in what seemed like a hopeless campaign against the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause. The last of his two victories came 40 years ago this month at the Los Angeles Open, held that year at Rancho Municipal Golf Course.
“I thank Northern Trust for giving this young man a chance,” Sifford said. “I hope some day we have some more.”
Johnson faces long odds of becoming a regular on the PGA Tour, although nothing like Sifford endured – the death threats, the court battles, even finding feces in a cup when he did manage to play.
He learned to play when his father took a job as a mechanic at a public course near Portland, and despite winning twice during his three years at Oregon State, the competition gets stiffer with each level. Johnson has competed in five USGA events and has yet to qualify for the match-play portion of the tournament.
“My struggle to hopefully get to the PGA Tour one day won’t be as difficult as his was, but you take inspiration from stories like that,” Johnson said. “you think things are going to difficult, and things are going to be perhaps ugly at times. But if you want something bad enough, just stick with it and soon enough, I think you’ll achieve it.”
Johnson will play with Bryce Molder and Soren Hansen of Denmark, the last group of the morning wave Thursday, starting on the short but tricky 10th hole at Riviera.
The field includes Mickelson, trying to shake out of his West Coast doldrums; Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh and Dustin Johnson, coming off his rain-shortened victory at Pebble Beach.
Johnson has tried not to be in awe of such players when he sees them on the range, but it hasn’t been easy.
“I need to get over that pretty quick, because there’s a hundred guys I could be awe-struck about,” he said. “It’s really cool to be hitting balls with guys that I’m still idolizing right now.”
Woods is not among them. He hasn’t played Riviera since 2006, and still is recovering from knee surgery last June.
Johnson has never met him – except for a brief exchange in 1996 at Pumpkin Ridge, when a 20-year-old Woods was winning an unprecedented third straight U.S. Amateur.
“I was walking from the sixth green and there was a steep hill going down 7, and my brother said, ‘Just go up and get his autograph.’ I was scared that if I asked, he would rip my head off,” Johnson said. “But he was the nicest guy, signed it, and I still have my autograph.”
Where is it?
“Secret location,” he said with a smile.
His development is slowed by the lack of money, but he received plenty of moral support from his parents
His father, a mechanic, took a job at Glendoveer Golf Club so his sons could play golf for free. His mother, Marguerite, drove him to tournaments and made one sacrifice on the course that still warms Johnson’s heart.
“My mom actually was the one that took me out a ton early on,” he said. “When I was struggling, my mom would take me out and she would play – and she was horrible. So I would go out and pummel my mom and feel great and have a little swagger walking home, and I would be excited to play again. My brother wonders how I would have kept in the game if my mom had not done that.”
Mrs. Johnson laughed upon hearing this story.
She also is soaking up the week, thrilled to see the hard work pay such dividends.
“It’s fun to see him realize a dream he has had his whole life,” she said.
Johnson graduated Oregon State in three years with a major in finance and a minor in music. He has been playing the piano as long as he has been playing golf, and conceded to getting more nervous performing on keys than on the fairways.
“But maybe not this week,” he said.
Still, he gets a chance to play, which is what the Charlie Sifford Exemption is all about.