He played against, and beat, golf's stars
Bill Johnston surely would have had a meaty take on Michael Block’s Cinderella week at the PGA Championship, being as Johnston was among the few PGA club pros good enough to compete – and win – against golf’s biggest stars in the 1950s and 1960s.
“They didn’t want us club pros up out there,” Johnston told me in 2020, about a year before he died at age 96. More on that statement in a moment.
Johnston played in 335 PGA-sanctioned events and won twice – in 1958 at the Texas Open, three shots ahead of Bob Rosburg; and in 1960 at the Utah Open, two strokes ahead of Art Wall Jr. He finished T28 in the 1957 Masters, T3 in the 1956 PGA Championship (when it was match play), T32 in the 1953 U.S. Open and T26 in the 1960 British Open, according to his Wikipedia page.
In 2020, I got to play a round with Johnston, then 95, at his home club, The Biltmore in Phoenix, where people treated him with the same respect and reverence that I imagine was given to Ben Hogan at Colonial. That day, I caught him aiming down the cart path on one hole, trying to squeeze as much distance as he could from his laser-accurate 150-yard drives.
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” I asked. “I’m 95 years old,” he said with a smile.
Bill Johnston on playing with golf’s biggest names
“It was something playing with those guys,” he told me, referring to Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Jimmy Demaret and the other stars of the professional circuit of in the 1950s and 1960s.
“How so,” I asked. “Well, when I was paired with one of the big names, like Palmer or Snead, there’d always be a large gallery around the green, which meant that if the pin was near the edge of the green, you could go for it because if you missed the gallery would keep your shot from bouncing into trouble. I could hit shots I’d never try if I was playing in a normal group.”
Johnston became a PGA professional after World War II at a time of phenomenal growth in the sport. It wasn’t unusual for a talented PGA pro like him to be called on not only to run a golf course but to build them, too. He designed the Biltmore’s Links Course, Lookout Mountain in Phoenix, Dominion Country Club in San Antonio, Texas; The Hideout in Brownwood, Texas; and several others. Johnston also got involved in developing real estate around golf properties.
I had heard Johnston speak the previous December at a gathering of golf writers in Scottsdale. Sports Illustrated writer Gary Van Sickle had interviewed him earlier that year for an article. He did so again before the crowd of writers as Johnson talked about his time aboard a U.S. submarine during World War II. He had served aboard the USS Seafox during combat patrols. The story Johnson recounted that evening involved the sub’s firing torpedoes into a Japanese convoy, then evading depth-charge attacks despite the sub’s rudder being stuck, forcing it into tight circles.
I later would interview Johnston for the Library of Congress’s Veteran’s History Project in which I recorded him speaking into the camera in his Scottsdale living room. As a man who spent his adult life in golf, in the on-camera interview, he talked as much about his days on leave playing golf during the war years as he did describing his life as a yeoman on a sub.
Ask him abo9ut WWII and he’ll tell you about golf
In fact, if I had to come up with a quote-out for the interview, it might have been something like, “Yeah, I served on a submarine during World War II but I managed to play a lot of golf.” Highlights included replacing Sam Snead as the top caddie at Pearl Harbor and being ordered to play as often as three times a week with his commanding officer while decommissioning a submarine at the Mare Island shipyard after the war.
On the Seafox he said he sometimes slept in a bunk with a torpedo suspended “four or five inches above your head.” “You wondered whether it would blow up, and they said you’d never hear it.”
His combat patrols were marked by incessant crash dives ordered by the captain, who reminded the crew their speed in diving was what kept them alive when attacked – by both Japanese and American planes.
But Johnston was eager to talk about his time as a club pro playing with the game’s greatest professional golfers, who resented the presence of guys like him at a time when the PGA of America ran the pro circuit.
Van Sickle captured his outspokenness in a March 2019 piece for SI.com.
Wrote Van Sickle:
“Club pros were never particularly welcome at any PGA Tour event, especially when purses were minuscule in the 1950s and ‘60s. Club pros who could really play, like Johnston, were particularly unpopular. And still are, if you want the truth.
“‘All you used to hear about at player meetings was ‘the goddam club pros coming out and winning our money,’ Johnston said. ‘My comment always was, ‘If you can’t beat a club pro, why in the hell are you out here?’
“One night at the 1958 Texas Open, Bob Rosburg got up and was badgering everybody. I finally said, ‘Rossie, are you really afraid of guys like me?’ That kind of quelled it. I won the tournament that week and beat Rosburg by three shots.’
That was the kind of outspoken PGA professional that Bill Johnston was. He was an advocate for PGA pros. He was proud to be one. He had a lot to say and he had the game to back it up. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to witness the magical week that Michael Block, a PGA pro, had at the 2023 PGA Championship. I have zero doubt he would have made headlines.
Dan Vukelich is the online editor of Alabama Golf News
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Featured image courtesy of Bill Johnston