Above No One, Below No One

Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via Imagn

Old St. Augustine.

That was the neighborhood I lived in when I was 14 years old. It’s just outside Tallahassee, the kind of classic, small-time neighborhood that’s all over Florida. Little two- and three-story apartments buildings pop up over the oak trees that line the main roads. You couldn’t really tell one from the other. They were little complexes that always had a pool in the middle — always. Retired folks sitting around it and young kids bouncing around it, getting some sun and then hiding from it under their umbrellas.

I lived in one of those apartment complexes. I knew it well because in 2007, when I was 13, I dropped out of high school. My mom was working two jobs at the time, and when I told her that I was thinking of not going to school, she couldn’t really convince me to stay. She was so busy doing her own thing — trying to provide for my two cousins and my brother — that we just didn’t have that type of connection where she was going to be able to force me to keep going to class.

I know it might not make a whole lot of sense to most of you, but we weren’t well off, and my dad was out of the picture. I didn’t have the childhood a lot of other kids did.

What’s a kid that age supposed to do if they aren’t going to school?

Damn good question.

I didn’t do a whole lot, really. I’d go to baseball practice, see my friends after school, and otherwise just let the day pass by playing outside. I had all this time all of sudden, and like I said, I got to know my apartment complex well. Right off our patio was the fourth hole of Hilaman Golf Course. A short, driveable par-4 that, to a young kid who had never held a golf club, didn’t look like much more than a patch of grass.

What’s a kid that age supposed to do if they aren’t going to school? Damn good question.

Kamaiu Johnson

One day, I was watching some groups go through, just killin’ time, when I decided to pick up a stick and sort of mimic them in a way. The golf swing didn’t look that different to me from a baseball swing.

So I was maybe 15 yards off the fairway, right near my apartment, just swinging a stick, when this group of ladies walked past and one of them noticed me.

She said, “What are you doing, young man? Why aren’t you in school?”

I lied and said I was in school, but that I just hadn’t gone in that day. I told her I was just minding my own business.

“Well, if you’ve got nothin’ to do … you wanna go to the range and hit some balls?”

I didn’t totally know what that meant, but it sounded better than what I was doing.

Her name was Jan Auger, and I met her over on the range a few minutes later. She handed me a 9-iron and a bucket of balls. I held the club in my hand and tried to figure out the best way to grip it, to swing it. I won’t lie to you, I wasn’t quite a natural. It was a bit rough at first. But, man, that first day I flushed one. Just totally pure.

I watched the ball float up past the trees, into the sun and back down to earth. It was perfect. And I was hooked.

I know now that every golfer has that moment, that feeling — which we don’t know is fleeting — of perfection.

Jan told me she’d charge me one dollar a day to use the facilities and hit as many balls as I like. So I came back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. And you get it. I just never stopped.

Courtesy of Kamaiu Johnson

Today I’m still that kid, in a way.

And when I’m at the range this week at Torrey Pines, getting ready to play in my first PGA Tour event at the Farmers Insurance Open, I’m going to hit some good ones (hopefully all of them) and feel the same way I did when I was 14: totally in love with the game of golf.

My journey has brought me to this point, and I’m incredibly blessed to have the chance to compete against the best in the world. I truly hope I can continue on this path — because I know I have more to give this game.

I believe the game of golf and I came together for a reason.

Golf helped me find meaning in my life.

Meaning when I needed it most.

Before we lived outside Tallahassee, we lived in Madison, Florida. It’s a small town, just north of I-10, about an hour east of Old St. Augustine. If you drove through Madison in the ’90s, all you’d have seen was a stoplight, a Winn-Dixie and a courthouse. Oh, and you’d have seen a whole lot of cows at some point, too.

Everybody knew everybody in Madison. Most people worked over at the Nestlé plant, including my mom.

My brother and I would play baseball in the backyard every day, and I started to get this idea in my head that I wanted to be a major league baseball player. As I got older, I’d spend nights at my baseball coach’s house, and basically spent every waking minute thinking about — and trying to get better at — baseball.

The thing about baseball in America is ... well, I guess the thing about most sports in general is that eventually a time comes when you’re going to need money to keep going. I knew that my family didn’t come from the same sort of background as a lot of the kids I played ball with. I had a friend growing up in Madison, and his family basically owned the town. He was a really nice kid, but just seeing how he was raised ... you know, big house, new equipment every year, and both parents at home.

I knew I had it a little bit different.

Courtesy of Kamaiu Johnson

I think that played on my mind a bit when we moved to Tallahassee when I was 13.  The idea was reinforced when I was made to take different classes than the rest of my friends at school. I was a slower learner, so I became separated from them because I couldn’t learn as effectively.

That was when I started to get really depressed. I just didn’t feel like much of a kid anymore. And my mom, you know, she was so busy working that she just wasn’t there for me in the way I needed her to be, and that made me angry too. All of that sort of compounded and led me to drop out.

And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think it was fate that I found golf around that time.

At the course, Jan became like a second mother to me. Once she saw that I had the talent to play the game seriously, she showed me that she would do whatever she could to help me. But she made it clear I had to put in the same effort toward making something of myself. Jan instilled a set of values in me that, to this day, guide me on my journey.

Everyone at Hilaman welcomed me with open arms, and most near everybody would come out and say hi to me when I was hitting balls on the range or hanging on the practice green.

I just … I felt at peace out there.

I started playing in little tournaments when I was 16 years old, and that’s really when I started to realize how much I loved to compete. It’s a totally different game when you’ve got to sign a scorecard at the end of the round. Some people might not like it, but I thrived.

Around that time the Florida State golf team had a couple of real good players: Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger. I think you might have heard of them. I volunteered over at the FSU course to get some free rounds in, and I’d spend hours watching them on the range. I’d play with them from time to time, as well, and also grab lunch with them sometimes. They were really nice guys. They were only a little older than me, but their games were miles ahead of mine. I understood I had a long way to go if I wanted to get to where they were.

Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via Imagn

I knew I loved to compete, but I didn’t know I had a chance to become a professional until I moved up to New York for a summer in 2013.

I was staying with a friend and caddying to pay my bills. I also entered a bunch of tournaments. New York is in one of the most competitive amateur sections in the country, and I just started to play at a different level than I had seen from myself before. I qualified for the U.S. Publinx, a USGA-sanctioned amatuer event. From there I went back home and won the Tallahassee Open by five or six shots, I think. I was 21 years old and shooting in the mid-60s under tournament conditions against some of the best amateurs in the area.

That’s when I got the idea that, if I gave it my all, maybe, just maybe, I’d make it one day.

My road since then has been … it’s been hard. It’s taken a village to get me to this point. I’ve run out of money more times than I can count. I’ve called around to old baseball coaches begging for cash or a couch to sleep on. My uncle owns a cigar shop, and he and his buddies used to pass around the hat before a tournament so I’d have enough for my entry fee. I’ve borrowed a bunch of my friends’ cars to get to and from events. I’ve leaned on Jan, and she’s always been there for me.

It’s really been a group effort to keep me going.

I’ve called around to old baseball coaches begging for cash or a couch to sleep on.

Kamaiu Johnson

Every time my bank account hit zero, and I didn’t have enough to buy even a sleeve of balls, I’d think about quitting.

But then I’d remember that feeling I had on the range at Hilaman.

And I always come back to golf. Because I love it, and because too many people have helped me. They won’t give up on me, so I’m not giving up on myself, either. I know how lucky I am to have them in my life because I know firsthand that the world of golf isn’t always friendly to people like me.

Last year, I was out practicing at a local club that I’d been going to since I was 16. I was close with one of the wealthy members there, who used to tell me that, under his name, I was welcome to go out and use the course and practice area any time I wanted. 

I’m 26, a professional golfer grinding it out on mini-tours, winning events and getting closer to his dream. I’m not out there making a mess of the course or anything like that.

So I’m practicing. And one of the staff comes up to me.

“Hey, Kamaiu. We had a board meeting and we think it’d be in the best interest of the club if you didn’t come out here anymore.”

I was shocked. I didn’t really know what to say.

“What do you mean I can’t come out here anymore? I’ve been coming here since I was 16.”

He said, “Well, you’re always out here and you’ve never paid for anything and we just think it would be best if you didn’t come out anymore.”

And, look, I’m not asking for anybody’s sympathy. It’s 2021. There’s a way a white person speaks to you when they want you to get what they’re saying without really saying it. And that’s what he was doing that day. I think at some point they realized I was no longer just a nice Black kid. I was a Black man, and they didn’t want me around the property every day.

That’s why you don’t read a lot of stories like mine in the game of golf. I could get over every hurdle in my life, but there’d still be gatekeepers looking for a way to keep their game, or their club, or their course, the way they want it.

And that’s the truth.

Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

For a long time, I was the friendly golfer. I’d always chat up guys at tournaments and try to be as friendly as possible. Because that’s just what we have to do. But I’m done with that.

This last year I’ve tried to beat every single person I’ve played against.

That’s the energy I’m bringing.

I think people started to notice, too. Well, I know they did, actually. After I started to have some success on the APGA Tour last January, Jeff Dailey, the CEO of Farmers Insurance, reached out to me and offered me a sponsorship deal to wear the Farmers logo on my gear. I was completely beside myself. I couldn’t believe that somebody like that had been seeing what I was doing and believed in me like he did. 

This last year I’ve tried to beat every single person I’ve played against. That’s the energy I’m bringing.

Kamaiu Johnson

Recently, another CEO, Bill Powers of Cambridge Mobile Telematics, came to me and asked how he could lend a hand. He had been following my game, and when I needed some help, he was there to provide the crucial financial support that’s required to get anywhere in golf.

Titleist reached out to provide me with fitted clubs, and my golf bag, and kitted me up head to toe with clothing. Before that, I was buying my clubs off the rack at PGA TOUR Superstore. That’s where other golfers from other backgrounds have a huge advantage. 

Jeff and Bill and the team at Titleist aren’t doing this to get publicity or to be noticed. They just want to help a young man chasing his dreams.

I was talking to my uncle after I’d spoken with Jeff and he was saying, “Kamaiu, how many young Black men who came from what you came from — who went through what you went through — get to talk to a CEO of a major company?”

What happened to me was just beyond my family’s wildest dreams.

The sponsorships and the money are just enough to go towards my entry fees and to support the costs of chasing my dream to earn a PGA Tour card. My sponsorship means I don’t have to worry about a meal after a tournament, or think about wearing through a glove before a big round.

Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR via Getty Images

I told you earlier that I believe golf and I found each other for a reason.

I want to make the game of golf something that Black kids feel is for them. And not just Black kids, of course, but all those who have ever looked over the fence of a country club and felt that that place wasn’t for them. This is a beautiful sport that can take you places you never could have dreamed you would go. I know that. And we need to let more people in, we need to spread the love. 

There are those who would say that this game wasn’t made for people like me. While I can use that energy as motivation, there is another side to that story. It’s easy to focus on racism when it happens. But I want to focus on the love and hope that other people have shown me. I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of a lot of people who come from a variety of backgrounds and shades of skin. I think that’s what is missing sometimes in the world right now. If people cared and helped each other the way that Jan helped me that day, the way that Jeff Dailey and Bill Powers and countless others who have lent me money, lent me their couch or their car. 

It’s the drive and the persistence that Ken Bentley and Adrian Stills have shown in launching the APGA Tour to give young Black players a place to play competitive golf while also helping to build us as men … if people showed the love, hope and unity that these people have unselfishly given me, I truly think the world would be a better place. 

So I hope this week at Torrey is the continuation of my mission. It’s not the start. This journey began when Jan walked across the fourth fairway at Hilaman and told me to go hit some balls. Every range session, road trip and insufficient-funds error has made me, Kamaiu Johnson, the man I am today.

I’m so thankful to my family, to my second mom, Jan — to whom I’m eternally grateful — and all those who let me sleep on a couch, borrow a few bucks or bum a ride. 

Jan always told me, “No matter who you encounter in life, it doesn’t matter their title or their appearance, you are above no one, and below no one.”

I’ll feel the same way when I get to the range at Torrey, because I earned this.

And when I see my name beside the PGA Tour logo, I’ll know what it means.

I’ll know what it means.

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