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A dropout, homeless and fighting for every cent: One pro trying to run down a dream

Kamaiu Johnson
Kamaiu Johnson

Monday in West Palm Beach, Fla., more than a hundred dreamers will compete in the Honda Classic open qualifier. For the young studs and journeymen, the unproven grinders and accomplished veterans, there is no glory here – just an 18-hole shootout with only one player earning his way into the Tour event down the road at PGA National.

Like everyone else in the field, Kamaiu Johnson believes with every ounce of his being that he’s one round from a life-changing week, from the stability he’s always craved.

For years Johnson, 26, has been teeing it up on mini-tours across the state, but his friends badgered him: When are you actually going to play in something, you know, real? The PGA Tour is the end goal, after all, and so Johnson recently signed up for only his second pre-qualifier. It was held earlier this week, at Indian Spring Country Club in Boynton Beach. After two early bogeys Johnson was in trouble until he caught fire coming home, running off four birdies in a six-hole stretch around the turn. A rules official told Johnson walking off the 18th tee that he likely needed another birdie to get through, and he ended up canning a 40-footer on the final green to shoot 69, earn one of the precious three spots and advance to the final stage of qualifying. This year, finally, feels different.

“You’ve gotta have the funds to do these types of things,” he said, “and I’ve never had the funds to chase it.”

Growing up near Florida’s northern central border, in the two-stoplight town of Madison (population 2,807), golf was an afterthought to a skinny, fatherless, black kid. Baseball was Johnson’s first love, and he starred as a catcher on a youth travel team (alongside future Cubs shortstop Addison Russell) that won the 2006 Dizzy Dean World Series. He dreamed of getting drafted out of high school ... but never advanced that far. He dropped out in eighth grade (though he eventually earned his GED). “I kept getting put in these ESE [exceptional student education] classes for slow learners,” he said. “It made me feel some type of way. It actually tore me down as a kid. I was very depressed. I honestly was completely lost. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Kamaiu Johnson

Johnson searched for guidance. His father has never been in his life. His mother, Angela, usually got home around midnight after working at a juvenile facility, a Fastrac gas station and Nestle Waters just to keep the lights on. By then they’d moved into Section 8 housing in a rough neighborhood on the south side of Tallahassee, his mother, grandmother and six kids all crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. They lived on food stamps but oftentimes ate Cheerios for dinner or simply went to bed hungry. Travel baseball is expensive, and suddenly the big leagues felt like a pipe dream.

“I don’t come from money, and I started looking at kids getting picked over me because of the money they had and the fact that their parents were involved,” he said. “So I decided that I wanted to do something that I could control my own destiny, not someone else that is picking.”

And so, in 2007, Johnson was swinging a stick along the boundary of Hilaman Golf Course when he was approached by the GM of the club, Jan Auger. She marveled at Johnson’s natural motion and wondered why he wasn’t in class.

“He told me he was home-schooled,” Auger said. “I had no idea how bad it was.”

Auger told Johnson to head back to the clubhouse, that there’d be a 9-iron and a bucket of balls waiting for him. After a while Auger offered him a deal: If he helped around the club, picking up range balls and washing carts and painting the pro shop, then she’d let him play there for a dollar a round. “And then I never got rid of him,” she said with a laugh. For the next five years, Hilaman was Johnson’s second home; he lived at the course from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., staying out of trouble and honing his game while taking on the older members with a mismatched set of clubs.

“At the time I knew this is probably going to be my way out of everything,” he said. “I knew that golf was going to be my outlet.”

Still, Johnson needed direction, some tough love. On a few occasions he was banned from the club for disciplinary reasons – there was the stolen muffin, the forged signature for a cart, the “borrowed” wedges. “It hurt me every time,” Auger said. “I’d have tears in my eyes doing it.” But for the most part, Johnson worked hard and radiated joy, charming the members and staff.

“The kids with the rough families, you can still see what makes them good,” Auger said. “He could have easily gone the other way. But he obviously has it in him. His core is to be good.”

Auger wasn’t the only mentor Johnson met at the club. After his mother moved back to Madison for work, Johnson lived for two years with Ramon Alexander, a former student body president at Florida A&M who at the time was working as an aide for city mayor John Marks. (He’s now a member of the Florida House of Representatives.) “Ramon taught me how to be a man, how to take ownership,” Johnson said. “He always told me: ‘If you want to f--- up your life, go ahead – it’s easy to f--- up.’ And I didn’t want to be a f---up. I grew up around people who I didn’t want to be like. And so I chased my dream every day.”

When he was 21, Johnson headed to New York City for a summer with a friend, staying in an elderly woman’s spare room for $500 a month. Every day he looped for decent money at Elmwood Country Club or played the Met Section circuit, even winning the Connecticut Four-Ball event. In one of his career highlights, Johnson birdied the last four holes to qualify for the 2013 U.S. Amateur Public Links, a breakthrough that validated his career choice. Determined to give pro golf a shot, Johnson returned home to Florida after his uncle offered him $1,000 to find an apartment in Orlando. That’s where he’s been the last few years, chasing, grinding, waiting for an opportunity.

“I’ve ran out of money every year,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times my bank account has been in the negative. But I didn’t let that hold me back.”

Indeed, that thousand bucks went fast. He started working in the cart shed at Grand Cypress Golf Club, but the resort is currently undergoing a massive renovation and will be closed until at least 2022. Friends of friends will send him a few hundred dollars, or local sponsors will pitch in, just enough to keep him going. With no leftover cash for membership dues, it’s a daily struggle to find a place to play or practice.

“I’ve seen a lot of good golfers come through and have that dream of making it to the Tour,” Auger said, “but no one has come close to Kamaiu’s commitment and his drive. Nobody.

Kamaiu Johnson
Kamaiu Johnson in 2018 on the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour (courtesy APGA, Facebook)

 

“He told me: ‘I don’t have a Plan B.’ And so what do you say to him? You can’t say that you’re foolish. You just have to hope for the best, but fortunately he’s so driven and miles ahead of those have come before him with more opportunity.”

Right now, Johnson has no place to call home, overstaying his welcome at friends’ houses, or crashing at his ex-girlfriend’s place. His mother has since moved to nearby Oviedo, running a foster home, but even the couch there is usually occupied.

“Want to know what motivates me to play well?” he said. “I’ve never in my entire life had my own room. Ever. Never had a place I could call mine. That’s what keeps me going.”  

His mom keeps nagging him: When are you going to end this silly dream? When are you going to get a real job? And sometimes, in his darkest moments, he thinks she’s right. Thinks that maybe it’s time to move on. As recently as October 2017, he didn’t touch a club for five months because he didn’t see any way to make enough money to fund his pursuit.

“I know I’m not where I want to be,” he said, “but somehow, some way, I’ve always found a way to persevere through the tough times.”

Why?

“Because I know I can play on the PGA Tour,” he said. “That’s something I know that I can do, if I have the opportunity.”

Others have begun to share his optimism. Johnson will play in any event he can, betting on himself, hoping to break even for the year. He’s won a handful of times on the mini-tours, but if the winner’s check is $3,000, he said, “that’s gone in a month.” Mostly he competes on the Florida Professional Tour and the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour, whose mission is to create more diversity in the game. Last month, Johnson played in a 27-hole APGA event at Torrey Pines on the Saturday of the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open. While Tiger and Rory battled for a $7.5 million purse on the South Course, Johnson was among those on the North, teeing it up on a tour that last year handed out about $250,000 – total – in prize money.

Johnson didn’t win the Torrey title, but it still was a productive trip. After returning home he received a call from the tour president. Farmers CEO Jeff Dailey was so inspired by Johnson’s journey that he offered him a $25,000 sponsorship deal for the next two years. All Johnson had to do was stitch the Farmers logo on his hat, shirt and bag. “Deal,” he said.

That five-figure windfall will help ease some of his financial strains, but Johnson also knows it’s a temporary lifeline. He can already set aside $5,000 for Korn Ferry Tour Q-School, the only gateway to the big leagues. Then he can start mapping out a schedule, knowing that the entry fee alone for two-day events is usually $350, three days $850 and four days $1,000. Factor in travel and reduced-rate hotel accommodations, and he needs to play well or that money dries up fast, probably in the next seven or eight months. That’s a stressful way to live – knowing that a made putt can mean the difference between paying for next week’s hotel room or missing the event – but at least it’s a start. No wonder he says the easiest part of his day is waking up.

Kamaiu Johnson

“I know that he needs every cent that he makes,” Auger said. “It’s heartbreaking for me to know that, that there’s more to golf than just having a good swing.”

This weekend, before the Honda qualifier, Johnson is playing in a two-day tournament with a first-place check of $5,000. That could go a long way for a player who is already fretting about his hotel bill in Boca Raton and his broken-down car. To get to South Florida for the pre-qualifier, he drove his mom’s 2010 Chevy Impala that has an oil leak and 170,000 miles on it. “It might break down at any moment,” he said, “but I’ve never made excuses. I just try to figure it out.”

So, yes, this Honda qualifier represents a life-changing opportunity for Kamaiu Johnson. Maybe he’ll get hot and play his way into his first Tour event, fulfilling what he now believes is his destiny. Perhaps he’ll be humbled in arguably the strongest qualifier of the year and try again another week.

Or, more than likely, this will happen: He shoots a respectable score, enough to keep the fire burning, but someone or some company will learn about his story, witness his potential, be inspired by his fight, and help finance his dream for another week, another month, another year. For now he has no intention of quitting, no matter how dire it gets. That’d be the easy way out.