1950-1959 #GAM100 – Glenn Johnson Provides Color for Michigan Golf History
by Greg Johnson
Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a 10-part series celebrating the Golf Association of Michigan’s 100th year of service to the game. #GAM100
FARMINGTON HILLS – Glenn Johnson would roll into the Belvedere Golf Club parking lot in Charlevoix in his shiny Cadillac convertible, top down, of course.
It would be packed with golf clubs and enough clothing changes from all the choices in the rainbow to outfit himself anew for the each of the six rounds it would take to win another Michigan Amateur Championship.
“That was confidence and that was Glenn Johnson,” said Jack Berry, a longtime Detroit sportswriter and Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member with Johnson.
“He was colorful in dress and with his words. He was one of the great characters in Michigan golf, in golf anywhere that I met, second only to Chuck Kocsis in Amateur wins, and second to no one in the way he dressed. He liked flowers. He liked colors, the brighter the better, let’s put it that way.”
The proud Grosse Ile Golf & Country Club member won the Michigan Amateur five times, second to the six for Kocsis. He won his first three consecutively in 1954, ’55 and ’56 all at Country Club of Jackson.
He beat Michigan Golf Hall of Famer Ed Ervasti of Royal Oak in 22 holes to win his first Amateur, topped John Kurach of Detroit 3 and 2 to take the ’55 title and in ’56 topped the home-club favorite Bob Corley 1-up.
The competition was fierce. Lloyd Syron of Pontiac won in ’57 at Belvedere to stop Johnson’s streak, and he is in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, too. Johnson won his fourth in ’58, this time topping Tom Draper of Berkley, 1-up, at Belvedere. Draper is another who is in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.
The Stevens brothers of Detroit and Plum Hollow fame won in ’59 and ’60 making back-to-back brother history. It was Bud who won in ’58 over Flint’s Gene Hunt at Black River Country Club in Port Huron, and Bud is also in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. Don Stevens won in ’60, also at Black River, and he made Draper a runner-up for the second time, 3 and 2.
After being the GAM’s Golfer of the Decade in the ’50s, Johnson won for the fifth and final time in 1961 at CC of Jackson. He topped Mike Adonian of Pontiac 1-up. Adonian got his title in ’62 beating Bud Stevens, and then the tournament nestled in at Belvedere for the 26-year stay from ’63 to ’88.
Johnson was runner-up in ’63, falling 1-up to Bud Stevens, who won his first of two titles. He didn’t reach the finals again, as Hall of Famers like Pete Green and Lynn Janson came along to win titles.
Johnson, who also won a GAM Championship, a GAM Senior Championship and 15 times was his club’s champion, kept steering his Cadillac to Belvedere with confidence and clothes though. He made it to match play in 25 Amateurs, and in the ’50s won 23 consecutive matches before falling in the semifinals in 1957. By his count, he was 64-20 in Amateur matches.
“I didn’t hit it far, but I knew where to hit it, and I liked match play,” he told Berry. “I enjoyed the psychology, watching the opponent. I had more fun without saying anything. I’d look at their grip and they’d be thinking ‘Is something wrong with my grip?’”
The clothes, often a multi-colored sweater or brightly colored shirt, pants that can only be described as garden-style wild, and always a Spartan green, red or even plaid sport coat in the clubhouse, were part of his fun and match play savvy, too.
“One time a guy I was playing next (in match play) asked me why I was always changing colors,” he told Berry. “I went out that afternoon in red, white, blue, black, everything. He was 2-down after two holes.”
Johnson was the son of a Great Lakes Ship Captain, a pilot, a sailor, a fisherman and multi-sport athlete, including playing quarterback at Michigan State University (then Michigan State College). He didn’t play golf until he had served in World War II as an Air Force pilot and taught others to how to fly the B-24 Liberator bomber. He won nine letters in sports at Grosse Ile High School and had three years in at Michigan State before the military service and returning to play his senior year.
Johnson’s father was a captain in Ford’s lake freighter fleet and the family took residence on Grosse Ile in 1927. He took to the water and sailed on a winning sailboat in the Port Huron to Mackinac race. He also served the U.S. Coast Guard as a pilot. He told Berry he finally connected with golf because the Grosse Ile G&CC practice tee was 200 yards from his house.
His short game is key to his legend, especially his putting. At age 59 he one-putted the last four holes at Oakland Hills Country Club in winning low amateur honors in the 1981 U.S. Senior Open. Arnold Palmer won in a playoff with Billy Casper and Bob Stone. Johnson finished 11 shots back.
As a senior golfer he was part of the early Society of Seniors competitions, which attract the top senior amateurs in the nation. He won the Eastern Seniors tournament five times and a North and South Senior Amateur, too.
The 1981 Senior Open was one of 17 United States Golf Association championships on his resume. He also qualified for and played in four U.S. Opens and five U.S. Amateurs. The 1972 U.S. Open sectional was conducted by the GAM at Birmingham Country Club and Johnson qualified for the Open at Pebble Beach by topping Jim Thorpe’s long-bomber brother Chuck in a sudden-death playoff.
Johnson went to Pebble Beach and in his watch-this style at the famous golf venue played a practice round with Lee Trevino and two practice rounds with Palmer in front of the West Coast version of Arnie’s Army. He knew Palmer personally from the legend having previously played in the prestigious Grosse Ile G&CC Invitational.
“I made a lot of friends in this game,” he said in a 2011 interview overlooking the 18th hole pond on The Heather course at Boyne Highlands Resort.
“I was never one who liked to be inside much. I wanted to be in the air, on water or playing golf.”
For several years Boyne Highlands Resort in Harbor Springs has hosted the GAM Mid-Amateur Championship, which includes several age divisions on multiple courses. It’s a collection of the best male golfers in the state over age 23, and all the scores are posted on a large permanent scoreboard named for Johnson.
He was great friends with Everett Kircher, the pioneer entrepreneur of skiing and resort golf in Northern Michigan and talked him into starting a two-man golf event that is now presented annually as the Kircher Cup. It is played following the Mid-Amateur, as many of the invited members of the field make a week up north of it at the end of the summer.
When he wasn’t golfing, snow skiing, boating or flying, Johnson was a fan of the Detroit Red Wings. He had seats behind a goal in old Olympia Stadium. He also adopted through his love of colors a hobby of oil painting. One of his favorite subjects was colorful clowns, and he donated one of the paintings to the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame upon his induction in 1983 as part of that institution’s second class.
Grosse Ile members and friends of Johnson celebrated his 90th birthday at the club in 2012. A full-length photo was unveiled and still hangs near the pro shop. In it he is wearing pink flowered pants.
In 2011, The Heather, Johnson’s favorite Boyne course, hosted the historic 100th Michigan Amateur Championship. Johnson, Bud Stevens and Pete Green, GAM legends, hit ceremonial tee shots before the start of tournament play, and Johnson summed up his golf career that day by calling it a great run.
“And I added a little color,” he said with a tip of his straw hat fittingly adorned with a bright red hat band.
Johnson died on Dec. 11, 2014. He was 92.
#GAM History – Did you know?
Like the Golf Association of Michigan, Grosse Ile Golf & Country Club celebrates its centennial this year. The feature is the Donald Ross course that the famous architect from Scotland designed for a 1919 opening. Ross used the two valleys on the property as the central feature of the design, and created a trademark set of challenging green complexes. The club hosted the 1968 Western Amateur won by future PGA Tour player Rik Massengale, and in 2004 hosted the 93rd Michigan Amateur Championship won by hometown favorite and former club caddie Jeff Cuzzort. The club is home to Michigan golf’s oldest invitational. It started in 1937 to raise funds for golf course maintenance, and other clubs soon adopted the idea. Legend Chuck Kocsis was on the first winning team. Arnold Palmer, Chick Harbert, Walter Burkemo, Frank Stranahan and other national golf notables have played in it over the years. Hall of Fame member Glenn Johnson is considered the “King of the Invitational.” He won it five times with four different partners.
-Greg Johnson, [email protected]