When 27-year-old Kamaiu Johnson tees off in the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, it'll mark the culmination of an improbable journey.



When Tiger Woods conquered the golf world a couple of decades ago, that spurred a wave of minority participation in a game historically closed to people of color. That wave still hasn't hit the sport's highest levels. But some people are making inroads, including African American golfer Kamaiu Johnson. He's 27 and tees off today in his first-ever PGA Tour event. That culminates an improbable journey, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Life can be a series of cascading events, but sometimes it can hinge on the lightning bolt of a moment. For Kamaiu Johnson, a moment came the day he met Jan Auger.

KAMAIU JOHNSON: When she came into my life, it was like a beam of light.

GOLDMAN: It was 2007 in Tallahassee, Fla., and Jan Auger was golfing with friends on a public course she helped run. She noticed then-13-year-old Kamaiu Johnson standing nearby, mimicking swings with what Auger thought was a club.

JAN AUGER: And as I got closer, I realized that he wasn't swinging a golf club; it was just a stick.

GOLDMAN: It was a school day, and she asked why he wasn't in class. He said he was home schooled. But in fact, Johnson had dropped out. He wasn't a good student. He didn't test well and was put in exceptionally slow learning classes, separated from friends. He got picked on a lot.

JOHNSON: I didn't know what I was doing. I was so lost in life. I was so depressed at a young age.

GOLDMAN: His family was loving, but poor. As many as 10 of them lived in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment. And so Jan Auger approached this rudderless teen and asked if he wanted to hit a bucket of balls with an actual golf club.

AUGER: He did look a little sad to me when I walked up to him, and it was just something to brighten his day, I guess.

GOLDMAN: It changed his life. After the bucket, Auger proposed this - if he did chores at the course, he could hit range balls for free and play for a dollar a round.

JOHNSON: It was like, all of a sudden, I had purpose. You know, all of a sudden, I wanted to be as good at golf as I could be.

GOLDMAN: What followed was a kaleidoscope of experiences and people that turned his sudden passion into skill. The kid who failed in school - he did ultimately get his GED - was, in fact, a great learner. He soaked up advice about the game and excelled with a sweet swing helped by years of playing baseball.


GOLDMAN: Johnson also got a big assist from the APGA Tour. Now in its 11th year, the Advocates Professional Golf Association helps aspiring minority golfers by giving them access to top equipment and coaching and tournaments. Johnson won the APGA Tour Championship last September. In October, a sponsor's exemption landed him a spot in the Farmers Insurance Open, a PGA Tour event, his first ever in the game's big leagues. The PGA videoed his reaction to the invite. Standing in a hallway, Johnson still looks dazed when a stranger asks if he's a pro golfer.


JOHNSON: Yes, sir. Wow.

GOLDMAN: The person then asks, will I see you on TV?


JOHNSON: You will actually (laughter). Oh, man.

GOLDMAN: But the dream would be delayed. Late last month, a few days before his TV debut at the Farmers, Johnson's phone rang.

JOHNSON: I got a call from Andy (ph) from the tour about 11:30 as I was walking up to my room and said, Kamaiu, you need to get back in your room quickly. You have tested positive for COVID.

GOLDMAN: Devastated, he pulled out of the tournament. But then the village that Johnson talks about, the many people who've helped him along the way, helped more. Two PGA tournaments, including the one starting today, offered him a spot. Corporations reached out and made him a brand ambassador.

JOHNSON: Dude, it was just amazing. I couldn't tell you how much love and support I felt from everyone.

GOLDMAN: Johnson isolated for 10 days, his longest time away from golf. But today, the PGA Tour dream happens at legendary Pebble Beach in California. His village will watch. Jan Auger, who Johnson calls his second mom, will tune in from Florida and not miss a second.

AUGER: It just kind of tears me up. But you know, I just want him to be proud of himself and to realize what he's done.

GOLDMAN: He knows. But today, Kamaiu Johnson is focused on what he wants to do - play well this week and beyond - and inspire other young kids who have nothing more than a stick and want nothing more than a chance.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYAKKEI'S "MEMORIES OF THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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