Two days after COVID-19 kept Kamaiu Johnson from his dream of playing on the PGA Tour, the Honda Classic stepped forward Thursday to make sure the inspiring Black golfer gets his shot. Johnson was the top player on the Advocates Pro Golf Association last year, and the Farmers Insurance Open awarded him a sponsor exemption to play in this week’s tournament alongside some of the best in the world at Torrey Pines. And then he tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday and had to withdraw.
The Honda Classic, to be held March 18-21 in his home state of Florida, offered Johnson an exemption.
“As I said when I first learned that I would be forced to withdraw, a fork in the road often has an interesting way of leading to new opportunities,” Johnson said. “It was beyond disappointing not to be able to play at the Farmers Insurance Open after all of the support that Farmers has shown me and the APGA Tour.
“Now, to find out that I will still have a chance to fulfill my dream of playing on the PGA Tour is almost overwhelming.” Johnson grew up in the tiny Florida town of Madison and played on a youth travel baseball team with former Chicago Cubs All-Star Addison Russell. But he dropped out of the eighth grade because he was put in a class for slow learners and felt torn down.
Living with his grandmother in a crowded two-bedroom apartment near a golf course, he was spotted swinging a stick by the city golf superintendent, Jan Auger. She made him a deal. If he helped around the club, he could play for $1 a round. For the next five years, Johnson practically lived at Hilaman Park, honing his game.
“Golf saved me,” Johnson told Golf Digest last year. “It gave me a reason to live, gave me a purpose.”
The APGA Tour was established 10 years ago to prepare Black and other minority golfers to compete and gain better access across the golf industry. Johnson finished in the top 10 in the last five APGA events last year, winning its Tour Championship. He was overjoyed when the Farmers Insurance Open called to offer him an exemption in October.
And then it ended with a positive coronavirus test. A day after Johnson had to withdraw, he learned his mother was hospitalized with breathing difficulties from COVID-19. “This is turning into a nightmare from hell,” Johnson tweeted on Wednesday. He said Thursday she was improving, and his spirits were pretty high, too.
Ken Kennerly, the executive director of the Honda Classic, said he and tournament director Andrew George were familiar with Johnson from when he tried to go through Monday qualifying last year at the Honda. “When we heard what happened to him at Farmers this week, we felt strongly that we wanted to give him a chance to play at The Honda Classic. We feel it is important to support the advancement of golfers from our home state, Kennerly said. ”We have always been about growing the game of golf for young players and Kamaiu is such an inspiration for so many of them.”