NAPA, Calif. — Tom Johnson didn’t have to think very hard to name the last time he made a cut on the PGA Tour.
“2015, Sony, right? It’s crazy,” he said. “I almost cried walking off the green. I was trying not to think about it. It hit me. I just made a cut at a PGA Tour event, you know. Just saying that now makes me choke up. It means that much. It means I’m getting better.”
Johnson, 42, shot a pair of 69s at Silverado Resort’s North Course to make his first cut in more than eight years. Johnson earned an exemption into this week’s Fortinet Championship by winning the Northern California PGA Section Professional Championship at Lake Merced in August and a check for $7,000. He’s been teaching the game since 2016 but lived the life of a Tour pro for several years, including in 2007 when he had full status.
“On one hand, it’s a dream come true to be out here. On the other hand, it’s a really hard life and it takes its toll, especially when you’re just existing on Tour like I was. I was just treading water,” he said. “It was what I dreamt of doing but when I got out here I didn’t feel like it was a dream.”
Johnson suffered from performance anxiety, recording just one top-25 finish ($56,667 represents his largest check for finishing 18th in the 2007 Bob Hope Desert Classic) and finishing 196th on the money list.
“Just imagine the worst kind of butterflies to the point where you think you are going to throw up,” he said. “I know I’m not alone. I’ve read how Bobby Jones lost lots of weight when he played.”
Johnson learned to calm his nerves in unusual fashion. Experiencing yips so severe at the Northeast Amateur when he was 18 that he putted one-handed, he took a shot of whiskey during a rain delay “that made me feel warm and at ease,” he told the Sacramento Bee in 2015. When he qualified for the PGA Tour at the six-round pressure-cooker known as PGA Tour Q-School, he smoked marijuana before every round and finished in eighth place.
He’s not the only golfer to ever smoke pot, but he may be the only pro to use it to enhance his performance.
“I thought that worked, I’ll do it again,” said Johnson, who has admitted to smoking marijuana before all 70+ rounds he played during the 2007 season. “It got to be where I was abusing it ever closer and closer to my tee times and I can think of a time I even did it during play, which I’m not proud of, but at that time I really needed something.”
Johnson hit rock bottom when he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2013. For her birthday present that year, on July 4th, his mother asked him to get sober. Johnson knew it was time to seek help. He has been drug- and alcohol-free since July 5, 2013.
“Hence the non-alcoholic brewery sponsor,” he said, pointing to the Athletic Brewery logo on the sleeve of his shirt. “That was a major turning point in my life. I went to meetings every day for three years because I knew I couldn’t keep sober on my own. That’s where I learned the 12 steps and the tools to deal with it. I needed a new operating system. With the help of a lot of people on that same path of sobriety, I no longer feel that way. My life is good.”
The other turning point was meeting his now-wife Caitlin in 2016. At the time, he was still competing on the Asian Tour, but he knew he had reached a fork in the road and decided to commit to her and starting a family. For a time, he covered sports for the Trinity Journal, the region’s weekly newspaper, and was a substitute teacher. Before long, he began teaching golf at Golden Gate Park Golf Course, a par-3 course with a driving range, consisting of hitting into a net 25 yards away. The Olympic Club hired him and he learned under the director of instruction Richard Sheridan.
“It’s so gratifying to teach, and to give back, and to basically share the gift of golf,” he told NCGA Golf Magazine in 2021.
Tom Johnson receives congratulations from a friend after making his first PGA Tour cut in more than eight years. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)
Six months ago, he took the director of instruction position at the Meadow Club. Members from both his former and current club were out in force to support him during the first two rounds at Silverado Resort. After making the cut on Friday, a steady stream of caddies, including Steve (Pepsi) Hale, came over to congratulate him and wish him luck this weekend. Johnson played college golf at Northwestern University alongside European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald and grew up playing against the likes of James Hahn, Nick Watney and Ricky Barnes, who are still toiling on the pro circuit.
“I feel like I’m not forgotten. Guys that were a couple of years older than me that I didn’t even know they knew I existed, like Charley Hoffman and Matt Kuchar, came up to me this week and to have all these years go by and to hear them call me by my first name, it was like Whoa,” Johnson said.
But don’t call it a comeback. Johnson is more than content with the life that he has made as a club pro, as a husband, as a father to two-year-old Preston.
“The other day I was riding my bike with my son on the back and I was thinking about the life that I’m living right now and the life I used to be living and could still be living if I chose to really dedicate to this, and I like the life I’m living right now,” he said. “I like being home and being a presence in my son’s life. I’m grateful that I’m not on Tour, honestly. I’m not trying to rekindle my career out here. I like my life.”