During the early 1960s, golf was considered a secondary sport in high school, more of an afterthought for most, and sometimes demeaned as a game for the timid or weak.
But Arnold Palmer and the advent of television began to change such perceptions during those same years as golf began to grow in popularity by leaps and bounds. More and more people began to play a game that looked enjoyable, for it was played outdoors in beautiful and natural surroundings.
Locally, thanks to good golfers around town, golf actually became cool at Robert E. Lee High School with a state championship team in 1959 and then another trip to the state finals in 1964.
Thoughts of those nascent days of high school golf came back to me Thanksgiving afternoon when I received a call from a former Lee golf teammate of mine, Don Robert Johnson, informing me that his oldest brother Steve had passed away earlier that morning.
Steve Johnson had been battling some serious health issues the past year or so but still the news came as a shock to his youngest of three brothers. In between Steve and Don Robert were Roquee and Ronny Johnson and all four were outstanding golfers during their high school days. Ronny passed away two years ago.
“It’s really tough,” Don Robert said. “I’ve now lost two brothers. But I was able to visit with Steve yesterday (at his home near Houston) and take some comfort in knowing that Thanksgiving was always his favorite day of the year. He loved it with all of the food and sharing it with family and friends.”
Steve played at Lee with District Judge Jack Skeen, retired dentist Brady Sweeney, Tommy Hamilton and the late Charles Harris. Their team won district and regionals but did not win at state as Lee had done in 1959 with T.C. Hamilton, Steve Nourse, Ronny Rhone and Jerry Parker.
Skeen, who has now been a public servant for more than 40 years, stayed in Tyler after his high school days and played on a Tyler Junior College team coached by Floyd Wagstaff that finished third nationally while Johnson matriculated to the University of Oklahoma where he played on the Sooner golf team. No one loved OU through the years like Steve with the possible exception of his younger sister Julie.
“You could not have a better friend than Steve Johnson,” Skeen said. “I remember being in a match play finals somewhere and Steve was out of the tournament but came out and caddied for me. He loved golf and wanted to be part of it whether he was playing or not.”
The son of the late Bob Johnson and his wife Janice, Johnson grew up with Skeen playing golf at Willow Brook Country Club. The two friends were immersed in the game and competed in the old “beer and barbecue” tournament circuit during the summer all over East Texas in towns like Tyler, Longview, Kilgore, Palestine and Jacksonville.
“We were best friends and hit as many balls as two kids could hit during those high school days when we were playing at Willow Brook,” Skeen said. “We lived close by and rode to school together and then out to the golf course. Bob Dyer was another neighbor and he had the car. He would charge us a quarter a day to ride with him and we laughed that he would become a banker and that’s exactly what he did.”
Another member of that Lee team, a year younger than Johnson and Skeen, was Craig Rhone.
“Steve was always a gentleman and never got into trouble during those high school days like me and some of my friends,” Rhone said. “Those were great days when I got to play with him and Jack Skeen at Willow Brook and our pro Ralph Morgan was helping us with lessons.”
Skeen won the Willow Brook club championship as an 18-year-old in 1964 and though Steve Johnson never won the club title, he caddied for Don Robert when the younger Johnson won his first of two club championships in 1972.
“That was very memorable because I beat Mark Triggs to reach the finals and then won in a playoff over Jimmy Wynne,” Don Robert said. “Steve was there every step of the way.”
The Johnson family and the Triggs family were always intertwined in local golf because A.J. Triggs won numerous Willow Brook club titles as did his son Mark. A.J. was inducted into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame in 2013 because of his service to the game and passed away in 2015.
“What I vividly remember about Steve was his hole-in-one on the 17th hole one day when his ball hit halfway up the hill left of the green and then bounced and rolled down that hill right into the cup,” Triggs said. “That and his unique laugh that could be heard from a fairway or two away.”
Johnson did have a booming laugh and was not shy to let it rip when the occasion called for it. He was a lot of fun to be around and one of my fondest memories is a trip to Dallas circa 1974 with Don Robert for a practice round for the state amateur at Royal Oaks Country Club. Steve was driving when a new song from The Hollies came on the radio and Steve began playing the air drums and carrying on, bigtime.
One of my colleagues in the golf magazine world, Kenny Hand of Houston, was a good friend of Steve’s and bought a Corvette from him in the early 2000s. Johnson worked for years at a car dealership in Sugar Land.
“Before we could do the paperwork, I was bemoaning my golf game, complaining that I could not hit a 3-wood from the fairway,” Hand said.
“Steve said follow me and we went out to his car in the parking lot where he popped the trunk and showed me his clubs with a vintage persimmon wood 3-wood. I protested that I couldn’t hit that club — much too heavy and that tiny head. And he said I don’t want you to hit it but show me how you set up. In a flash, he told me to lower my hands. He gave me a great lesson in the parking lot that I remember still today. I had to remind him about that paperwork that needed to be done.”
As Hand and I talked, I remembered how Steve was so encouraging to me when I got back into sports writing about eight years ago and how he had helped arrange a golf scholarship for me at Oral Roberts University when I graduated from Lee in 1971. I was not smart enough to take it but told Hand that Steve didn’t have to do that.
“Exactly,” Hand said. “That was a theme in his life. He did a lot of things for people like that when he didn’t have to.”