After serving in one occupation for more than 40 years, it’s nice to receive some recognition every once and awhile. For Neal Johnson, a master club fitter and club repairer since he was 15 years old, the title as this year’s honoree for The Honors Championship signifies the impact he has made on the Middle Georgia golf community for the past four decades.
“I was excited. It’s nice to be honored,” Johnson said. “It’s just nice of them to think of me for helping out so many Middle Georgians over the years.”
The championship, celebrating its 20th anniversary, will be played Saturday and Sunday at Healy Point Country Club. The tournament’s roots date back to the mid-1990s, when Rusty Wynn and several other friends who played golf together wanted to create a golf tournament for Healy Point, which at that time was known as River North Country Club.
Wynn and his friends understood the tournament needed to be “unique,” so they emulated Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament by picking a member of the golfing community to honor at the tournament.
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“Find someone, not necessarily the best player -- that wasn’t the goal,” Wynn said. “Someone who donated their time to promote, improve and make golf more enjoyable in Middle Georgia.”
The tournament’s committee includes chairman Gay McMichael, Wynn, Phil Hardin, Randy Rowland and Hal Johnson, who was added a few years after the original committee formed. Committee members congregate in the spring and “sit down and say, ‘OK, we have the tournament this summer; here’s some candidates we’re considering,’ ” Wynn said. “We kind of bounce them around a little bit about pros and cons, and we come to a consensus usually pretty quickly.”
As the 2015 honoree, Neal Johnson joins a group of 19 men before him who were given the award: Ken Gerdes, 1996; Ed Grisamore, 1997; Duck Swann, 1998; Eddie Wiggins, 1999; Walt Fugate, 2000; Arnold Blum, 2001; Rex Neal, 2002; Dan Nymicz, 2003; Don Dockrell, 2004; Ray Cutright, 2005; Billy Gibson, 2006; Earl Bowden, 2007; Jim Hickman, 2008; Bryan Persons, 2009; Roy Jarvis, 2010; Bobby Hicks, 2011; Frank Malloy, 2012; Jim Stuart, 2013; and Peter Person, 2014.
Wynn said the committee seeks individuals who have “been in the business a long time.” While the character of the individual or an interview process are not considered, Wynn noted he or another committee member usually has met an honoree before in their 45 to 50 years of playing golf in Middle Georgia and that “all of these people fit that mold.”
Johnson, fits that mold but is a unique choice because he doesn’t make his name as a player but rather as a club master. Wynn likes the choice as it creates a diverse mix of Middle Georgian recipients.
“He’s got a very impressive resume; he’s not just somebody off the boat. He’s pretty strong for us -- qualified, and he’s a nice guy, very humble about his accomplishments,” Wynn said. “He was an easy choice.”
Johnson began his career under Cutright at Riverside Country Club. In 1982, Cutright and Johnson moved down to St. Simons, where the two built and repaired clubs before Cutright sold the business to Sea Island Company.
Johnson continued his work in St. Simons and began fitting clubs in 1984 when his shop sat on the driving range of the course, which offered him the opportunity to fit people right outside his front door and then build the club in his facility.
He fit many customers, but one stands out from the others: George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, who visited during his tenure as the leader of the country.
“I got to meet him and give him his clubs and present him his clubs,” Johnson said. “So I got to meet him and Barbara Bush, so that was probably one of the highlights of my career.”
Cutright moved back to Macon in 1992 to take the head professional position at Idle Hour Club; while Johnson left St. Simons in 1997 and returned to Macon to open a retail business with his older brother and Cutright. Seven years later, Idle Hour opened its learning center, and Johnson moved his business to the club.
“(Club repair and fitting is) all I’ve ever done,” Johnson said.
He has earned the “master” in his title. But after 40 years, considering the sport and the anger it tends to cause its players, Johnson has witnessed his fair share of wild stories, including one in particular.
In 1979, Johnson sat in his shop as a customer approachd with a club that had holes throughout the steel shaft.
“It was rattling all up and down the shaft, and I said, ‘What happened here?’ ” Johnson said. “He said he was playing out at what is now Healy Point, and I don’t remember what hole it was, but he hit a bad shot, and threw his club up in a tree, and it stuck.”
The gentleman threw another club, and it met the same fate as the first. The third club brought two of the clubs down, but one more still remained. Instead of holding his playing partners back, he told them to move on and he would catch up with them.
“His buddies got about a hole-and-a-half ahead of him, and all of a sudden they heard these shotgun blasts coming from two holes back,” Johnson said. “The guy who threw his club in the tree went back to his house and got a shotgun and blasted it out of a tree and brought it to me to fix for him.”
Johnson called it “one of (his) craziest repairs.” But not even a shotgun stumped him.
“I’ve seen a lot over the 40 years with how people break the golf clubs and let out their frustrations on the golf course,” Johnson said. “But I can pretty much fix anything.”
And Wynn referenced Johnson’s accomplishments.
“If you play golf in Middle Georgia, Neal has probably done some work for you on your golf clubs at some point whether you know it or not,” Wynn said.