Appreciation: A Coach and a Gentleman; Above All, Johnson Was a Friend
The phone rang at 7:34 Tuesday morning, and the first words I heard former Dartmouth All-American golfer Joe Henley mutter were, “Coach, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Coach Johnson passed away last night.”
That would be Bill Johnson, husband of Izzy and former golf coach and head golf professional at Dartmouth College for almost 30 years. His list of honors would fill up a book, to say nothing of a resume. It was a short conversation, and I was totally caught off-guard, thankful that my kids had left for school and my wife had gone to work so I could be alone with my thoughts and emotions. It was that same kick in the gut when my parents and high school basketball coach, Lang Metcalf, passed away. Words can’t describe my feelings, I cried like a little kid — just as I am now writing this story.
You should know that Bill Johnson made me the golfer I am today ... and he never charged me a penny for all his help. After so many years as my teacher, he had not left the grounds of Hanover Country Club to watch me play. Not one hole. Not one shot. Not until the end. But when I needed him, he was always there.
Along this journey of life, we will cross paths and spend time with certain people — besides our parents — who play a big part in the person we will become. I grew up at Carter Country Club, took my first lessons from Peter Keane around the age of 6 and fell in love with the game. As time went by and my game started to shape up, every once in a while I would go to Hanover and play the big course — 18 holes — where they had a pro named Bill Johnson.
I took my first junior camp with Bill when I was 10 and, to be honest, he kind of scared me. Using big words that had no meaning to me, he just kind of stared at me and watched me hit ball after ball. Little did I know that this would be the start of one of the most amazing relationships of my life.
I stayed at Carter through my high school and college years, turning pro my senior year in college. I came back home from school after graduation, and Mr. Johnson called me and said he wanted to chat. He said he thought Hanover C.C. would be a great place for me to practice and take my game to a higher level. He said he would always be there for me. And he said he thought I could make a living at this game.
I kind of laughed. My idea of turning pro was to play in the state opens and win $8,000 at a time while playing slow-pitch softball every weekend. Quite honestly, being a professional golfer was about 18,000th on my to-do list.
So I started entering these tournaments as a pro and started winning, and winning again. All of a sudden, my life was turning in a different direction. Mr. Johnson was my lifeline to the game, and we talked on the phone all the time, always sneaking off for the five-minute lesson here and there. Every time I came home, if things were going bad, we would get together. One time, I was putting poorly and needed a lesson. I show up to the putting green, and there was my teacher — with a field hockey stick and a Coors Light can. This guy had more toys, gimmicks, aids than any teacher alive. He starts putting with the stick and draining five-foot putts. He gives me the stick, and I start sinking the putts. The point was that good putters could putt with anything — and that I was one.
After every single session we ever had, he’d always ask the same question: Who is the best putter in the world? The answer was always the same: I am.
I went on to play in some big tournaments over the years, including the U.S. Open. In 1990, two of us from HCC — the late Jeff Julian and myself — played in the Open at Medinah. I know Mr. Johnson was proud as hell to have two of his kids play on the biggest stage of all.
Golf was his life. He loved the kids he coached, he loved Dartmouth and always made time no matter what was going on. How could I ever repay him?
I found one way.
I had gone to Trinidad and Tobago one year with some friends and ended up winning the Trinidad Open in a playoff. That got me an invitation to play in the Gene Sarazen World Open in Atlanta for golfers who had won a national title. So there I was on the practice green in Atlanta, and who do I see but Bill Johnson? I couldn’t believe he had come to support me.
Later that day, I’m on the driving range with Ernie Els, with whom I had become friends during the winters I spent in South Africa playing on their tour. As we’re hitting balls it suddenly hit me. I point to Mr. Johnson sitting in the bleachers and ask Ernie if he would walk behind the ropes and introduce himself and bring Mr. Johnson in with us.
Ernie never hesitated. As he spoke with Mr. Johnson, you never saw a guy jump up so fast with the biggest smile on his face. He came in and videotaped Ernie for a while and then worked his way down to the end of the line taking video of Ian Woosnam. He couldn’t get enough of it.
It always makes me smile when I think of that day because I know what it meant to him. He walked all 72 holes with me that week and worked with me after the rounds.
We won over $16,000, and he was by my side.
The years passed, but we always stayed in touch. I was lucky enough to be invited to his retirement party at Dartmouth and all the weekend festivities that went along with it. That was my first taste of the Dartmouth family. I knew from that day on that I wanted to be a part of it and carry on the traditions that Tommy Keane and Bill Johnson had going for the past 80-odd years.
When Bill retired, I applied for his job and am now in my ninth year as men’s golf coach. Mr. Johnson was thrilled for me. For the first time, he expressed his feelings and told me how proud he was of me — and the man I had become. He told me he slept well at night with me at the helm.
I can tell you he didn’t sleep every night because he loved a late-night phone call every now and again. It was always about golf.
A year ago, I called him after a freak accident on the interstate with me driving the whole team back to school. Life, as I knew it, had changed forever. Sleepless nights were constant. My golf game went out the window with the shattered glass.
I spent the whole summer hitting thousands of practice balls, literally wasting three months. Then it hit me: Call your coach, the guy who knows your swing since you were 10.
I left this crazy message on his phone in Carolina, saying I am at the end my golfing career and I need my teacher to teach me one more time.
Flash forward to Aug. 17, and we’re holding my benefit golf tournament that we run every year at Carter. I come up over the hill, and there sit Bill and Izzy Johnson.
I knew peace of mind was only a few days away. Still, I couldn’t sleep the night before because I am meeting with the only person in the world who can take me out of this dark place that I have been stuck in.
I get there early and warm up just like the old days, and sure enough a cart rolls over the hill. But he is not alone. Pete Williamson, arguably the best golfer to play in the Ivy League, shows up as well. Talk about some Dartmouth golf stories.
Those two spent two hours watching me hit balls and breaking out the old theories and lingo from yesteryear. I was a kid again for a few hours, being taught the basics by my teacher for the last time.
I left the lesson a completely different person. I went out and shot a few rounds back in the 60s and finally have found my way back. Ah, the little things in life.
Two hours later there was a second phone call. I looked at the caller ID and it said CHA — the old Dartmouth nickname for Coach Johnson. I almost didn’t pick it up. It was Bill’s wife, Izzy, calling to tell me that he had passed away. She told me Bill was proud of me and that he loved me and knew the team was in good hands.
I told her that I appreciated it and that I had come to realize all those things in the last few years. I also told her that there was no way possible I could have found the strength to call her that day, and was thankful that she did.
That two-hour lesson a few weeks back was a goodbye session — but we never knew it. After the lesson, as I was putting my clubs away, he drove up in this old Lincoln Town Car he had just purchased — matching the same boat that I’m driving. He handed me a bag of grits. “Try these, you’ll like ‘em,” he said. “Good luck this year; I’ll be watching.”
With a handshake, it was goodbye forever.
I never realized how much we had in common. I love the kids, I love the team and I love being apart of the Dartmouth family. Just like him.
I truly believe that final lesson was a sign from God, and I am so thankful and blessed to have had the chance to share those moments with him.
We all have a few Bill Johnsons in our lives. Make sure you thank them along your journey.
I will leave you with this one final question: Who is the best putter in the world?
Rest in peace, Mr. Johnson.
In addition to his Dartmouth duties, Parker is a former teaching pro at several New Hampshire golf courses and a past champion of several New England state opens.