Jimmy Johnston, Amateur Star of the 1920s

Jimmy Johnston was born into a well-off family near the dawn of the 20th century. He grew up to become a championship amateur golfer, a local hero in Minnesota, and he played a shot that was once one of the most famous in American golf. He also served in two world wars and became a friend of Bobby Jones' through multiple Walker Cup appearances.

Full name: Harrison Requa Johnston

Date of birth: August 31, 1896

Place of birth: St. Paul, Minnesota

Date and place of death: November 18, 1969 in Palm Beach County, Florida

Nickname: Jimmy, of course. Minnesota media outlets sometimes referred to him as "Minnesota's Bobby Jones."

Johnston's Biggest Wins

Johnston's two biggest wins, by far, were these:
  • 1924 Western Amateur
  • 1929 U.S. Amateur
But Johnston dominated state-level golf in Minnesota for much of the 1920s, also winning these titles:
  • 1921 Minnesota Amateur
  • 1922 Minnesota Amateur
  • 1923 Minnesota Amateur
  • 1924 Minnesota Amateur
  • 1925 Minnesota Amateur
  • 1926 Minnesota Amateur
  • 1927 Minnesota Amateur
  • 1927 Minnesota State Open
  • 1928 Minnesota State Open
His seven consecutive wins in the Minnesota Amateur is the tournament record. The Minnesota State Open is a pro tournament run by the state PGA; Johnston won it playing as an amateur.

After a break from competitive golf, Johnston had two more wins in him:

  • 1946 Minnesota Senior Amateur
  • 1949 Minnesota Senior Amateur

Johnston's U.S. Amateur Victory and His Famous Shot to Win It

Jimmy Johnston made it to the semifinals of a U.S. Amateur Championship only once ... and that year he won it all. It was 1929, and possibilities opened for every player in the field when the prohibitive favorite, Bobby Jones, lost in the first round to Johnny Goodman.

Johnston defeated John De Paolo in the first round, then Roland MacKenzie and George Voigt. In the semifinals, Johnston dispatched Francis Ouimet by a 6-and-5 score. (Jones and Johnston were friends, and after his first-round defeat Jones stuck around and watched some of Johnston's matches.)

In the championship match, Johnston, a stockbroker, beat Oscar Willing, a dentist, 4 and 3. The key shot was, in its time, one of the most famous shots in amateur golf history. It happened on the 18th hole of the morning (it was a 36-hole final), when Johnston was 1-down to Willing.

Finding the fairway at Pebble Beach, Johnston played his second shot, and it was not a good one: He hooked it, over the edge and apparently right into Monterrey Bay on the hole's left-hand side.

Johnston played a provisional while his caddie scampered down the seawall on the off chance the ball could be found. And find it the caddie did: It was nestled among small pebbles in the sand below the seawall, about a 10-foot drop at the time. The caddie was only able to find it because it was low tide, exposing more shoreline.

Johnston hurried to play it, but after he took his stance a wave rolled ashore "and buried my feet six inches in the water," he later told USGA historian Rand Jerris. "But when the wave receded, the ball was still there!"

Johnston then hit his shot (photo), playing the pellet from its pebbly perch and onto the green's edge. He halved the hole, avoiding going 2-down, and in the afternoon 18 staged his winning charge.

The club Johnston used to pull off the shot, a Spalding Kro-Flite spade mashie, for decades was on display in the Golden Age gallery of the USGA Museum. And the shot, though largely forgotten today, isn't completely forgotten: A 2018 article in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press newspaper called it "the greatest shot in Minnesota golf history."

Writing about the tournament in American Golfer magazine, Bobby Jones said of Johnston:

"There has never been in golf a finer sportsman or a more loveable chap than the new champion. Throughout the week he displayed a command of his shots and a courageous spirit which entirely deserved the honor which he eventually won."

It seems like most golf fans of the era felt the same way about Johnston. Upon his return to St. Paul with the trophy, Johnston received a ticker-tape parade through town and a reception from the mayor.

More About Jimmy Johnston

According to the USGA Museum: "Johnston was a man with broad interests and talents. Ever the consummate gentleman, Johnston excelled at baseball, swimming, diving, skiing, hockey, and tennis, yet was also an accomplished painter and piano player."

And sportswriter Grantland Rice described Johnston's golf game, calling him "a long, straight hitter, a fine iron player and first-class putter."

Johnston was born into a socially prominent Minnesota family: His father was architect Clarence H. Johnston, who served as Minnesota State Architect from 1901-31, and designed dozens and dozens of major buildings and prominent houses in the state.

Johnston attended the tony St. Paul's Academy in St. Paul, where one of his classmates was future author F. Scott Fitzgeral, and Hotchkiss Prep School.

He got into golf by taking the family boat across Lake Minnetonka, where they had a summer home, to play with the caddies at Lafayette Club. The pro there thought Johnston showed promise and began tutoring him in the game. When Johnston was 16, he won his first golf tournament — the caddie's tournament at Lafayette Club (the pro gave him permission to take part).

Two years later Johnston reached the semifinals of his first Minnesota State Amateur in 1915. The following year he made the cut in the U.S. Open, which was played that year at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis.

Then World War I intervened. Johnston served in a machine gun battalion on the front lines, participating in the Battle of the Argonne Forest. But he also played some golf while in Europe, winning two military golf tournaments.

Back home from the war, Johnston made the finals of the 1921 Minnesota State Amateur, then started his seven-year winning streak in 1922.

Prior to his U.S. Amateur victory, Johnston made the national scene by winning the 1924 Western Amateur, one of the biggest tournaments of its day. In doing so, Johnston ended Chick Evans' run of four consecutive wins. In the championship match, Johnston was 3-down to Albert Seckel with five holes to play, then birdied four of those five remaining holes to win 1-up. He secured the victory by making a 35-foot putt on the final hole.

Johnston played the U.S. Open eight times, making the cut the first six times. That included three Top 25 finishes: tied for 23rd in the 1926 U.S. Open, tied for 22nd in the 1928 U.S. Open, and his best finish of a tie for 18th in the 1927 U.S. Open. Johnston was the midway leader in the 1927 Open, but blew up with an 87 in the third round.

Johnston played for Team USA in four Walker Cups (1923, 1924, 1928, 1930), becoming close friends with Bobby Jones in the process. He won both singles matches he played and three of the four foursomes matches he played during those years.

He also played the British Amateur several times, with his best showing being a loss in the quarterfinals to Jones in 1930. When Jones came to Minnesota to play the 1930 U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, he stayed with the Johnstons.

By 1933, Johnston, his game in decline with less time to devote to it, gave up competitive tournament play and focused on his work as a stockbroker. He then served in another war, World War II, as a member of the Army Air Corps.

When he turned 50, Johnston decided to return to tournament golf, and did so successfully: He won the Minnesota Senior Amateur in 1946 and 1949. And in 1950, capping his golf career, he was voted Minnesota Golfer of the Half Century.

Johnston retired from Merrill Lynch in 1966. Following his death three years later, Johnston was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis. In 1988, Johnston was elected to the Minnesota Golf Hall of Fame as part of its second class of inductees.

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