Hank Johnson, celebrated instructor who trained countless golfers in Alabama, dies at 80

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Hank Johnson, right, giving a golf lesson to a student. Johnson, a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, died Sept. 28. (Courtesy Hank Johnson School of Golf)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Much like the sport he dedicated his life to, Hank Johnson took his time.

The nationally renowned instructor, and member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, took the time to learn every aspect of golf, how a player’s game could be improved, and, most of all, took the time for others.

“I don’t know of anyone who ever saw him in a rush,” said Connor Slane, an instructor at the Hank Johnson School of Golf at Bent Brook Golf Course. “He gave careful attention to every single person and he made you feel like you were the only person in the world.”

Johnson died Sept. 28 at the age of 80.

A boy from Siluria

Johnson grew up in Siluria–now known as Alabaster– where his father moved the family to find work at the local cotton mill. It was his father who first instilled the love of golf in Johnson.

“He and some of his friends went into a pasture in Siluria near what is now Thompson High School. They decided to build a five- or six-hole golf course,” Johnson told The Birmingham News in 2001. “It didn’t have a name and there is no trace of it now. I just remember watching them using these funny-looking sticks whacking a little white ball around.”

Hank Johnson, left, giving a golf lesson to a student. Johnson, a nationally recognized golf instructor and member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, died Sept. 28. (Courtesy of the Hank Johnson School of Golf)

Johnson received his first formal training in the sport at Woodward Country Club under Paul Stapp. After graduating high school, Johnson joined the golf team at Auburn University, where he finished second in the 1962 SEC Championship. After playing on the PGA Tour for two years in the late 60s, Johnson began his true calling as an instructor at the Longue Vue Club in Pittsburgh.

By 1975, Johnson was named to the advisory staff at Golf Digest, writing many articles for the magazine and appearing on the cover several times.

In 1976, Johnson moved back to Alabama, where he became director of golf at NorthRiver Yacht Club in Tuscaloosa. That’s where Steve Lowery first met him in 1980, not long after graduating from Berry High School in Hoover and joining the University of Alabama golf team.

“If one of his students was having trouble, he would come up with something so they could better feel what he was trying to explain to them,” said Lowery, who went pro in 1983 and was a mainstay on the PGA Tour for years.

Johnson eventually left Tuscaloosa and became executive golf professional and instructor at Greystone Country Club. By 2002, he had founded the Hank Johnson School of Golf.

In 1993, he published a book called “How to Win the Three Games of Golf.”

Among his many honors by golf organizations across the country, Johnson was often named one of the top 100 golf teachers in the country by Golf magazine, an unquestioned claim to Birmingham golfers.

“I would have been surprised if he hadn’t been,” former Birmingham News sports columnist Clyde Bolton wrote in 1999. “Certainly when I hear top teachers mentioned in this area, Johnson’s name always heads the list.”

‘Always trying to do more’

Wayne Flint, golf instructor at Highland Park Golf Course, first met Johnson in 1985 when he caddied for him during the Bruno’s Memorial Classic. Not long after, Johnson asked Flint to come work with him at NorthRiver.

Flint said Johnson was ahead of his time when it came to understanding different ways body movement could be studied in order to improve a player’s game.

Steve Lowery hits during the first round of the Buick Open at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club on July 30, 2009 in Grand Blanc, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

“Everybody had access to video cameras, but he was ahead of the game in terms of what the body could and couldn’t do,” Flint said. “He definitely had cameras set up in all different angles and they would gather that data. No one was doing that back then.”

Lowery said one aspect of Johnson’s teaching was knowing when to pull back and let players do what they needed to do, helping them get better with the skills they already had.

“He didn’t change the way I played golf,” Lowery said from his home in California. “He just took what I had and tried to help make me better.”

For a time, Lowery was away from Alabama as his career was taking off. However, a house fire in 1999 caused him to move back to Birmingham, where he reconnected with Johnson and continued to work with him.

“I knew I was better when I was around him,” he said.

More than just his knowledge of golf, Flint said Johnson was highly intelligent and was always studying everything he could, always trying to figure out the best way to do things.

“He never felt like he had it all figured out,” Flint said. “He was always trying to do more and achieve more.”

A legacy

Connor Slane first met Johnson in 2010 when he was a sophomore in high school and wanting to improve his game.

“I knew I wanted to be a better golfer, so my dad took me to see him,” Slane said. “I still remember the things we worked on that day.”

Slane would eventually work with Johnson at the Hank Johnson School of Golf at Bent Brook Golf Club.

Hank Johnson training a golfer. (Courtesy of the Hank Johnson School of Golf)

“He was just a very special man,” Slane said. “He loved to teach, he loved people, and he loved Jesus. It was so evident in everything he did.”

Slane said that in many ways, Johnson was more of a life coach than a golf instructor. That philosophy came out in a phrase he would frequently use: “Rushing is wrong every time.”

“I don’t know of anyone who ever saw him in a rush,” he said. “He gave careful attention to every single person and he made you feel like you were the only person in the world.”

Lowery said Johnson knew his life mission was to help golfers be the best they could be and he worked most of his life to make sure he was the best instructor he could be.

“If he wasn’t giving instruction, he was going to seminars, improving his ability.” he said. “That was his focus and he got better and better at it.”

Flint said he took a lot of pride in his family, but also was very proud of the people he took under his wing.

“I think he was proud of all the young guys that came out from his tutelage and become successful.”

Talking about his longtime mentor, Flint said what always impressed him about Johnson was how generous he was with everyone.

Hank Johnson pictured with his medal from the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. (Courtesy Southern Heritage Funeral Home & Cemetery)

“He was always willing to sit down and share,” he said. “He always had the time after a lesson if I wanted to ask him a couple of questions, he was always pretty gracious with his time.”

Mark Wood, golf professional at Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, worked alongside Johnson at NorthRiver for 10 years and said he helped as many instructors as he did golfers.

“Somehow was able to see past all the rough edges because we were all a bunch of no-names,” Wood said. “He saw something in us and motivated us to become the professionals that we are today.”

Flint said he owes so much to Johnson for who he is today.

“I don’t know why he took a chance on a kid from Chicago,” he said. “I don’t know why he did it, but I was so thankful he did.”

Johnson’s funeral will be held Friday at Southern Heritage Funeral Home in Pelham. Visitation will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with the memorial starting at 1 p.m. The funeral will be livestreamed here.

In lieu of flowers, Johnson’s family has asked those interested to make donations to the Bradley Johnson Memorial Foundation.

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