Remembering the man behind one of the LPGA’s most iconic tournaments

By |  March 30, 2017 0 Comments

For 28 years David Johnson played the role of director of course operations for the 54-hole Mission Hills CC in Rancho Mirage, Calif. For 28 years he hosted the first major of the year, now known as the ANA Inspiration (previously known as the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the Nabisco Dinah Shore.)

That streak came to a sad end recently when Johnson passed away unexpectedly a month before he would have hosted his 29th LPGA major.

“I said to him that Friday, ‘Get to feeling better,’ when he left for the day,” says Jared Taylor, superintendent of the Dinah Shore Tournament Course. “That Sunday we had a big tournament, one he would never miss. I thought it was weird that I hadn’t seen him all day. Turns out, that Friday was the last time I’d see him.”

From the maintenance staff to the players, Johnson’s larger-than-life presence has been missed. The staff at Mission Hills has honored their colleague in multiple ways, from wearing “DJ” pins to parking his cart, along with a poster of Johnson, next to the first tee.

World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam was saddened to learn of Johnson’s passing. A three-time winner (2001, 2002 and 2005) at Mission Hills, Sorenstam said Johnson was a fixture at the course.

“You’d always see him out there and he’d always ask what you thought of the course, ‘Is there something we need to do?’” she recalls. “He was always around. He loved what he did. The course was his baby and he cared about it.”

John Conroy, director of membership and marketing at Mission Hills CC, worked with Johnson for 11 years. He calls Johnson “An amazing gentle giant.”

“Our friendship overlapped from golf — he was a huge Michigan State fan, I’m an Ohio State fan,” Conroy recalls. “Sports was his other life, and he’d teach the staff here about the other sports. He cared so much about this week, and his amazing crew here.”

Thomas Garcia started working at the course before Johnson. He started on his birthday in 1985. Garcia and Johnson grew close over the years, so close that the crew asked him to speak about what kind of a person Johnson was at his funeral.

“I thought there would be less than 50 people there, but there were over 100,” Garcia says. “It made me nervous, I got through as much as I could and then passed it off.”

The one story that Garcia felt important to tell about his boss — who he considers a friend — was when Johnson stood up for him and his supervisor. They were behind the green on No. 17 when a member bladed his shot over the green. Frustrated, he yelled at him and his co-worker.

“We told Dave and another guy who was here, named Chipper,” Garcia recalls. “They went up to No. 18 green and waited for the guy. Then they told him he had no right to yell at us like that. And he said, ‘If you don’t like it, pick up your membership and leave.’ He didn’t have to do that, but he did.”

Dinah Shore Tournament Course Superintendent Jared Taylor has been at the course for one year. His first day was the Monday of tournament week last year. His brother, who worked on the Pete Dye Course at Mission Hills several years ago, also worked for Johnson and advised Taylor that Johnson would give him the freedom to run the course the way he wanted to.

“I called him up and he said if there’s anybody that’s going to let you have the time and ability to let you stretch your own legs without telling you what to do everyday… that’s the guy you want to go work for,” Taylor says. “I have the liberties to run it as my own. That’s one of the best things David did with me — he gave me a lot of latitude. I guarantee you there were times when he sat there and said, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ And then he let me do it. He pulled the reins in on me once in a while, but he gave me plenty of room to work and learn.”

Johnson’s old friend David Hay, CGCS, was the superintendent at nearby Indian Wells (Calif.) CC for 19 years, and was contemplating retirement. But since Johnson’s passing he changed clubs and is now the director of agronomy at Mission Hills.

“I figured I’d fill in for him and get them through the tournament,” Hay says. “We’ve been buddies for 22 years, so it’s a pretty big loss for everybody. The job is so busy, we’re all just pitching in. We’re doing it for Dave — this is his tournament. We’re doing it for him.”

Hay credits the work of Johnson and Taylor. “Jared Taylor has done a spectacular job. This thing was set and ready to go,” Hay says. “The pressure is going into something so good and hopefully not messing it up.”

Sorenstam agrees, saying the course looks just as good as ever.

“They should be very proud,” she says. “(Johnson) laid the groundwork — it’s all about the preparation. I know they’ve delivered a tournament that would make him proud.”

This is posted in Columns, Featured

About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 25-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at

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