Men’s Golf Alum Neil Johnson Cashes In Big At Colorado Open

Posted on July 29th, 2016 by

Left: Neil Johnson fist pumps on the 18th green after winning the Colorado Open (photo courtesy of

Twelve years ago the Gustavus men’s golf team claimed the first national championship in program history. On that 2004 squad was senior Neil Johnson, who capped his collegiate career not only as a team member of a national championship, but as a four-time All-American as well. Needless to say, he went out on top.

Johnson went on to play two years as an amateur golfer before turning to the professional ranks, where he has played ever since. But last summer Johnson contemplated quitting the sport all together after going broke on the PGA Tour Canada. He supplemented his finances by working odd jobs, such as being a valet and scrubbing golf clubs at various courses, but 12 years of playing without a sponsor and not cashing in on a big tournament win finally caught up to him.

But all of that changed last weekend as Johnson cashed in big, to the tune of $100,000, after winning the CoBank Colorado Open.

Neil Johnson

Neil Johnson

“This win has completely changed my golf career,” Johnson said. “I told my parents that 2016 is all about saving as much money as I could and then in 2017 I hope to get my Tour (professional developmental tour) status back up there.”

Johnson noted that competing in the Tour is not cheap and would cost him about $50,000-75,000 to “really do it right,” which would involve finding sponsors to cover costs. Before last weekend’s win he was going to face that financial decision at the end of this year.

“After the $100,000 victory, I realized I don’t need that kind of support anymore and I can do it on my own dollar,” Johnson said. “So whatever happens the rest of this year and going into early next year, I can continue to be out of my own pocket. Even better, everything I win can continue to go right back into my own pocket. I love that I’ve been able to do that my whole career. I’m not in debt to any sponsors or any company. It’s crazy how this check has totally supported that.”

Simply making the field for the Colorado Open wasn’t easy, as Johnson had to play in a qualifying round the Monday before. The Gustie grad was one of the last players to make the field, but he certainly made the best of the opportunity. Going up against a group of players who have been on the PGA Tour and have made millions of dollars, Johnson stuck with the mindset that he could beat anybody as long as he played well.

“During the tournament I did a good job of not focusing on the question of could I win this, or where I was at on the leaderboard,” Johnson said. “It crossed my mind a little bit on Friday during the second round because I got off to such a good start. I thought to myself that I was doing well being one shot off the lead, but that set me back a little bit. I got unfocused as soon as I started thinking that.”

The focus came back, though, as Johnson shot an eight-under par in the final round Sunday for a four-round total of 23-under to claim the title over the likes of former PGA Tour golfers Jonathan Kaye, who has made $10,584,934 on Tour, and Will Collins.

“I’d like to think that at some point the people running the Colorado Open had a dream or vision that if they increase the first place prize to $100,000, maybe they can have some unknown kid who’s never had a sponsor, who had to work every odd job possible, from being a valet, to coaching, to scrubbing clubs at a golf course, maybe he can come in and steal this $100,000 check from PGA Tour members guys who have made millions of dollars on the Tour. That’s exactly what happened and it’s kind of like a fairy tale story.”

Johnson takes an approach shot during the spring of 2004.

Johnson takes an approach shot during the spring of 2004.

Now at the highest point in his career, Johnson doesn’t forget his roots. The River Falls, Wis. native looks back fondly at his time at Gustavus and playing for coach Scott Moe. Fresh out of high school, Johnson had to potential to play Division I golf, but his decision to come to Gustavus proved to be the right choice.

“If I tried to go to any Division I school, I wouldn’t have played,” Johnson said. “I would have been redshirted, and been jostled around, and honestly forgotten about. At Gustavus, right away I was able to find my place on the varsity squad and get to learn from a couple seniors and coach Moe. And I never forget what winning the national championship did for my confidence. Being able to leave college on top, and we had such a great team my senior year, it was the perfect ending. Being a national champ and All-American, it was like ‘let’s go on to the next big thing.’ That was a running start in a sense.”

Coach Moe describes Johnson as a consistent golfer throughout his four years wearing the black and gold. He was able to shoot par on a regular basis and at the Division III level that leads to success, but shooting par isn’t enough when you’re trying to make it at the next level.

“As he went out into the professional ranks, he learned right away that at rounds of 71 or 72, you are not making any money,” Moe said. “He had to adjust his mindset to make a lot of birdies, to take some more risk-reward shots. He was always a conservative player in college because he was in the mindset of making pars, so it is so cool to see that transition for him. To pull it off in that final round last Sunday was unbelievable.”

Johnson continues to help the Gustavus golf program by working with players when he’s back in the area, or during breaks when current Gusties visit him to discuss college life and what it’s like to be a professional golfer. What the future holds for Johnson is yet to be seen, but his passion for the game continues to grow one year removed from contemplating quitting all together.

“I’ll do the Dakotas Tour and there are a couple more state opens here and there, which eventually lead up to Q-school (qualifying school),” Johnson said. “That’s my big thing, I want to get to Q-school and get back to the Tour and have membership status next year. I want to stay up there and learn how to be successful. When I was there in 2014 it was new to me and a total learning experience, and I really struggled to find my place. I believe that if I get up there next year it will be much different and then I’ll find a way to be successful on that tour. Then potentially the next step after that would be the PGA Tour.”

Follow Neil Johnson on his website:


Comments are closed.