WAPL Champion Memories: Amy Spooner Johnston (1998)

Amy Spooner (now Johnston) claimed the 1998 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at the Kapalua Resort in Hawaii. (USGA/John Mummert)
By David Shefter, USGA
June 12, 2014

Amy Spooner-Johnston, then a rising senior at Florida State University from Margate, Fla., won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship with a 2-and-1 victory over Natalie Wong on the Bay Course at the Kapalua Resort on Maui, Hawaii. Spooner-Johnston, a WAPL semifinalist in 1997, turned pro in 1999 and competed on the Futures Tour until 2001, when she became a full-time mom. Spooner-Johnston and her husband, Brian, have five children (four boys and a girl) ranging in age from 2 to 10. Spooner-Johnston plays golf only a handful of times a year, though she captured the ladies club championship last year at her home course, Green Meadow Country Club, in the Knoxville, Tenn., suburb of Alcoa.

How excited were you to play in Hawaii?

That was a vacation for me. I had never been to a place like that. Me and a few [qualifiers] from the area stayed together. We had a great little townhouse on the beach and we were looking forward to doing the Jurassic Park helicopter ride, going down the volcanoes and doing the Seven Pools of Hana. We were all talking about what we were going to see and just have a big sightseeing week. Of course, we were going to play golf … but I went into Kapalua more relaxed and thinking about what an opportunity to see this place and have the trip paid for by local [golf associations]. Those associations pulled together to pay for my flight and I was just in awe and excited to be there.

What kind of memories do you have from that week?

The day before the tournament, we played our last practice round and it was a little bit of a windy day. It wasn’t windy for them, but windy for us. They weren’t like the beach winds I was used to in Fort Lauderdale. We were at the [players’] dinner and all dressed up and there was this Hawaiian guy sitting next to us at the dinner just laughing and looking at us. He came over and he asked who we were and where we were from. And he said, “I would just love to caddie for one of you girls.” We couldn’t afford to bring a caddie or hire one. I told him if he would like to caddie for me, absolutely [he could]. His name was Herb [Nishijima] … and he was the superintendent of greens [for the Bay Course]. How lucky is that? He knew the greens like the back of his hand. He walked in flip-flops and we ended up having a great time. He knew the greens. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Herbie.

What was your mindset that week?

I was just relaxed. The second day, I wound up playing against a childhood friend (Bessie Phillips) from Florida. Beating her was a big deal. She was an awesome, awesome golfer. I was exhausted [after the first day, playing 39 holes the first two matches]. My friends and I were talking about going sightseeing after our first match. They went shopping while I was playing golf because I won my first match. The next day, I won my [quarterfinal match] and had to say, “I can’t go with you girls, I am playing golf again.” That whole week, I did not get to sightsee except for that course. It was the most exciting time of my life.

How important was this victory for your golf career?

From all of the golf that I’ve ever played, from junior golf [in Florida] to the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association), they were quality tournaments. But I remember any USGA event that I could get in, that was going to be the most important in my life. They just ran their tournaments with class. It was always prestigious to be in a USGA event. And even as I got a little older after college, I didn’t even want to turn pro because I still wanted to play in the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the Public Links. It gave me a ton of confidence. Just to be able to be somebody within the USGA was big-time.

But you eventually turned pro after graduating from Florida State, correct?

I did. I didn’t make it to the LPGA Tour. I played the Futures Tour. My husband and I raised all of our own money and when the money ran out, I stopped. It was a hard life. I got a full scholarship out of golf. I got a national championship and got some other tournament wins and respectable showings. Hey, I made it further than I ever thought I would. I wanted to try the LPGA, but didn’t. It’s OK.

Do you still keep in contact with players or WAPL champions from your era?

There’s a few. I know that [1996 champion] Heather Graff Zahkar lives out in California and we occasionally talk on Facebook. We traveled a little together and were on the Futures Tour together after college. It would be wonderful to see [those players].

Any thoughts of the WAPL being retired?

It was a wonderful tournament. I’m sad to see it go. [Growing up], we didn’t have a ton of money, but my parents gave everything they could to enter me into golf tournaments and the Publinx. It was important. I don’t know how to feel [about the WAPL being retired]. Is it stealing the thunder away from my win? Or is it more special that I won it and it is no longer there? It would be nice to have a picture of that trophy with all the names [of the champions] on it. That would be pretty neat.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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