Three-time Curtis Cup Competitor, U.S. Women's Amateur Runner-up Johnstone Dies

March 26, 2014

Ann Casey Johnstone (top right) is seen here with her fellow semifinalists at the 1957 U.S. Women's Amateur Championship. She would go on to finish as the runner-up, falling to eight-time USGA champion JoAnne Gunderson Carner (center) in the final. (USGA Museum)

Ann Casey Johnstone, a three-time USA Curtis Cup Match competitor and the runner-up in the 1957 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, died on March 21 in her adopted hometown of Pinehurst, N.C. Johnstone, who grew up in Mason City, Iowa, and went on to an accomplished career as a golf coach and instructor, was 93.

Johnstone was selected to play in the first of three consecutive Curtis Cup Matches in 1958 following an outstanding 1957 season in which she was a finalist in four major amateur competitions: the U.S. Women’s Amateur, the Trans-Mississippi Amateur, the North & South Women’s Amateur, and the Women’s Western Amateur.

In fact, if it weren’t for eight-time USGA champion JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Johnstone might have claimed at least one U.S. Women’s Amateur title. Gunderson defeated Johnstone in three consecutive years: in the semifinals of the 1956 championship at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis, in the 36-hole championship match in 1957 at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento, Calif., and in the 1958 quarterfinals at Wee Burn C.C. in Darien, Conn. In 1960, Jean Ashley defeated Johnstone in the semifinals at Tulsa (Oka.) C.C. before falling to Gunderson in the championship match.

Johnstone’s USA Curtis Cup Teams of 1958, 1960 and 1962 went 2-0-1 against Great Britain & Ireland, the draw coming in the 1958 Match at Brae Burn Country Club in West Newton, Mass. Johnstone produced a 3-0 mark in foursomes (alternate-shot) and lost her lone singles match. Johnstone won both the Trans-Miss and the North & South in 1959, the Women’s Western Amateur in 1960, and paired with Marlene Streit to win the 1959 Women's International Four-Ball title. Johnstone was also a six-time Iowa Women’s Amateur champion.

“She was probably the most famous amateur golfer from Iowa,” Johnstone’s nephew, Dick Casey, told Kristin Buehler of the Mason City (Iowa) Globe Gazette. “She was very confident and worked harder than anybody.”

Among the golf titans of that era, none stood taller than Babe Didrikson Zaharias. “I played several matches against Babe and she beat me every time,” recalled Johnstone in 1977. “Once I had her a hole down after the first nine, but she pulled it out. After the match, she laughed and said, ‘Listen, you little pipsqueak, if you think you can beat me, you’ve got another think coming.'”

As accomplished a player as she was, Johnstone was equally successful as a teacher of the game. She coached golf at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., for nearly three decades, and in 1986, she was inducted into the National Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In 2004, she was inducted into the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Hall of Fame. At Stephens, she coached her daughter, Jean Grabias, as well as future TV broadcaster Paula Zahn.

“Ann became a great instructor,” said Barbara McIntire, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who played on all three Curtis Cup Teams with Johnstone, and six in all. “She understood the basics of the game and conveyed them so that students could understand. She made it much simpler than golf seems to be today.”

Johnstone helped to establish the “golfari” (safari of golf) schools at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club – the first golf schools for women – with the legendary Peggy Kirk Bell, who took over at Pine Needles in 1953. The schools continue to this day. Johnstone also co-authored “Golf, A Positive Approach,” with fellow LPGA teacher Carol Clark Johnson in 1975.

Johnstone  was introduced to the game in 1935 by caddieing for her mother, the late Regina D. Casey, at age 13. Johnstone soon after received her first set of golf clubs, and recalled shooting a 72 for her first nine holes.

Johnstone became such an accomplished player that she competed on the first men’s golf teams at Mason City Junior College from 1939-41. Shortly thereafter, she began taking lessons from Les Bolstad, the University of Minnesota men’s golf coach who had won the 1926 U.S. Amateur Public Links. Bolstad also worked with Minneapolis native and future Hall of Famer Patty Berg.

While playing a tournament in Chicago in 1946, Berg introduced Johnstone to an assistant golf pro named Les Johnstone, who would become her husband two years later. Johnstone competed in nine U.S. Women’s Amateurs and four U.S. Women’s Opens as an amateur before turning pro in 1964 to help put her husband through college. Les later became a pharmacist at the Missouri Medical Center in Columbia.

Johnstone continued to teach the game until age 90 at Pine Needles. She is enshrined in the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame and the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.

Johnstone leaves her daughter, Jean Ann Grabias, of Leesburg, Va.; and two granddaughters, Lesley Grabias, of Washington, D.C., and Allison Pera, of St. Petersburg, Fla.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 12, at Epiphany Parish St. Joseph’s Church in Mason City.

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