While most of his peers on the Champions Tour were racking up big bucks on the PGA Tour in the 1980s, Mark Johnson was racking up miles...
While most of his peers on the Champions Tour were racking up big bucks on the PGA Tour in the 1980s, Mark Johnson was racking up miles in the Mojave Desert, driving a beer truck.
Just call him the Beer Man. You earn that moniker when your résumé includes delivering Anheuser-Busch products — as many as 2,800 cases a day — for 18 years.
Those humble beginnings have made Johnson, 51, a media and fan darling — and he has the game to give him staying power. Local fans can toast him as he competes in the Boeing Greater Seattle Classic, which begins Friday at the TPC at Snoqualmie Ridge.
“I think some people might have the perception that I jumped straight off the beer truck to qualifying school,” Johnson said. “In actuality, it wasn’t like that at all.”
Johnson’s tale is told often, at every stop along the Champions Tour. It seems we can’t get enough of the Tour’s Everyman, who proved he was more than just a nice story when he won the SBC Classic in March.
“I don’t get tired of telling my story, because I am so happy to be here, but I wonder if the other guys on the Tour are getting tired of hearing about the Beer Man,” Johnson said.
If so, they’d better get used to it. It appears that the Beer Man — who sticks to non-alcoholic O’Doul’s — will be around for a while. To help his fans follow his progress, Johnson’s girlfriend, Deborah Steller, started an aptly named Web site: www.beermangolf.com.
In addition to information about the Beer Man, the site has beer trivia and a rotating quote, including a recent selection from Ernest Hemingway: “It was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking … beer.”
It would be hard to pen a better start to Johnson’s Champions Tour career.
At the Champions Tour Qualifying School last fall, he played his best golf at the right time, winning the six-day event. More important than the $45,000 he earned was the full-time berth he gained on the Tour. Johnson has taken advantage of that spot, earning $553,176 in 18 events this season. He is 20th on the money list. The top 30 earn automatic exemptions for next season.
“We are in good shape, but I probably need one more good check,” Johnson said of his prospects for being exempt next year. “Not having to go back to Q-school would be really big. Q-school is a one-time thing. If you are not playing your best at that time, you’re down the road doing something else.”
It didn’t always go this well for Johnson.
He turned pro after high school, but was unsuccessful. Needing a regular job, he eventually landed with H. Olson Distributing out of Barstow, Calif. It was a good job, Johnson said, but it wasn’t easy. In the early years, the trucks didn’t have air-conditioning.
“I would drive at 4 a.m. into Baker [Calif.] and it would already be near 100 degrees,” he said. “I would go back through in the evening and it would be 120.”
Workdays were 10 to 12 hours, and longer around holidays like July 4.
“It was hard work,” Johnson said. “It helps me appreciate how good I have it now.”
While delivering beer, Johnson never gave up on his dream. He kept an eye on the 50-and-over tour, and after regaining his amateur status, became one of the top amateur players in California.
He won a record 14 Southern California Golf Association titles. He won the 1996 California State Amateur, two years after he had finished second to Tiger Woods in the Southern California Amateur.
At age 45, he gave up delivering beer and became a pro golfer again. Backed by a five-year sponsorship with a five-year option from H. Olson, and some help from local businessmen, Johnson spent time on the Canadian PGA Tour and the Nationwide Tour while waiting to turn 50.
“I didn’t want just a one- or two-year deal to get back into it,” Johnson said. “I am now in the second year of the five-year option.”
The long journey was made worthwhile in early March. Playing in front of family and friends not far from where he had delivered beer, he was nursing a two-shot lead over Tom Purtzer entering the par-5 final hole of the SBC Classic in Valencia, Calif.
“Entering the 18th hole, anything could have happened,” Johnson said.
But in this magical year for the Beer Man, it had to be something good. After pushing his tee shot right, Johnson hit his second shot 89 yards from the hole.
“I was just trying to get the next shot up on the green somewhere,” he said.
“Somewhere” turned out to be the hole. His wedge shot landed past the hole, then trickled backward for an eagle and a victory. He earned $247,500 — about equal to what he made in eight years of driving trucks, including overtime.
“It was just an amazing experience,” Johnson said. “To be able to win against the greatest players in the world, in front of all my family and friends, was just really special. I will never forget it.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or firstname.lastname@example.org.