Sifford Exemption 'out of this world'

Vincent Johnson began what figures to be a long, hard road to the PGA Tour with a pep talk from Charlie Sifford, the first black member of the PGA Tour who knows a thing or two about overcoming long odds.

"He just told me that it's a grind, but that anything worth doing is never easy," Johnson said.

The coincidence of the conversation was not lost on Johnson, an Oregon State graduate who will get his first start on the PGA Tour at the Northern Trust Open later this month as the first recipient of the Charlie Sifford Exemption.

"To get this is just out of this world," Johnson said.

Johnson, whose two college titles include a 12-shot victory in the PGA Minority Collegiate Golf Championship in 2007, will make his PGA Tour debut Feb. 19 at Riviera against a strong field expected to include defending champion Phil Mickelson.

The Northern Trust Open this year created the special exemption to honor Sifford, whose determination helped end the Caucasian-only clause on the PGA in 1961.

Sifford, who spent the prime of his career fighting for a chance to play, won twice on the PGA Tour, his last victory 40 years ago at the Los Angeles Open.

The exemption is for a player who represents the advancement of diversity in golf.

"It's something that should have been done a long time ago," Sifford said last month when Northern Trust created the exemption. "This is a wonderful thing. It will give someone a chance."

Johnson grew up in Portland, Ore., and said his father took a job at Glendoveer Golf Club to allow his sons a chance to play golf. Johnson set the course record at Glendoveer with a 62 when he was 14, and he won 68 times in his junior career.

He graduated in three years from Oregon State with a degree in finance and a minor in music. Johnson turned pro last year and has been trying to find financial support as he works on his game.

"The financial backing is a challenge," he said. "I don't have the resume that I'd like to have, and also the economy. There couldn't have been a tougher time to turn pro."

He has played in five USGA events without reaching match play, and he tried qualifying three times on the Nationwide Tour. He skipped PGA Tour qualifying last year because he couldn't afford the entry fee or the travel. Instead, he signed up for the Arizona-based Gateway Tour, and that's when he heard from Sifford through a friend in Portland.

"For someone who has been through as much as he has, his word meant a lot," Johnson said. "I look forward to meeting him."