After growing up on Portland’s public courses, Vincent Johnson is now head of the Portland Parks Golf program
Once upon a time, the son of a golf course mechanic took up the game at age six in East Portland.
Before long, the youngster was playing quite well, competing in local and regional championships, and he wound up competing at a major college, and afterward turned professional to try his hand on the mini-tour levels.
Now 34, Vincent Johnson has returned to his roots and heads up the Portland Parks Golf program, part of Portland Parks & Recreation. Johnson works to ensure that people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds can learn and enjoy the sport at any of Portland’s five municipal courses.
“To lower barriers and make the game of golf more accessible is a big goal. We are working to welcome the next generation of Portland golfers,” says Johnson, who joined Portland Parks & Recreation in 2016 as Assistant Director of Golf. He was promoted to be the head of the program in 2018 after a colleague’s retirement.
Johnson learned the game as a youngster at Glendoveer Golf Course, another Portland public facility.
“My mom and dad made a big effort to ensure I had access to play there and in local tournaments,” he says.
Johnson began to take the game seriously when he won some junior tournaments at age 11.
“Kids are dreamers – they dream of being an astronaut or scientist or whatever,” he says, “and when you feel like that could be a reality, you chase the dream.”
And, when he fired a final-nine 31 at Sunriver’s Crosswater course at age 14 to win a regional tournament, “I thought to myself, ‘I could be pretty good at this game.’”
Johnson then starred on the boys’ golf team at David Douglas High School, where he also was a starting varsity point guard in basketball and played piano in the orchestra. He earned a golf scholarship to play for Oregon State University, where he got a degree in finance with a minor in music.
Johnson turned pro in 2008, and his highlight golfing moments include earning the first Charlie Sifford Exemption into the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera in 2009 (and meeting Sifford, the legendary first Black member of the tour). “I didn’t sleep for two weeks after I got the call to play, I was so nervous,” Johnson recalls.
Johnson also won the 2010 Long Beach Open, a then-$160,000 event whose other champions include Kevin Na, Scott McCarron and Paul Goydos.
Eventually, Johnson realized it was time for him to work his way into the golf industry, and he found a perfect position with Portland Parks & Recreation. Johnson leads the City’s efforts to attract more women, young people, people of color, and others who may not previously have seen golf as a sport accessible to them.
He helps oversee and manage the clubhouse operators and maintenance at all five City of Portland courses: Eastmoreland in Southeast Portland, Rose City in Northeast Portland, RedTail in Beaverton, Heron Lakes’ Great Blue and Greenback courses in North Portland, and Colwood Golf Center, which has a nine-hole par-3 course and a seven-hole practice course for player development. All facilities are under Portland Parks & Recreation’s Portland Parks Golf program.
“The sport of golf is very inclusive,” Johnson says. “We see golfers in their 80s and 90s, and kids getting their first experiences at age five. But we can still grow the game, and have more diversity – including more junior and young adult players.”
The Portland golf business has been very strong this year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The city courses have become a refuge of sorts. Portlanders can safely stay physically distant from other players while enjoying recreation and the outdoors.
“It’s been pretty remarkable to see how busy our Portland Parks Golf courses have been,” Johnson says. “And we have a very experienced staff that hasn’t missed a beat.”
In ever-growing Portland, some have questioned the need for five golf courses and floated the idea that some of the land could be better used for housing and development. Johnson says he expects all the courses to be around for a long time, though.
“COVID is a reminder to me of how essential open space is in an urban area, and how valuable it is to have a place to meet up with other people,” he says.
And, as Johnson points out, there are multiple ways for citizens to utilize Portland’s golf facilities. “You can use the practice areas and putting greens for free,” he notes, “and our banquet spaces are great for community events.”
Getting this kind of word out is a big part of Johnson’s plan to continue increasing interest and play in Portland Parks Golf courses.
“It starts with education – spreading awareness through outreach to the non-golfing community,” he says. “Do most people know there’s no dress code at our courses? Do they know how environmentally sustainable our practices are, and what we do from a land-stewardship perspective?
“I would like the greater Portland community to see open golf space the same as they see park space. When I see a park, I know the benefits of it, even if I’m not using it personally. It does a lot for the community and the environment. Also, Portland Parks Golf courses operate solely on user fees and without taxpayer funding.”
Johnson says he is optimistic about the Portland Parks Golf program.
“Because golf at its fundamental core is one of the most inclusive activities you have. It’s great for those with special needs, adaptive needs, Wounded Warriors, young or older people, and people of color. We want to make everyone feel welcomed and supported.”
The Portland Parks Golf program offers camps, $5 rounds supporting the nonprofit Youth on Course program, and discounted green fees for ages 19-29 through “Ya! Golf PDX.”
Portland’s municipal courses are “fantastic” in their own ways, Johnson says, and he wants them to have multiple tee boxes and be “playable, enjoyable and realistic” for casual and beginning golfers as well as the more expert.
“Golf can be what it needs to be,” he says, “whether that’s a 2,200-yard nine-hole layout or a 6,000-yard 18-hole test.”
Portland Parks Golf offers affordable, quality golf to Portland’s residents and visitors. Five golf courses are conveniently located around the metro area to offer unparalleled access to nationally recognized courses. Visit Portland.gov/parks/sports/golf for more information.