Carol Clark Johnson’s most well-known nickname is “Keenie,” but there was a time when “little,” “tiny” and even “diminutive” all came into play.
That’s how she often was described in local newspaper accounts of her competition exploits, but the references were only to her stature and contradict the impact she’s had on golf – not just locally, but around the world.
Besides being a trailblazer for female athletes, the Wyoming native earned renown for her efforts in helping establish the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and her relentless approach to teaching golf. Teaching and coaching led to her receiving in 1994 the Ellen Griffin Rolex Award, which was named for the woman considered to be the best-known teacher of golf of her gender and recognized individuals who made “a major contribution to the teaching of golf.” Johnson received a Rolex watch and a plaque. She had by then conducted an estimated 900 clinics in 46 states as well as Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
“Golf has been positively magnificent for me,” Johnson told the Cincinnati Enquirer a couple of months after the ceremony. “ To receive an award is like whipped cream on top of the sundae.”
To say Johnson was as good for golf as golf was as good for her is not hyperbole. The former University of Cincinnati women’s golf team coach also was inducted in 1996 into the National Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame. She still was teaching golf at the General Electric Company Recreation Park at the time.
Before Johnson taught golf, she played it at a high level matched only by her precociousess. She and her Wyoming running mate, Nancy Porter, barged into the 1940s Greater Cincinnati women’s golf scene as teenagers, starting in 1941 when Johnson – described in the Enquirer as “little Carol Clark” – won the city junior championship with a 2-up victory over Porter.
“The golf prodigy of the hour” used her long drives and sharp putting to knock off Mrs. Merritt Farrell in the quarterfinals of the 1942 Women’s Met – known at the time as the Ladies Golf tournament, according to coverage by long-time Enquirer reporter Sue Goodwin.
“She one-putted me into oblivion, one-putted five of the first seven greens,” the Enquirer quoted Farrell as saying.
The 14-year-old Johnson, who played on the Wyoming boys’ golf team and also played basketball, volleyball and tennis on Cowboy teams and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1993, lost in the semifinals that year, but she bounced back in September to capture the Fall Handicap championship. The next year, she played on a team named the “Coast Guards” that finished second in an event at Western Hills Country Club designed to raise money for the Red Cross to purchase an ambulance. She went on to beat her aunt, Esther Reese, in the Met quarterfinals before losing to defending-champion Dolly Schildmiller in the semifinals.
The Johnson-Porter friendship reached its zenith in 1944. Johnson knocked off perennial championship-contender Olga Weil and Porter got past fellow prodigy “Tippie” Conroy to qualify for the Met final at Maketewah Country Club. Porter prevailed, 3 and 2, in the final.
Under the tutelage of Kenwood pro Bob Gutwein, Johnson and Porter both had “developed compact swings, and while at times some erratic shots creep into their games, for fifteen-year-old girls, they look like national timber,” Goodwin reported in 1943.
“Carol Clark’s restrained swing has much control and her woods can be counted long and down the middle,” Goodwin added a couple of days later.
That loss to Porter commenced a frustrating stretch for Johnson, who came close several times to winning a Met championship, but never was able to close the deal. She had the misfortune of competing at the same time as Weil, who was at her peak. Weil won five straight championships from 1945 through 1949, beating Clark, 8 and 7, in 1945 and 11 up in 1946. Clark went on in 1946 to win the third annual Marion Miley Memorial Tournament in Lexington, Ky., an event started to honor the memory of an accomplished golfer who was murdered in 1941 during a burglary at the Lexington Country Club.
After graduating from Wyoming, Johnson played golf at Miami University, but she still couldn’t get past Weil, losing in the 1948 Met semifinals and again in the 1949 finals. She reached the 1950 semifinals at Kenwood Country Club, before turning professional and joining the fledgling LPGA that same year, building a 38-year membership. She gave up touring to raise her five children.