Legendary Kentucky amateur golfer John C. 'Johnny' Owens dies

mfields@herald-leader.comOctober 8, 2012 

John C. "Johnny" Owens of Lexington, regarded as the most accomplished amateur golfer in Kentucky history, died Sunday night.

Mr. Owens was 85.

Mr. Owens' golf career included back-to-back state high school titles when he was at Henry Clay, a Southeastern Conference championship when he was at the University of Kentucky, a pair of State Amateur crowns and a British Senior Amateur title.

Mr. Owens competed in the U.S. Amateur seven times, the U.S. Open twice, the U.S. Senior Amateur six times and the Masters once.

His son, Bobby Owens, said his father probably considered his invitation to the 1964 Masters, where he had dinner with Bobby Jones, as the highlight of his career.

"Bobby Jones was his hero. He was in awe of him," Bobby Owens said. "He looked at Bobby Jones as an example of how you didn't need to be a professional to support the game and do well in it."

Mr. Owens had opportunities — and the talent — to turn pro. The first came when he got out of college in the late 1940s, and Palm Beach Clothing Co. offered to sponsor him on the PGA Tour.

"They were going to give me about five times what I would make in public accounting," Mr. Owens said during an 1986 interview. "But I analyzed the situation and saw that only about 10 fellas were making a decent living on the pro tour.

"Of course, I couldn't foresee what (Arnold) Palmer would do to the money out there."

Mr. Owens considered his British Senior Amateur championship in 1984 as his greatest victory.

Ches Riddle, one of Mr. Owens' best friends and a longtime golfing partner, called Mr. Owens "just a prince of a fellow. I played a lot of golf with him and I never heard him say a bad word, even when he hit a bad shot.

"He was a gentleman all the way, but he was a fierce competitor, too."

Mr. Owens met or played with some of golf's biggest stars. Before a qualifying round for the U.S. Amateur in the mid-1950s, Mr. Owens was told he was paired with a 15-year-old golfer.

"I thought, 'Oh, me,'" Mr. Owens said. "But somebody told me the kid was pretty good for his age, that he was the Ohio Open champ."

The kid was Jack Nicklaus.

Mr. Owens, who was inducted into the Kentucky Golf Hall of Fame in 1986, was the face of Lexington golf for decades.

After graduating from UK, he was the Wildcats' golf coach for seven years.

He won 10 city championships from 1944 to 1966, and he won a total of 35 club championships at three clubs.

In 1997, the American Seniors Golf Association made him only the 20th recipient of its prestigious Distinguished Senior Award.

"He took amateur golf to a completely different level in Kentucky by his success on the national scene," said Mike Fields, director of golf operations for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

Bobby Owens said his dad suffered from Parkinson's disease the past several years, "but he never once complained about his illness."

"I played his last nine holes of golf with him earlier this summer. He still had that great swing.

"He always loved to be out there; he always had a smile on his face. It didn't matter what he shot as long as he was out there playing.

"He had a great career and a great life."

In addition to his son, Mr. Owens is survived by Tootsie, his wife of 59 years; and daughters Mary Creed Cunningham and Martha Owens Trussell.

Visitation will be 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Milward-Broadway.

Services will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Cathedral of Christ the King.

Memorials can be sent to the Cathedral of Christ the King, 299 Colony Boulevard, Lexington, Ky. 40502, or the Larry Gilbert Foundation, 3403 Kearney Road, Lexington, Ky.40511.

Mike Fields: (859) 231-3337. Twitter: @MikeFieldsNotes. Blog: Fieldsnotes.bloginky.com.

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