Johnston Blends Music, Golf Passions September 5, 2014 By Dave Shedloski

Cully Johnston is equally adept stroking putts as he is stroking his guitar with the Chicago independent band Sequoia. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – There were occasions during a competitive round when Jack Nicklaus, sensing his rhythm was off, would try to make adjustments to his swing by singing a song to himself. You can never make a bad swing singing ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,’ he insisted.

OK, but this is a new millennium. Cully Johnston, who this week is competing in his first USGA championship, prefers the Arctic Monkeys song, Do I Wanna Know.

It’s got this slow, steady beat that is just perfect, Johnston said. Last year, it was Get Lucky by Daft Punk. Whatever works, you know?

Golf and music just seem to go hand in hand. From Bing Crosby to Alice Cooper to Kenny G to Justin Timberlake, the musically inclined naturally tend to find their way to the golf course.

Johnston, a guitarist in the Chicago-based band Sequoia, is different because he was a golfer first. He picked up the game as an infant, swinging a club at the age of 1 after watching his father.

I couldn’t stand up on my own, so, I’m told, I would lean on this cut-down club, swing it, and then fall down. But I loved it, Johnston said.

He still loves it, which is why he finds himself competing in this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur at Saucon Valley Country Club.

Johnston, 35, qualified in his fourth attempt by shooting even-par 71 at Riverside Golf Club thanks to a 2-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole. Pretty good for a guy who does most of his golfing in Chicago-area leagues on public golf courses.

This is the be-all and end-all for a player like me, Johnston said.

Unfortunately, his first round didn’t go as well has he hoped Saturday morning. Struggling with his putter, Johnston opened with a 12-over-par 83 at Saucon Valley’s Weyhill Course, leaving his chances of qualifying for the 64-player match-play segment in dire straits.

This is my first go around, so my goal was to simply enjoy the experience, no matter what I shot, he said. My putter really let me down. The greens are a lot faster than at your average public course. I just couldn’t adjust to them.

An outstanding self-taught high school golfer while growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Johnston discovered as a teenager that he was a natural at another endeavor. At 16, after playing drums for a couple of years, Johnston picked up a guitar one of his brothers had brought home, and, in golf parlance, became a scratch strummer almost overnight.

When he left for college at Florida State – where he earned a National Merit Scholarship – he looked to play in bands, not on golf courses. And after graduating in 2001, he joined a band, Grinner, toured and cut a couple of records. But, eventually, the grind got to him.

It’s exhausting. And you’re starting to look at 30, and you think to yourself, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I mean, you have to have a measure of success where you’re not going to your hotel room and sleeping on a couch if you’re lucky and the floor if you’re unlucky, Johnston said. That’s when I refocused.

He found a real job but remained in the entertainment business, working as an audience services manager at Second City, a legendary comedy theater in Chicago that has spawned the careers of such luminaries as Bill Murray, the late John Belushi, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. The evening hours afforded him the chance to get reacquainted with golf, though that was a challenge at first because he didn’t own a car, so he would lug his clubs onto the city buses.

Johnston works a full-time job at Second City and he tours, mostly in the Chicago area, with Sequoia. With mostly evening hours,  he manages to get in enough practice on the golf course during the summer months. Though it isn’t easy.

My days off are Tuesday and Wednesday, he said. Wednesday, I get up and play an 18-hole league in the morning, grab a quick lunch, then go play in a nine-hole league in the afternoon, then go straight from there to band practice, which is about 7:30 to 10:30, and then I usually hang with our drummer after. We record every practice so we can chop it up and play it back. I get home about 2 a.m.

Interestingly, in the weekly skins game in which he plays on Sunday mornings, Johnston usually does not earn the distinction of low musician. Baxter Teal, lead singer for Deep Field, has that honor, though he failed to qualify for this championship.

In addition to rhythm and tempo, golf and music share another common attribute.

They are difficult, so you have to love them enough to practice to get good, he said. There is so much repetition required to get good in either one that you have to really enjoy them.

Is Johnston, who played on his high school golf team, a good golfer who’s a musician or a musician who happens to be a good golfer?

Well, that’s sort of shifted throughout my life, he said with a chuckle. But throughout my life I’ve never not known golf.

OK, so what does he fear losing more, his clubs or his Fender Jaguar guitar? The question is relevant because when he arrived for the championship, his clubs were circulating somewhere throughout the United Airlines empire before arriving a day later.

Hmmm. Tough one. But I just put a new driver and 3-wood in the bag, so clubs are replaceable, said Johnston, who has several family members supporting him this week. I think it would be worse if I lost the guitar. I’ve had that guitar for 10 years. I had this sort of starter guitar, and then my second one kind of got damaged in a stage accident. I won’t go into that. We were performing again soon after, so I needed to get a replacement. I found this one on ebay. I paid $850. It was a steal. I’ve used it on all the records I’ve made. It’s more iconic. It’s beautiful.

And it’s more expensive than a driver.

Well, that too.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.