NBC’s Smylie Kaufman honors Bradley Johnson’s memory at annual memorial dinner

Published 3:05 pm Thursday, March 21, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

HOOVER – Tears formed in the eyes of Shari and Hugh Johnson as Smylie Kaufman took the podium to speak at the 18th Bradley Johnson Memorial Tournament’s dinner on Monday, March 18 at Greystone Golf and Country Club.

That was because, while the NBC Sports golf commentator and Vestavia Hills native was a high-profile speaker, Kaufman had a unique bond with Bradley Johnson as one of his childhood friends.

“Bradley was definitely the best of our bunch,” Kaufman said. “We were all a little bit younger than him, but we looked up to him. He was the standard in how to act on the golf course, to compete to win, and he was such a good friend to everyone around him.”

Kaufman was one of Bradley’s many friends who attended the annual event, which serves as a memorial for the former Spain Park golfer who died in a car accident as well as a showcase for the top high school golf teams in the state to have the unique opportunity to take on a challenging Greystone course.

Bradley’s father Hugh Johnson was proud to see all of the people his son impacted continue to come to what has become an annual reunion of their Spain Park and golf families.

“It is heartwarming because we just see all the people who knew Bradley,” Hugh said. “They’re still supporting the tournament. He created special bonds with a lot of people and we’re trying to continue that, so it means a lot, but it also means a lot to see these kids, how most of them I can tell, they really appreciate being able to play.”

Kaufman was one of those people, as he and his brother Lucky grew up alongside Bradley and his brother Michael. While Kaufman was much younger than Bradley, that didn’t stop the two from forming a bond while playing junior golf.

While speaking, Kaufman recalled the last time he spoke to Bradley during a round at Shoal Creek Country Club. While Bradley won the day with a bogey-free 67, Kaufman walked away with Bradley’s number and some advice that impacted the trajectory of his career.

“One of the things that Bradley told me that day playing at Shoal Creek was to not just play junior golf but to challenge myself to play amateur golf, almost to play up and play a higher competition,” Kaufman said. “And so I kind of took that to heart and got through Country Club of Birmingham and qualified.”

Kaufman qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur at just 14 years old, but Bradley would not be by his side at the event.

After Bradley died in the car accident, the USGA wanted to honor his memory at the Junior Amateur, so Kaufman, with little training or preparation, spoke at the event in honor of his friend.

“At 14 years old, showing up with a bunch of older kids, it was a little daunting,” Kaufman said. “I hadn’t had a ton of public speaking experience to that point, so when I showed up in Rancho Santa Fe with the Rickie Fowlers of the world that were playing that week, definitely a little nervous, but I remember before I got up there, just that I felt like Bradley’s presence was there and that he was looking down on that moment, that he should be there because he definitely was the next big thing.”

Kaufman put Bradley’s name up with some of the top golfers to come out of the Birmingham area, including another former Spain Park golfer in Nick Dunlap, who recently won The American Express on the PGA Tour, and Mountain Brook’s Gordon Sargent, who was the low amateur at the 2023 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Bradley would have been an All-American in college, just like Michael, played on the PGA (Tour), won on the PGA,” Kaufman said. “All of those things were in Bradley’s sights. That’s how talented of a player Bradley was.”

Hugh Johnson couldn’t help but remark on the journey that Kaufman has taken since he and Bradley were kids and was proud that he could speak in his memory once again.

“It’s pretty neat to watch Smylie grow up and Smylie went from a young kid acting like a young child to be the person he is today,” Hugh said. “It’s really kind of gratifying to see him where he’s developed and not lose that connection with the people that knew him when he was. And he did have a special relationship with Bradley because he was younger than Bradley, so he looked up to him, and then he was older than Michael, so Michael kind of looked up to both of them, so it was real neat.”

The tournament is just one of the many ways that the Johnsons aim to keep Bradley’s memory alive.

One of Bradley’s goals was to help others have the same golf opportunities that he had, and his family furthers that goal with the Bradley Johnson Foundation, which helps those who struggle to afford amateur golf play in tournaments.

“The one thing that set Bradley apart is Bradley was always trying to be helpful,” Hugh said. “He thought he had the greatest life ever. He got to play golf all the time, he got to go to places and I told him early on in life to try to help other people out, and especially people that may not have all the advantages you have. And so he just thought that no one had the advantages he had, so he tried to be kind to everybody. And I’m not saying he was, but I’ll say this about Bradley and Michael, they kind of have Shari and I’s better characteristics. They’re a better version of me, both of them.”

The high school tournament, also known as The Bradley, is another way, allowing high school golfers from around the state play at an exclusive club like Greystone and build memories and friendships that last a lifetime.

“We try to create a memory for these kids,” Shari said. “Bradley got to play at a very high level and attended a lot of events that were like this, and we modeled our event after those not to be better than anyone else’s event but so when they get to be old like us, they’re going to say, ‘Do you remember that thing we played in? Man, what a memory.’ And we stress that we want these kids to make a friend while they’re here. Who cares who won? You got to make friends in the process.”

Among those players who teed it up in the tournament was Kaufman, who played in the first edition of The Bradley. He said it was one of the most nerve-wracking tournaments he played in because he wanted to honor Bradley by lifting the trophy in his name.

“I’ve played all around the world in The Masters and a bunch of high-level tournaments where I had every right to be nervous and really wanted to win, but I can tell you that first year I wanted to win so bad,” Kaufman said. “I was so nervous because I wanted to be the first on that trophy, and I wanted to be the first guy to win.”

Bradley’s brother Michael also played in the tournament and now plays on the Korn Ferry Tour as he works toward his PGA Tour card.

Michael was one of many who looked up to Bradley and now tries to follow Bradley’s example in his life.

“I try to be like Bradley,” Michael said. “He was a little more well-tempered than me, so I try and remember that. Obviously, he’s a really good player, so everyone aspires to be a good player, but kind of like Smylie said, try to be a good person on and off the golf course.”

While the focus for many of the golfers in the room was certainly to play up to Bradley’s standard on the course, Kaufman reminded them to emulate Bradley in how they lived as well.

“When you guys tee it up tomorrow, think about Bradley, play like Bradley and set an example like Bradley did,” Kaufman said.