- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

Golf’s premier Web site has a local link.

In the 31 months since its inception, most ardent golf fans have discovered GolfObserver.com, the remarkable brainchild and one-man operation run by Leesburg, Va., resident Sal Johnson.

Sitting amid the stacks of resource materials that seem to sprout everywhere in the office above his garage, the 50-year-old Johnson explains the goal of his Web site:

“If you look at the golf sites on the Web today, they are dominated by the PGA Tour and the golf magazines. Among those, PGA Tour.com is the only one which proclaims itself to be a one-stop golf source from real-time scoring to player stats. But the problem they have is the same as the other major sports organizations which run Web sites — NFL.com, MLB.com and NBA.com. It’s a case of the mouse guarding the cheese. These organizations are telling you in an editorial fashion what they want you to know. It’s a propaganda deal. They decide what you should and should not know about their sports and disseminate the information accordingly.

“With GolfObserver, we’re trying to offer a far more realistic and comprehensive look at the golf world. We give you the best stories in an organized manner, so you don’t have to go crazy searching a number of different sites. And we do it in an unbiased manner. We want to be known as the Google of golf.”

On a basic level, that’s a perfect description of GolfObserver; it’s a golf-specific search engine that provides readers with a comprehensive set of links to each day’s golf stories from around the globe. Each day, a London-based server scours hundreds of URLs (basically newspaper and golf publication Web sites) for a series of key words and phrases (like Michelle Wie, Hoylake, John Deere Classic, etc.) and forwards the links to Johnson, who then orders them according to topic on GolfObserver. The result is that virtually every golf article written in major publications in the English-speaking world appears on Johnson’s Web site.

There’s no copyright infringement involved because Johnson isn’t capturing and claiming the stories, he’s merely providing links to each individual publication’s story on its own Web site.

“Frankly, it’s a win-win situation for everybody,” Johnson says. “Because if a publication’s story makes Editor’s Picks, which is our listing for the top golf stories of the day, that publication might benefit by getting 5,000 more hits on that day thanks to GolfObserver.”

While the comprehensive article links are the site’s main attraction, Johnson’s Web site also offers an array of original content. More than a dozen journalists and insiders from Hall of Famer Billy Casper to GolfWorld’s John Huggan to former USGA executive director Frank Hannigan regularly contribute columns to the site.

For the true zealot, Johnson’s GolfStats are also available. A listing of every tournament and player result on the PGA (since 1970), LPGA (since 1950), European (since 1990), Champions (since 1990) and Nationwide (since 1990) tours, GolfStats is such an unparalleled resource that Golf Digest bought the rights to feature the service on its Web site.

And coming Aug. 4 is a new site design, featuring the additions of BizObserver, original stories and links to external articles on equipment, apparel and the business of golf and CourseObserver, a section dedicated to exploring the planet’s best layouts and places to play.

Johnson is hoping the new look and multiple-page format make GolfObserver more attractive to advertisers.

“I was hoping to be a zillionaire by the time I was 50, but that birthday came and went earlier this month, and I still haven’t made my first dime on this thing,” Johnson says. “Hopefully, the redesign will boost advertising. With our current format, we’ve done studies that show that the average person spends 48 minutes on the main page, scrolling up and down. That’s one page impression in 48 minutes. We have to get that number up to 15 or 20 page impressions in 48 minutes, because page impressions are the bread and butter of the Internet advertising industry. That means a few more clicks for visitors, but the product will be organized much better and presented in much cleaner fashion.”

Navigating around a precarious stack of Golf World newsletters from the 1950s, however, one gets the feeling Johnson’s emotional investment in both the game and GolfObserver far outweighs his financial concern.

“That’s probably true,” admits Johnson, a single-digit handicapper originally from Los Angeles who got his start in the golf business at the 1975 L.A. Open.

A regular caddie at Bel Air CC, an 18-year-old Johnson showed up at Riviera in 1975 hoping to draw the kind of bag that could earn him the $150 he needed for “this killer stereo system.” Instead, he was given the bag of Eddie Merrins, the famed “Little Pro,” who played poorly that week, missed the cut and left his looper with just $70.

“Here it is Friday morning, we played early, and I still need $80 for this stereo,” Johnson says. “Well, I was told they needed spotters at ABC Sports, and they were paying $25 a day. Perfect. So, I went over there and spoke to [ABC producer] John Coulter, and he tells me they’re only taking guys from UCLA. Well, I told him that not only did I go to UCLA, but I was on the golf team. He looked at me with this big grin, because he knew I was full of it. But he hired me as a spotter. I fell in love with it and spent the next 27 years at ABC Sports.”

Johnson’s ride with the network ended in 2003, when longtime golf producer Jack Graham was fired and replaced with Mark Loomis, who summarily dismissed the entire production staff. With two children in elementary school, Johnson was too young to retire and loathe to abandon the golf industry.

“I’m pretty sure I have a degree in communications from Cal State-Dominguez Hills. I hardly ever went to class, and I know I didn’t go to my graduation because it conflicted with the U.S. Open. But my mother assures me I do in fact have a diploma,” Johnson says. “But what I know, what I love, is golf, so I had to find something that kept me involved in the game.”

GolfObserver has certainly done that, consuming Johnson’s savings and virtually all of his time.

“I knew it would be stressful going in, but there’s a part of me that loves that,” Johnson says. “When you do TV, you get addicted to the rush of pressure, to successfully putting out a unique product under duress. In some respects, GolfObserver provides the same rush. It’s not the money that drives me, obviously; it’s doing something different and something fulfilling.”

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