By Tom Kendra

NORTH MUSKEGON–In many ways, Aya Johnson is a typical 27-year-old girl.

She loves yoga, she deals with the ups and downs of life by listening to specific Taylor Swift songs and her favorite part about coming home to North Muskegon is getting to see her dog Bo (named after Bo Schembechler) – a mini golden doodle that, as a puppy, would lay under her golf bag when she took him to the course.

But in other ways, Johnson has built a resume in the golf world that is more fitting for someone twice her age.

Johnson, who won the state’s Miss Golf award in 2012 when she was a senior at North Muskegon and playing on the Muskegon Catholic Central cooperative team and then went on to a standout career at Wisconsin, has shifted gears and is now a golf star behind the scenes – starting as a member of the production team at The Golf Channel, before leaving last May to join the United States Golf Association, where she is the Manager of Broadcasting & Production.

“I feel like I have a job, but I don’t work,” said Johnson with a laugh, who moved to Manhattan last year for her job at the USGA.

“It can be very stressful on site and dealing with all of the different television stations and streaming services, but at the end of the day, golf is my passion. It’s so much fun to me.”

Johnson, who is single, is certainly married to the game and her golf love story (as many love stories go) features ups and downs – frustrations with the game early on, breaking through as a high school state champion, collegiate success, a potentially career-ending back injury, followed by a Ben Hogan-esque comeback, then a pivot and now a thriving career running the biggest golf events in the world.

“Sports viewing is changing drastically,” explained Aya, who noted that the U.S. Open, the USGA’s biggest event, is shown in 190 countries and territories.

“It’s not just NBC, ESPN and Fox any more. More and more people want their golf from a streaming service. The biggest challenge for me in this new job is figuring out exactly how people want to watch golf and when they want to watch.                                   

Star on the links

Aya and golf weren’t exactly love at first sight.

“I started playing when I was like 7 or 8, but I had the worst temper ever,” she explained during a recent visit back home, while sipping on a coffee at Brooklyn Bagels in North Muskegon. “I finally started to calm down and got really addicted when I was about 12.”

Part of the maturation process came from playing with her grandparents, Chuck and Pat Johnson, and trying to be a good role model for her two younger siblings – Paul, 25, who works at a startup company in Chicago, and Reiko, 23, who works in private equity and lives close to her older sister in Manhattan.

Aya recalls fondly many days of playing golf and then having lunch with her grandparents and, ironically, it was after her grandmother died in 2012 that her golf game really took off.

She won the Division 4 individual state title and was named Michigan’s Miss Golf later that spring, then chose to play her college golf at the University of Wisconsin (disappointing many family members by picking the Badgers over the other finalists, Michigan and Notre Dame).

It turned out to be a great choice as she loved the school, the campus, her coaches and teammates and even became friends with current Champions Tour player Steve Stricker and his daughter, Bobbi, a fellow standout on the Wisconsin women’s golf team.

Things took a dark turn in the spring of 2015, when she was lifting weights on campus and suffered a herniated disc in her lower back. Aya endured months of pain, numbness in her left leg and balance issues before undergoing surgery later that year – even though she was told there was a chance she might never play golf again.

“That’s a scary thought, but I was just miserable; I couldn’t even sleep,” Aya explained.

Aya has always relied on her parents during tough times and when big decisions have to be made, and she said they came through for her big time during the surgery and the 18-month recovery period. Her mother, Nina, is a radiation oncologist who immigrated from Japan at the age of 7, and her father, Trip, is a Muskegon businessman who owns the iconic G&L Chili Dogs franchise, among other ventures.

With the help of her family and extended golf family, Aya mounted an improbable comeback, shortening her swing, shrinking her practice sessions and switching to a longer putter to ease the strain on her back.

Less than 2 years after her surgery, Aya won the prestigious 2017 Michigan Women’s Amateur title, twice qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur and was one of the top players on Wisconsin’s team.

A career in golf

Aya was planning on becoming an orthodontist, but ironically, it was because of her back injury that she started working on the media and production side of golf.

“I knew with the back injury that playing professional golf was not likely, but I couldn’t imagine at that time of not being involved with the game somehow,” Aya explained. “So I took a few sports media classes and I loved it.”

She could have applied for an injury waiver and possibly been awarded one more season of collegiate golf, but with her college degree in hand, she interviewed and landed her dream job as a producer on The Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” daily show in Orlando, Fla.

Aya worked closely with all of the famous golf personalities on Morning Drive, including at that time Brandel Chamblee (“He is awesome, very smart and well-researched,” Aya said), Gary Williams, Damon Hack and Kara Banks.

“It’s neat for us as parents to see how Aya has been able to leverage her skills and knowledge of golf in such a positive way,” said her father, Trip Johnson. “When they need video of Tiger hitting a 3-wood, she’s not going to come back with him hitting a driver. She knows the game very well.”

Just like at Wisconsin, things were going very smooth and then life threw her another curveball.

The Golf Channel became part of NBC Sports in 2021 and abruptly moved its operations from Orlando to Stamford, Conn., with many of the stations on- and off-air talent losing their jobs in the process. Aya survived that drastic change, but started looking for new opportunities in the golf world.

That led her to the USGA, where she will plan media coverage and be on site for nine different tournaments this year, starting with the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club on June 15-18 and ending with the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 24-27.

“It’s going to be a whirlwind summer, but I’m excited about it,” said Aya, who, in addition to everything else, plans to run the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5.

Right now, she is in the midst of finalizing contracts with all of the USGA’s television partners and streaming services, both domestic and international, as there will be no time for that once play begins.

“It’s exciting because I’m in a position now to impact the way people watch golf and how they dip their toes in the water with golf,” Aya explained. 

“Sometimes I’m in these meetings and I forget how young I am. But my age is really an advantage because things are changing so fast.”