Just Cathy

 In Features, Local Spotlight, Sports and Outdoors

as in Cathy Johnston-Forbes

✦ LPGA Major Winner
✦ Legends Tour Player
✦ Local Golf Instructor

Her dad coached Arnold Palmer at Wake Forest.

Her brother has designed more than 150 golf courses.

She’s won a major championship, teed it up with the likes of Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and brought home more than a million dollars in earnings during her time on the LPGA Tour.

And yet…

Most folks on the Outer Banks don’t know Cathy Johnston-Forbes. Not the person who spent 23 years competing against the best golfers in the world. The one who captured the du Maurier Classic in Canada in 1990 to etch her name in history as a major champion. The one who still competes regularly in Pro-Am events and on the Legends of the LPGA Tour.

“She’s just Cathy, you know?” marvels Sea Scape Golf Links Director of Golf Dan O’Boyle. “For those of us that know her, she’s never changed from when she was out there full time (on Tour) to now when she’s teaching. She grew up at Sea Scape, she went to Carolina and she traveled around the world, but she’s still just Cathy. That’s the cool part about it for us.”

Folks in the local golf scene certainly know THE Cathy Johnston-Forbes, but for the last dozen or so years, she’s been just Cathy – cheering on her daughters at school events; celebrating anniversary dinners with Foster, her husband of 30 years; sitting in summer traffic on the bypass just like everyone else.

“If they’re not golfers, a lot of people don’t have a clue,” Cathy says of her notoriety, or lack thereof.

While it’s been famously said that golf is a good walk spoiled, let’s take a walk down Memory Lane – or perhaps Memory Fairway would be more apt? – with Cathy Johnston-Forbes.

When part of your golfing pedigree includes a tie to one of the legends of the game, that’s as good a place as any to start. Cathy is the youngest of six children born to Johnny and Sylvia Johnston, and long before she was in the picture, her dad was making a name for himself in the golf world.

From 1948 to 1952, Johnny coached the golf team at Wake Forest College, including a pretty special season in 1950 with Arnold Palmer and Buddy Worsham. Palmer won the NCAA Championship that season, yet abruptly left school to join the Coast Guard for three years following the death of Worsham – a close friend and teammate – in a car accident. Palmer was so grief-stricken that he gave his Most Outstanding Golfer trophy to his coach.

Johnny cherished the memento until his sudden death in 1982, at which point his son, Clyde Johnston, held onto the trophy until giving it back to the Wake Forest College Birthplace Museum to be enjoyed by all. Cathy got to hear plenty about her family’s connection to Palmer over the years, and even took a road trip to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, with former fellow pro Maggie Will to visit in 2014.

“We talked about my dad and my mom – they both went to Wake Forest. He called my mom ‘Sibby,’ ” Cathy recalls of Palmer using the special nickname. “We got a tour of his office from his brother, Jerry, we chatted and then he said, ‘I’m taking these two ladies to lunch at the club. Then we went in his Escalade. He drove, took us out on the course and showed us all the holes.”

Palmer would die just two years later at the age of 87, but the memories live on for Cathy. So do the photos, still on her phone: posing with Arnie, shots of his putters and golf shoes, his Masters trophy.

“The world of golf is so big, and so small. You just meet so many nice people,” Cathy says. “There’s so many veins, connections. I run into people in California that know somebody in Pinehurst that played golf with my brother.”

Johnny Johnston left Wake Forest for jobs in Reidsville and Roanoke before becoming the pro at Blair Park in High Point, where Cathy was born in 1963. Then came the decision to move to the beach. While the family had no ties to the Outer Banks, Johnny jumped at the chance to be the first pro at Sea Scape when it opened in 1968.

Cathy started first grade at Kitty Hawk – then a K-8 school – and played some of her first golf on the course that was literally in the family’s back yard. Clyde, the oldest child, was off at NC State preparing for his career as a course architect, but each time he would come home for breaks, he’d notice a steady progression in his youngest sister’s game.

“I remember watching her swing and I just always thought that, as a young kid, she had a great little swing – very rhythmic and she just hit the ball right down the fairway,” Clyde says. “I thought she had potential then, yeah. I gave her two shots a hole and I was lucky to beat her!”

One sister ended up playing golf at ECU and another at UNC Wilmington, and Clyde fondly recalls the tradition of the whole family golfing on Christmas day or right around the holiday depending on the weather. The whole time, Cathy’s career was on the upswing.

Following seven years at Sea Scape, Johnny moved the family to Wilmington – Cathy had just finished seventh grade at Kitty Hawk – and then to Scotland Neck. Cathy was midway through her freshman year when she settled into Halifax County at her dad’s new course. In 1980, she won the Orange Bowl International Junior, then the next year captured the PGA National Junior.

She only applied to the University of Florida and UNC Chapel Hill, choosing the Tar Heels to stay close to home. Cathy’s college experience, however, was nothing at all like she expected.

A week after her high school graduation, while she and her mom were in Ohio between junior tournaments, news came that her father had died of a heart attack. He was just 60 years old, and suddenly, the only teacher Cathy had ever had was gone.

“That kind of put a damper on the whole college thing,” she says. “I won my very first event in college, in Memphis, and played OK the rest of that year, but slowly my game started deteriorating. Some of the guys on the team tried to help me and I didn’t really go find a teacher, so I left after two years.”

She joined her mom down in Pinehurst, but after a carefree summer, Sylvia delivered an ultimatum: Get a job or turn pro.

Her mom and sister, Karen, helped round up about 25 sponsors to support Cathy’s foray on the Florida mini-tour in 1985. A successful run through her very first Q School tournament, with Clyde on the bag cheering her on, gave her that precious LPGA Tour card, and her career as a professional golfer began in 1986.

It was the culmination of a lifelong dream set in motion by her dad.

“I always wanted to do well for him. It was just always something I knew I was going to do,” Cathy says. “I never really thought about a career in college, focusing on anything else, because I always knew I was going to play professionally. I was probably never as driven as someone like Annika (Sorenstam) or players like that. I just enjoyed it. I wanted to beat everybody, but I wanted to enjoy it, too.”

Cathy returned to Wilmington early in her LPGA career, but of course spent most of the year criss-crossing the country playing events. Players started in Florida, would take a trip to Hawaii, work their way back across the Midwest and East Coast in big conversion vans, then close the year in places like Portland and Seattle.

At some Tour stops, she would stay in hotels. Other times, host families arranged by each tournament would welcome her in. The people were memorable at many stops, such as Nashville and Youngstown, Ohio. The scenery took center stage at other events, like Mount Rainier and Mount Hood looming in the Pacific Northwest.

The golf wasn’t bad, either.

In her first year on Tour, Cathy tied for second at the Mastercard International. In 1987, she competed in 28 events and earned a modest $17,134. Her big breakthrough would come in 1990 in Canada, becoming a Rolex First-Time Winner at the du Maurier Ltd. Classic. After an opening-round 65, Cathy closed with rounds of 70, 70 and 71 to finish at 16-under and hold off well-known figures such as Patty Sheehan (14-under), Beth Daniel (11-under), Liselotte Neumann (10-under) and Pat Bradley (7-under).

The first-place payday for the event that would remain a major until 2000 was $90,000. And while steady play followed throughout the ‘90s, including six-figure earnings and a spot in the top-50 money list in 1996, that tournament would be Cathy’s lone LPGA victory despite numerous other top-fives at various stops. In 2000, she crossed the $1 million mark for career earnings, but the experiences along the way were priceless.

“People would always say, ‘Oh, all you do is play golf – it’s not like you have a job,’ and you know, I didn’t really look at it as a job,” Cathy recalls. “I never really looked at it as work or a job just because I enjoyed it.”

Adding to the fun of those tournament trips was the new person in her life.

In October of 1989, Cathy came back to the Outer Banks to visit her sister, Sibbie, who was having a baby. She went out on Halloween night with friends and met Foster Forbes, whom she’d had a few connections with from her Kitty Hawk school days. Foster was also in the golf business, working as the assistant superintendent at Duck Woods Country Club at the time, so it was a natural connection.

“I started talking to him and that was it,” Cathy says with a laugh. “I came back the next week and kept coming back.”

They just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, a life built around golf then and now. Foster actually caddied for Cathy when she won in Canada, and as her schedule got busier and busier, he ended up leaving Duck Woods to be her full-time caddie for 12 years, allowing them to travel the world together: “It was great. We loved it,” she says.

In 2001, their journey changed a bit with the addition of their first daughter, Ashley. They welcomed Shannon two years later. Of course, the LPGA kind of knows its clientele, so kids were a regular part of the Tour. Smuckers actually partnered with Bright Horizons to sponsor three full-time workers and a traveling childcare center that would set up shop at local churches, hotel conference rooms or even inside some of the golf clubhouses if room allowed.

“We had a big Ryder truck that would take all their toys, the cribs, the bookcase with all the books, everything they had, and they would set it up the same every week,” Cathy says. “The players – all the moms – would go do an outing with Smuckers’ customers twice a year.”

When Ashley started first grade, Cathy decided it was time to retire. In 2006, they bought their house in Sea Scape and settled into everyday life after three decades of memories on Tour.

Like the time she played an LPGA tournament at Wachesaw East in the Myrtle Beach area – one of the 150 courses Clyde has either designed or renovated in his nearly 50 years in the business. Cathy shot a 65 and had the lead entering the final day before tying for second place.

“The local newspaper kind of got hold of it,” Clyde says. “The front page of the sports section had a picture of her and the headline ‘Oh, brother!’ all about how Cathy was tied for the lead on a golf course that I designed. It took up the entire front page. That was real cool.”
Or the time she played in Betty Ford’s fundraiser tournament, and in the blind draw was actually paired with Gerald Ford in a foursome that also included former Dallas Cowboys legend “Dandy” Don Meredith. After playing the U.S. Open one year, she attended the nearby grand opening of Whistling Straits and got to meet the first President Bush.

“I got to play St. Andrews when I was 16, go to Venezuela when I was 17, play Pebble Beach. That’s just something you don’t even think about when you’re somebody living in Halifax County in North Carolina,” Cathy marvels. “You can’t imagine the opportunities – why would I ever be able to play golf with the President of the United States? It’s just crazy.”

It’s no secret that retirement tends to be a challenge for athletes. As she settled into her new life at home, Cathy also found herself waking up each morning wondering, “What am I going to do today?” for a couple of years.

“It was just weird because it was just playing golf for fun and there was really nothing to work towards, to get out and practice for,” she recalls. “It kind of got me, not really in a funk, but just feeling like you didn’t have much to do.”

Instead of golf, she threw herself into parenting, cheering on Ashley and Shannon in sports and Odyssey of the Mind competitions, or having lunch with Shannon on taco day at Kitty Hawk Elementary.

Then in 2008, a new path with the game emerged. She and Foster jumped at a chance to co-manage Holly Ridge Golf Course just over the bridge in Currituck, allowing Cathy “to do what my dad did and follow in those footsteps a little bit,” she says. That was also the year she turned 45, making her eligible to compete on the Legends of the LPGA Tour.

In addition to playing a handful of tournaments and competing in a dozen or so Pro-Am corporate events each year, Cathy also has been busy on the Tour’s board of directors for seven of the last nine years, including the last three as president. Each event is like a big family reunion.

“Everybody’s relaxed, the players couldn’t be nicer, they’ll sit and have a beer with you. It’s so much fun,” Cathy says. “When I was on Tour, if I saw Nancy Lopez on the tee sheet, I’d sign up below her – I’d never sign up with her. Now, players like that I feel like I know them better.”

With her Legends schedule filling up more and both kids becoming more independent, Cathy made the decision to leave Holly Ridge after 10 years and start teaching for Bryan Sullivan, the Director of Golf at Kilmarlic Golf Club.

“It’s a nice feather in Kilmarlic’s cap to have Cathy out there as a teacher and giving lessons. It just adds to the credibility of the product we’re putting out,” says Sullivan, who played a fair amount of golf with her during their teen years before they both competed at UNC. “People are excited once they kind of realize the experiences that she’s had in the game and that adds a little bit more credibility to what she’s trying to do.”

Some weeks Cathy will give eight lessons and sometimes it’s none, and she enjoys not being tied to a set schedule. Her favorite aspect of teaching involves working with folks who actually take her advice to heart … and go practice the skills she’s teaching before their next lesson: “I enjoy when you have somebody that’s excited about it and works at it and really wants to get better. That makes a big difference,” she says.

She’ll still play two or three times a week locally and always finds new ways to challenge herself. Some of her playing partners will give her a hard time on the rare occasion they manage to beat her – “they’ll mention it a time or two, but then let it go” – and there’s plenty of fun competition in her Legends events and Pro-Ams in places like Atlantic City. She’s had some wins on the Legends Tour, and other strong finishes, but after all these years…

“I really don’t keep up with if I finish 18th, 12th, ninth. After so many years of playing and looking in the newspapers, seeing how much money you made every day, where do you stand, after all the years it all gets to be a fog,” Cathy says.

O’Boyle, the Sea Scape Director of Golf, has known Cathy for some 30 years now. He loves playing golf with her and just seeing her around the course. He is proud to proclaim himself as “her biggest fan” – both of Cathy Johnston-Forbes, the LPGA Tour player, and just Cathy.
“I realize how lucky we are to have her involved with Outer Banks golf,” Dan says. I really can’t say enough good things about her and all she’s done for Outer Banks golf. The best part is she conducts herself like she’s one of us. Those of us in the golf industry realize she is arguably one of the 50 best senior women players in the world today, but she’s as humble as can be.”

Steve Hanf covered a wide array of events during his 13-year career as a sportswriter, including the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst made famous by Payne Stewart’s emotional win. He became a journalism teacher in 2010 and has taught at First Flight High School since 2015.

Steve Hanf
Author: Steve Hanf

Steve Hanf is a former professional sportswriter who teaches the journalism classes at First Flight High School. The dormant Nike Running Club app on his phone offers a reminder of the seven half-marathons and one full marathon he completed … several years ago. 

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Photo Courtesy of Worrell 1000 Race, Inc.U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Photos by Wes Snyder.