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Mr. John C. "Johnny" Owens

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John C. "Johnny" Owens of Lexington, regarded as the most accomplished amateur golfer in Kentucky history, died Sunday night at age 85.

Mr. Owens' golf career included back-to-back state high school titles when he was at Henry Clay, a Southeastern Conference championship when he was at the University of Kentucky, a pair of State Amateur crowns, and a British Senior Amateur title.

Mr. Owens also competed in the U.S. Amateur seven times, the U.S. Open twice, the U.S. Senior Amateur six times, and the Masters once.

Bobby Owens said his father probably considered his invitation to the 1964 Masters, where he had dinner with Bobby Jones, as the highlight of his career.

"Bobby Jones was his hero. He was in awe of him," Bobby Owens said. "He looked at Bobby Jones as an example of how you didn't need to be a professional to support the game and do well in it."

Mr. Owens had opportunities - and the talent - to turn pro. The first came when he got out of college in the late 1940s and the Palm Beach Clothing Co. offered to sponsor him on the PGA Tour.

"They were going to give me about five times what I would make in public accounting," Mr. Owens said in an 1986 interview. "But I analyzed the situation and saw that only about 10 fellas were making a decent living on the pro tour.

"Of course, I couldn't foresee what (Arnold) Palmer would do to the money out there."

Mr. Owens said in that 1986 interview that winning the British Senior Amateur in 1984 was his greatest victory.

Mr. Owens met or played with some of golf's biggest stars. Before a qualifying round for the U.S. Amateur in the mid-1950s, Mr. Owens was told he was paired with a 15-year-old golfer.

"I thought, 'Oh, me," Owens said. "But somebody told me the kid was pretty good for his age, that he was the Ohio Open champ."

The kid was Jack Nicklaus.

Mr. Owens, who was inducted into the Kentucky Golf Hall of Fame in 1986, dominated Lexington golf. He won 10 city championships between 1944 and 1966. He won 35 club championships at three different clubs.

In 1997, the American Seniors Golf Association made him only the 20th recipient of its prestigious Distinguished Senior Award.

"He took amateur golf to a completely different level in Kentucky by his success on the national scene," said Mike Fields, director of golf operations for Lexington Fayette Urban County Government.

Bobby Owens said his dad suffered from Parkinson's disease the last several years, "but he never once complained about his illness.

"I played his last nine holes of golf with him earlier this summer. He still had that great swing.

"He always loved to be out there, always had a smile on his face. It didn't matter what he shot as long as he was out there playing.

"He had a great career and a great life."

Mr. Owens is survived by Tootsie, his wife of 59 years, son John Robert, Mary Creed Cunningham and Martha Owens Trussell.

Visitation will be at Milward-Broadway from 5-8 p.m. on Wednesday.

Funeral services will be at the Cathedral of Christ the King at 2 p.m. on Thursday.

Memorials can be made to the Cathedral of Christ the King, 299 Colony Blvd., Lexington, Ky. 40502, or the Larry Gilbert Foundation, 3403 Kearney Road, Lexington, Ky., 40511.

Published in Lexington Herald-Leader on Oct. 8, 2012
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