I’m really excited for this. I don’t know why they chose me because I’m really shy —Maleah Johnson
PROVO — All Maleah Johnson has thought about her entire life is competing — just like everyone else.
This week the 15-year-old Pleasant Grove High sophomore golfer was chosen by Salt Lake Shriners Hospital as an ambassador to the PGA Tour’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at the TPC Summerlin tournament in Las Vegas. Her job is to be an ambassador and carry a scoring banner for a group comprised of professional golfers.
She will make hospital appearances and join other young ambassadors at events across the city with her mother Robyn — all expenses paid. She’ll even get to hang out with PGA Tour star Tony Finau, whom she met earlier this year at a clinic.
Maleah is a vivacious young woman who smiles easily and is full of hope and faith. She is a softball player as well as being a member of the Pleasant Grove girls golf team.
Thing is, Maleah was born with eight toes on one foot and her premature birth was complicated. As an infant, she had serious issues in her right leg. At 11 months, her parents had a choice to make. They could have Maleah undergo reconstructive surgeries, perhaps in the dozens, hoping to make that leg useful, or they could tell doctors to amputate the leg above the knee.
There was no guarantee the surgeries would help. Her parents chose amputation. She is now walking on a prosthetic leg that hinges at the knee and ankle. She has had 16 of these very expensive prosthetics, three of them this year alone. They have to be changed according to her growth and weight gain.
Her mother said Maleah’s courage has stood out all her life. She has been hopeful, faithful, a believer and has attempted to do almost everything any other young toddler or teen would try. She has never looked at her disability as a barrier to her life. In fact, Robyn has often tried to hold Maleah back, knowing that she could be hurt or extremely disappointed by a failure.
Maleah’s inspiration to take up sports came from her father Scott. “He taught me how to play softball and encouraged me to take up golf. I learned everything I know from him,” said Maleah.
Her father died suddenly and inexplicably two years ago at age 40. “We still don’t know why or how he died,” said Robyn. “Nobody has been able to explain his death.”
Growing up, Maleah has forged ahead, often getting banged up by her aggressive play. When she was 7, Maleah fell and broke her big toe. She has busted off pieces of her prosthesis on the playground.
With the help of Shriners Hospital, she has been able to ride a bike and go longboarding.
“My dad wanted boys in his family, but he got girls. He wanted all of us to play softball. I do it because it’s really fun. It gives you adrenaline and it’s great to get close to your teammates, make friends and just goof around. When it’s game time, we get serious. I love it.”
Maleah initially played first base because she was the only one on the team who had the arm strength to throw from first to third base. She then moved over to third base and is now pitching.
As for golf? She wants to get good enough to earn a college scholarship. She routinely scores in the mid to high 40s for nine holes.
“My dad told me it would be really hard to get a scholarship, but because I can’t run that fast, I wanted to get into something else and golf became my goal.”
Last year, Maleah made the varsity golf team at Pleasant Grove. “My tee shots are my strength because I can hit it far, but I’ve got to work on my putting; it’s not that good right now. I’m not patient. I just want to go fast and get it over with and that’s why I’m not so good.”
At this week’s PGA Tour stop, Maleah will have a front-row seat to see not only Finau but also fellow Utah Tour veterans Zac Blair and Daniel Summerhays. It will be the experience of a lifetime. She even took her clubs to hit shots during this week’s pro-am events.
“I’m really excited for this. I don’t know why they chose me because I’m really shy,” she said.
Maleah loves swimming and being in the water. She is up for anything as long as her leg doesn’t get sore and tired. At times, the prosthesis is painful to move around.
For Robyn, Maleah is her athlete. Her two other siblings, both girls, don’t have the same passion as Maleah.
“She is an incredible kid. She has shown so much courage, not only in our family’s trials with the loss of her father but just her trials in general, having such a disability in her life but not wanting anything to hold her back.
“I love that about her personality, just that spunk that she has in herself. She won’t let anybody tell her she can’t do something because of her prosthetic. Even when she was younger, you want to be so protective of your kids, like that of a mother bear thing.
“But she would come to me and her dad and tell us she wanted to do this, and try that. She wanted to try soccer, try swimming. We never said no to her but deep down we thought she might be disappointed, she just might fail and be let down.
“We constantly let her do what she wanted to try. There’ve been times we’ve had to sit down and explain why she might not be able to do something. It’s a balance between encouraging and allowing her to compete and protecting her from being hurt. There are just so many things a young woman goes through that she could do so that she could be that shining star and I think we’ve found that in golf.
“It really struck us when her dad introduced her to golf," she continued. "This is the thing: It is competing against other people, but also it is about yourself and competing against and depending on yourself, your own personal thing.”
Robyn said her daughter has played city league softball and many other activities but when Scott showed her golf “it was as if a light turned on upon her. She just knew it was her thing, although it was very, very hard.”
Her father would have weekly dates taking her golfing. “The minute her dad started taking her to the range and play nine holes, I saw this light go on inside her that she’d never had before.”
Robyn said she doesn’t have blinders on, that she knows her daughter is facing a tough challenge. She needs to be stronger, work harder. But the path is there and she is on it.
“This Shriners thing is wonderful, a tremendous opportunity. My first thing I thought of was the expense as a single mom," Robyn said. "But they told me it was on them. Next, I worried about taking a week off, but I have an amazing boss who understands what I am going through.
“When they called us, I thought it can’t be real. We’ve been so excited. I told her she needed to smile. I told her she needed to be a public relations person now and there was a role to be played on this trip.”
Maleah answered, “Mom, this isn’t my first rodeo.”
What a ride. Viva Las Vegas.
Go for it, Maleah.
Head down, swing easy.
The putter will follow.