Teenage golfer Ian Johnston looked up to his big brother Seth.
As kids, Johnston idolized Seth; he wanted to be just like him, according to former Masters champion Zach Johnson, who recently recounted the young golfer’s story for a CBS special.
Ian Johnston’s father, Jeff, said he knew from a young age his son had a knack for golf. Even as a little kid, Jeff Johnston said, his son’s swing was “fluid.” From there on out, Johnston continued to play, year after year, quickly advancing through a series of tournaments.
But above all, family mattered most to Ian Johnston.
“Despite the age difference, Ian and Seth were good friends and constant competitors,” Johnson said, noting the eight-year difference between the brothers.
Former Masters champ @ZachJohnsonPGA tells the inspiring story of fellow Iowan Ian Johnston and his crusade against the opioid crisis. pic.twitter.com/jPmz91Dqve
— GOLFonCBS (@GOLFonCBS) September 4, 2018
Ian Johnston told CBS he tried to “follow in his footsteps.” However, sometime between the ages of 15 and 16, something changed for Seth Johnston, according to their mother, Prudence.
“I noticed a change in his friends. I noticed everything he loved he started giving up,” she said.
Soon thereafter, the family discovered Seth had started experimenting with alcohol and marijuana. Before long, he was addicted to opioids, like cocaine and heroin.
Ian Johnston, stressed by his home life and plagued by the sadness of seeing his older brother and best friend struggle with an intense drug addiction, often turned to the golf course as his only safe haven, where he could set aside his worries and fears and just play the game.
Despite Seth spending six weeks in a rehab facility, where he showed signs of improvement, Jeff Johnston ultimately received the call that would be any parents nightmare. In October 2016, he was told his son had been found dead in a hotel room–he had overdosed.
Jeff Johnston said he heard the devastating news right after Ian Johnston had arrived on a course for another golf competition.
“I just went into complete shock,” he remembered. “I didn’t tell Ian anything. I just got in the car and thought, ‘How am I gonna tell my wife our son’s dead?’”
Jeff Johnston recalled telling his two sons — Ian and Roman — they could choose between “two roads” moving forward.
“I said, ‘Boys, we have two roads to go down. We have one road of anger, despair, and hatred, and we’ll end up becoming addicts ourselves. Or this can be the greatest single moment that changes our lives and also changes others positively. I’m taking the second. You guys can join me,’” Jeff Johnston said.
That’s exactly what Ian Johnston decided to do, pouring himself into his golf and ultimately marrying his love for his brother with his love for the sport.
For every birdie Ian Johnston makes, he raises funds for the rehabilitation center that worked to help heal his older brother. To date, he’s donated $15,000 to the center in Cedar Rapids.
“He’s playing with a bigger purpose,” Prudence Johnston said. “Every time Ian makes a good put, he holds his club up in the air and he says, ‘This one’s for you, brother.’”