John Davis, a 2019 inductee into the Arizona Golf Hall of Fame and sports journalist for nearly 36 years, died early Monday after a long battle with cancer.
Davis, 73, was a fixture on the Arizona golf scene for more than 20 years and witnessed firsthand the rise of the Phoenix Open. Phil Mickelson, a native of San Diego but a hero for Arizona State, became the face of the event, spearheading its massive growth into one of the world’s most highly attended sporting events.
And Davis was right there along for the ride. Over time, writer and golfer forged a friendship. A typical routine after a tournament round consisted of Mickelson signing autographs for 20 or 30 minutes, putting pen to paper for anyone and everyone who wanted one at TPC Scottsdale. It wasn’t an uncommon sight to see him and Davis later engaged in small talk, sharing a smile or two, catching up like two longtime friends.
Davis eventually stopped covering the tournaments, retiring in 2019, but he clearly missed the action. With many friends in the golf world, he could easily score a credential and would often swing by the media center to say hi to everyone.
At the Charles Schwab Cup in 2021, the first time Mickelson was eligible for the PGA Tour Champions event, the two caught up once again at Phoenix Country Club, with Davis well into the throes of his cancer fight. The day before the tournament started, as Mickelson took questions in the media scrum, Davis stood off to the side and waited, his face covering a sign he was taking precautions about his health but wasn’t going to sit around the house all day.
When Lefty was done, he turned and saw Davis and the two spent the next 20 minutes catching up, Mickelson telling him to hang in there and keep fighting.
“John waged a battle over several years with cancer, and his friends were amazed at how much he endured and how many times he bounced back from devastating news,” said Bob Young, the Republic’s long-time Suns reporter and colleague of Davis. “But we knew he was a tough guy. He survived a stroke by dragging himself over a span of two hours across his living room to reach a phone, which he dragged off of a table to call 9-1-1.
“And when I was covering the Suns beat, I came into the press work room to find John typing with his right hand on his laptop while holding his left hand in the air. I asked him what was up and he said a scorpion had stung him while he was doing yard work. He said holding his hand up helped with the throbbing pain. I suggested maybe he should go home and he said it would still be throbbing whether he was at home or work. He stayed and filed a sidebar and notes that night.”
Davis later had a heart bypass issue but continued to fight on, never complaining.
“During the dog days of summer, when not much was happening in the sports world, four sportswriters – John, Bob Young, Dale Hajek and I – would slip out of the office early and play a quick round at Encanto,” recalled Kent Somers, who said he and Davis competed for a time on their beats, Somers at the Republic and Davis at the old Phoenix Gazette. The two papers merged in 1997, bringing Davis to the Republic. “Well, to me, it was a quick round. To John, who was a solid player, it probably didn’t seem so quick. He never, ever complained about golfing with a hack like me.”
Davis moved to Phoenix in the mid 1980s, well before the population exploded and the city had just one pro team, the Suns.
“I found a picture, his grandma took a picture of him leaving in a U-Haul truck in August 1986,” said Kim Ewing, Davis’ niece, who said he started working for the Phoenix Gazette upon his arrival.
“He was wise, witty and humble, and worked tirelessly at WM Phoenix Opens, Masters, U.S. Opens, state amateurs – wherever he was assigned – to bring the most entertaining and accurate stories he possibly could to his readers,” said Bill Huffman, who proceeded Davis on the golf beat at the Republic. “And John always delivered, which is why he earned his spot in the Arizona Golf Hall of Fame.”
As luck would have it, many years later – and perhaps as karma for all his goodwill – Davis was among the lucky media members to have his name drawn to play Augusta National on the Monday after the Masters Tournament, a long-standing tradition.
Davis wore many hats during his journalism career. Many times it was that of a mentor.
“JD started out as one of the standards for me in the business and wound up becoming a dear friend who remained inspirationally positive through his health issues,” said Paul Coro, who came to the Republic as a young reporter in 1997. “As a mentor, he always had been encouraging and complimentary but made me feel more like a colleague by sharing stories and laughs. The way he worked earned the respect of pros, whether it was going way back with Dan Majerle, connecting quickly with Charles Barkley or having Phil Mickelson seemingly always pick up his calls. For a guy who was great with words, the ones I’ll treasure most were his kind ones about my girls as they grew up.”
While Davis spent considerable time covering the pro game, he always made an effort to be there at amateur events as well.
“He was an All-Star,” said Ed Gowan, who was executive director of the Arizona Golf Association for 37 years, retiring in 2022. “In order to get national recognition sometimes you have to call attention to yourself and he never did that. He was never after the roses. It was all about the subject.”
Born in Adrian, Michigan, on Feb. 23, 1950, Davis was drafted by the Army during Vietnam and was enlisted for two years. Years later, he purchased a second home in Traverse City, Michigan, and escaped the Phoenix heat in his later years to enjoy the midwestern summers at his cabin. Friends say he spoke a lot about his place there in recent weeks, hoping to visit one last time.
“Last week he was telling me how badly he wanted to return there for another summer,” Somers said. “It wasn’t to be, but, man, did he live a life.”
Pat Williams, Big Chief of The Thunderbirds, who stage the Phoenix Open every year said: “We are saddened to hear of the passing of legendary golf writer John Davis. John covered the Phoenix Open, golf in Arizona for four decades, was a great friend of the tournament, and really to the entire Thunderbird organization. Even after retiring, John would continue to come out to enjoy the Open and do what he loved, chatting it up with players, Thunderbirds, media, and really just anyone who wanted to talk about golf.
“John was a one-of-a-kind. He will truly be missed.”