Junior golf juggernaut: The AJGA
BRASELTON, Ga. – Attention to detail is the marching order as the American Junior Golf Association prepares for one of its premier events, the Polo Golf Junior Classic.
Not only will 160 boys and girls compete Nov. 19-23 in the match-play tournament, they also will attend a formal banquet honoring the Rolex Players of the Year, Rolex Junior All-Americans and HP Scholastic Junior All-Americans.
It’s Oscar night in junior golf, kicking off a Thanksgiving week when those fortunate enough to advance through the Polo bracket are perfectly happy having their turkey in Orlando, Fla., instead of home. For the marquee sponsors, it’s an evening to feel good about their substantial investments.
Meanwhile, at AJGA headquarters here in Braselton, many of the association’s 56 employees have been busy putting the finishing touches on video highlights and tournament programs, booking photographers, finalizing menus and table placecards. They also are preparing for the tournament. Times like this can be controlled chaos at the AJGA’s 7-year-old, 14,000-square-foot nerve center at Chateau Elan golf resort, a suburban enclave of million-dollar homes, most belonging to Atlanta’s movers and shakers in business, entertainment and sports.
No glitches are acceptable when it comes to the showcase Rolex banquet, which ends an eight-month, 81-tournament season that has drawn 3,760 contestants ages 12-18. The nonprofit AJGA, a far-flung enterprise with an annual operating budget of $8 million, is run with military precision.
Its growth and influence have increased significantly since the new headquarters opened for business in September 2000. The place is bursting at the seams; a regional office already has been established in the Chicago area, with others in the works.
For better – and some argue, for worse – the AJGA has evolved into the unrivaled proving ground for aspiring pro golfers and for those hoping to make a living in other aspects of the golf business.
“There’s no way (on) God’s green earth,” says Jordan R. “Digger” Smith, longtime chairman of the AJGA’s board of directors, “that you can look at where we started and see where we are today without utter amazement.”
• • •
Stephen Hamblin is the architect of today’s AJGA.
Hamblin, sitting with his hands over his head in his second-floor office, leans back in his chair and says the American Junior Golf Association is not “the PGA Tour of junior golf.” The analogy comes easy, considering AJGA represents junior golf’s most elite competition, and it explains the group’s popularity among players, sponsors, media and typically anyone who cares to make the comparison.
But it makes Hamblin cringe.
“I just don’t like the word ‘tour,’ ” says the AJGA’s executive director for the past 23 years. “If (the AJGA) was a tour, we’d have 144 juniors playing every week. We don’t have that.”
It’s that simple to him. Hamblin says the organization at its core has never been complicated, even if its growth is at once impressive and complex. However Hamblin chooses to characterize it, the AJGA is a sprawling enterprise. On his desk is a tournament site proposal for 2012. Upstairs in the communications department, a news release is being written to announce the creation of the inaugural Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship and PGA Tour headquarters. One of Hamblin’s sons, meanwhile, is outside on this summer afternoon tending to the flower beds that decorate the immaculate entrance to AJGA National Headquarters.
From these lofty environs, Hamblin makes it clear he hasn’t lost focus. He insists “the mission and purpose,” to which he refers often, is fundamentally the same as it was 30 years ago when a local Georgia sportswriter named Mike Bentley started running events out of his 1975 silver Dodge Colt station wagon.
Except that now Dodge is title sponsor of an AJGA tournament in Abilene, Texas.
“We’re going to try to run the best tournaments with the best fields and give you the chance for college golf scholarships,” Hamblin says, summarizing the essence of the AJGA. “That was the mission on Day 1, and it hasn’t changed one iota.”
The means to that end, however, have changed dramatically. A case can be made that the AJGA has experienced more growth than any other organization in golf during the past three decades. Starting with a handful of tournaments in 1978, the AJGA now boasts a membership of 5,020 juniors, arguably the best collection of young players in the nation, if not the world.
And as much as Hamblin may be irked by comparisons with the PGA Tour, he has no one to blame but himself. AJGA tournaments are conducted with such professionalism that they feel like Tour events. At them, junior standouts take their first steps toward stardom. More than 160 former AJGA members play on the PGA Tour and LPGA, and they’ve combined for more than 300 victories as professionals. Among the alumni: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Jim Furyk, Grace Park and Mike Weir.
Such success has spawned detractors. Critics accuse the AJGA of commercializing youth sports and pandering to affluent prima-donna teens. Even college coaches, whose recruiting lives have been simplified by the AJGA, lament the sense of entitlement among some AJGA players and sometimes wistfully recall the days before the AJGA became such a machine.
Hamblin dismisses the allegations as rantings of the ill-informed. He apologizes for nothing, insisting that his performance-based organization does nothing more than offer successful youngsters the reward of an education.
Bottom line: You must hit the golf ball better than most to join the AJGA’s ranks.
“I like saying that it’s the SAT of golf,” Hamblin says. “If you pass this test, then you’re going on to college.”
• • •
AJGA events look like they’re being run by future Secret Service agents.
Tournament directors, often in their mid-20s, oversee staffs of up to 20 people, made up mostly of paid summer interns who are responsible for everything from setting up the course and making rulings to organizing cookouts and rushing players to the airport.
During most of their waking hours, they communicate over radios attached to ear pieces, making sure players adhere to a strict pace-of-play policy and code of conduct. Violations have cost AJGA players tournament victories.
“There are things that the AJGA is doing a whole bunch better than PGA Tour events are doing, all the time,” says Mark Brazil, a former AJGA employee who runs the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship and the AJGA’s FootJoy Boys Invitational.
During one seven-day stretch this summer, 824 juniors teed off in at least one round of an AJGA event or qualifier, which would have been considered ludicrous back when the AJGA’s first few cubicles were being set up in a strip mall just north of Atlanta.
Junior golf at the turn of the 1970s was about as organized as a teenager’s closet.
Top-flight juniors played most of their summer competitive golf in volunteer-run local tournaments and state amateur events, venturing out of their regions only for tournaments such as the U.S. Junior Amateur, Western Junior, Big “I” Insurance Classic, Junior Orange Bowl, Junior World Golf Championships, Future Masters and Junior PGA Championship – independent events that never pulled together. Scheduling conflicts were common; entry information was difficult to locate.
“There were a lot of kids screaming for a much bigger source of competition,” says Chris Haack, the men’s coach at Georgia who played in early AJGA events before working for the association for 16 years. (Haack, who served as Hamblin’s right-hand man and played an instrumental role in the AJGA’s development, left his job as assistant executive director in 1996.)
With the emergence of the AJGA, junior golfers got what they wanted – thanks largely to Digger Smith. Smith, a geologist who has worked for various oil and gas companies for more than 50 years, put up a $200,000 matching funds contribution in 1981 to build and furnish the AJGA’s first national headquarters, a 4,000-square-foot brick colonial at Horseshoe Bend Country Club in Roswell, Ga. It was the first donation made to the AJGA Foundation, which was created in 1981 “to insure the financial success of the AJGA for perpetuity,” according to an original pamphlet.
In September 2000, the AJGA moved into the three-floor building at Chateau Elan. Pictures of Smith, Hamblin and others holding shovels at both building sites adorn one of the facility’s first-floor walls.
But those groundbreakings never could have occurred if not for the efforts of Mike Bentley.
• • •
Bentley was making next to nothing covering high school sports in the early 1970s for a small newspaper in DeKalb County, a suburb of Atlanta.
He had played golf in high school, recalling that he lettered only because there weren’t five guys better.
“But I loved it,” Bentley says, which is why his weekly sports page started to feature nearly as much coverage of high school golf as high school football.
“I don’t think the baseball teams liked that,” says Bentley, 57, who now lives in Plano, Texas, and works for the Texas Restaurant Association.
During summers, there was little golf for Bentley to write about. Formal junior golf events didn’t exist in DeKalb County. They didn’t exist in Georgia. They were rare elsewhere in the U.S.
Bentley says even the one or two local kids who may have been good enough to qualify for national tournaments didn’t know they existed. At that point, neither did Bentley.
“There was nothing there for them,” Bentley says, “so I decided to change that.”
The DeKalb County Junior Golf Association kicked off in summer 1974 with a half-dozen events that Bentley ran out of his silver station wagon. Ninety-nine boys and girls signed up for the first season, which Bentley funded on $2 entry fees and donations from the local Coca-Cola distributor. He used volunteer rules officials. Players’ mothers contributed sandwiches. Bentley engraved trophies himself.
(Sponsorship of a typical AJGA open event now costs $35,000, says Jason Etzen, the AJGA’s executive vice president of corporate partnerships.)
Bentley closed that summer with a season-ending championship, a preview of his future plans. “I always wanted to pattern it after the PGA Tour and LPGA,” he says.
Kids loved it. Parents loved it. Word spread.
The AJGA as an acronym first appeared two years later. Bentley, taken aback when he learned that former Georgia Tech coach Tommy Plaxico had gone seasons with unused scholarships, transformed the DeKalb program into the Atlanta Junior Golf Association. Its 1976 season-ending championship was at Pinehurst No. 2; Davis Love III won the boys’ division.
It was time to go national.
• • •
The American Junior Golf Association began in fall 1977. Its one-page promotional brochure was an impressive statement of support.
Bentley had devised a national plan that he presented to golf industry leaders. He assembled an advisory board he knew would give the AJGA instant credibility. Tom Watson, who that year had won the Masters and British Open and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year, agreed to be the AJGA’s first honorary chairman.
Don Rossi, president of the National Golf Foundation, PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and Don Padgett, president of the PGA of America (who was instrumental in launching the Junior PGA Championship) were just some of the people who agreed to
serve on the advisory board.
Padgett gave Bentley a list of addresses for every junior who had tried to qualify for that year’s Junior PGA Championship. Bentley used it for his initial mailing, which he considers the AJGA’s jump-start.
“(Padgett) got in trouble for serving on our board, but he knew we weren’t trying to take over any area the PGA of America was involved in,” Bentley says.
Bentley was undaunted when U.S. Golf Association executive director P.J. Boatwright said that “the AJGA wasn’t going to get their support.” (In 2004, the USGA and AJGA partnered on a community service initiative.)
“We didn’t bow to the throne,” Bentley says.
He asked $10 for a first-year membership. More than 3,000 players joined. The headline on the first issue of Junior Golf America, the AJGA’s newsletter, read: “American JGA In Gear.”
It promised information. It promised organization. It promised to look after junior golf.
“If you’re looking at necessity being the mother of invention, this was a classic,” says Wally Uihlein, CEO of Acushnet Co., which includes Titleist, one of the AJGA’s biggest sponsors.
The AJGA’s first event, its Tournament of Champions (now Rolex Tournament of Champions), was held in August 1978 at Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla., longtime site of the PGA Tour’s Jackie Gleason Classic and original home of The Players Championship.
Kids flew in from across the country. The field included Mark Brooks, Andrew Magee, Jim Gallagher Jr., Mark Calcavecchia, Jodie Mudd and eventual champion Willie Wood. Denise Ameda won the girls’ division.
“I’m especially proud to win this tournament because this is the best field of junior golfers I’ve ever played in,” Wood said after shooting a final-round 69 for a four-shot victory.
That final round had featured the same pin positions Jack Nicklaus had encountered that year at the Jackie Gleason, when he birdied his final five holes to win.
Types of AJGA events
Medicus Preseason Junior Series: Open to first-time AJGA members or those members who have not participated in an AJGA Open event, AJGA Invitational or Junior All-Star Series event.
Junior All-Star Series: Events specifically for boys and girls ages 12-15.
Srixon Qualifiers: Similar to PGA Tour’s “Monday qualifiers,” held the day prior to AJGA Open events.
AJGA Open events: Make up majority of the AJGA schedule (51 in 2007). Fields feature boys and girls ages 12-18 and are determined using the AJGA’s Performance Based Entry process.
AJGA Invitationals: Consistently rank among the strongest fields in junior golf. Fields are determined through criteria published on the AJGA Web site and the Polo Golf Rankings.
Canon Cup: Annual event featuring the top 10 boys and top 10 girls from west of the Mississippi River vs. their counterparts from the east. Teams are determined through Polo Golf Rankings.
Junior Solheim Cup: Patterned after the Solheim Cup, this features the top 12 U.S. girls vs. their European counterparts. Team is determined through Polo Golf Rankings, Golfweek/Sagarin Junior Girls Rankings and captain’s picks.
“It was one of those deals which I had never experienced,” says Haack, also in the field. He remembers being in awe of just having to check in under a tent by the first tee and then having his name and hometown announced before he teed off.
“I think that happened for a lot of kids,” Haack says. “It was just different from your mom-and-pop junior golf events that you were playing for one day. You played two days, and you made the cut, so you felt like, this is my Tour event.”
• • •
Growing never has been a problem for the AJGA. Hamblin says his main “struggle, challenge, adventure” over the years has been managing the outside world’s perception of the organization.
“Elitist, subjective, political, pay your way in – whatever myth you wanted to fabricate,” Hamblin says, referring to stereotypes fueled partly as a result of the AJGA’s previous field selection process, where employees would sit in a room and sift through resumes. (In 2003, the AJGA instituted a performance-based entry system.)
“I think the AJGA in the past has been criticized unfairly for being elitist,” Hamblin says. “When I look at the whole sport, golf has been somewhat of an elitist game that we all have an obligation to recreate.”
Hamblin remembers checks up to $2,000 being included with players’ applications and $95 entry fees, from parents trying to ensure their children would be accepted.
“We’d cash it for $95, refund the rest,” he says. “We keep adding tournaments, we keep adding qualifiers, we’re adding preseason events, and we’re still the bad guys.”
He remembers attending a meeting of allied golf partners about 20 years ago, his first gathering with “the bigger people,” who blasted him for attaching corporate names to junior golf. Hamblin argued there was a major difference between commercialization and corporate support.
He explained that when Buick became a title sponsor of an AJGA event in Flint, Mich., Buick executives asked Hamblin if they were permitted to give the winners the use of a Buick for the year. He laughed.
“Buick just came in and underwrote the costs,” he says. “But we didn’t have any Buicks on site, no parents had to take a test drive, there wasn’t a Buick on the first tee or 18th green. Buick got its name on a bag tag, a shirt, a towel and a hat.”
He contrasted that with another car manufacturer’s sponsorship of the Junior PGA Championship, where Hamblin said the only way to obtain an entry application one summer was by visiting an authorized dealer.
“So we’re not commercializing junior golf at all. We’re looking for partners that want to support getting these kids exposure for junior golf,” Hamblin says.
That’s not to say AJGA sponsors aren’t advancing their business interests. Next year, Rolex will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its partnership with the junior golf organization. Rolex officials say they support AJGA mostly because of its emphasis on values such as “integrity, competitive spirit and fine etiquette,” but add the alliance offers revenue benefits, too.
“It gives junior golfers an early and positive impression of Rolex for future purchases, and we do reach a lot of parents along the way at AJGA events, which helps to convey a positive image about Rolex for purchase considerations today,” says Peter Nicholson, vice president and director of communications for Rolex Watch USA.
In 2006, Titleist entered into a new 10-year, eight-figure commitment as national sponsor of the AJGA, which Uihlein says “was just something that made sense.
“We wanted to bring peace of mind to Digger, and to Stephen,” he says, “knowing the AJGA was bedrocked and secure for the next 10 years.”
AJGA sponsorship also fits with Titleist’s strategy of dominating the so-called pyramid of influence, and thereby sending the message to consumers that the majority of better players use Titleist products.
Uihlein, who played junior golf in the 1960s and “knew how disorganized it was,” started giving golf balls to the AJGA in 1979. Over the next 10 years, Titleist would continue to provide product support as one of the association’s sponsors, a list that now numbers 73 (not counting tournament partners or suppliers).
(Uihlein has been more than a corporate observer in recent years. His son Peter, 17, will be honored for the second time as the Rolex AJGA Player of the Year.)
A chance meeting between Uihlein and Hamblin at the 1988 Masters resulted in Titleist’s top billing among sponsors. Hamblin told Uihlein that Coca-Cola was ending its national sponsorship after seven years, and it was questionable whether the AJGA would be able to remain fully operational during the offseason. Hamblin had a plan, but he needed to replace the Coke dollars.
“I told (Uihlein) about having multiple events, bringing the events to the kids, cutting costs, making (the process of) seeking a college golf scholarship more affordable,” Hamblin says.
Uihlein told Hamblin to send him a proposal. Titleist agreed to a three-year, seven-figure national sponsorship soon after, trusting that Hamblin would continue to seek other sponsors.
• • •
If it’s true an organization takes on the personality of its CEO, then no one should be surprised at how the AJGA has evolved.
Hamblin, 52, grew up in a house where he had to answer the phone, “Capt. Hamblin’s residence, Stephen speaking.” (His father, Robert Allen Hamblin, retired as a colonel after 30 years in the U.S. Air Force.)
Stephen played in one college golf event as a fifth-year senior at Michigan State, where he graduated with a “very challenging” degree in landscape architecture, even though he says he knew he was never going to use it.
“But I have a pretty yard,” he says.
Hamblin worked his college summers at Pinehurst with then-head professional Jay Overton, who once made Hamblin sleep overnight in a temporary merchandise trailer during the PGA Tour’s old Colgate Hall of Fame Classic to guard the cash registers. Overton later left Pinehurst for Innisbrook (in Florida), where he hired Hamblin as an assistant golf professional.
Hamblin remembers Overton calling 4 a.m. staff meetings and getting angry if golf carts weren’t fit for a king.
“The steering wheel had to be straight on every cart, and if you were missing a pencil, a card or a rake, you got it,” says Hamblin, who eventually became head professional at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course, which was then home to the AJGA’s American Junior Classic, now the Polo. He became the tournament chairman in 1980, when he remembers Billy Mayfair at the season-ending awards banquet climbing onto a chair behind the podium so he could see over the top.
Hamblin took what appeared to be a risky career step four years later, when he accepted the job as AJGA executive director.
The AJGA had grown fast over its first six years, but it was running into financial difficulties, on the verge of losing its first national sponsor, Commercial Union. Smith and the board of directors had decided to redirect Bentley strictly toward fundraising and were looking for someone who could manage a 13-event schedule that figured to only get bigger.
Hamblin enjoyed being a club professional.
His first child was on the way, which made a career move to an unstable organization even more questionable.
“But I was just so taken with the people and the conduct of the kids and the mission and purpose of the thing,” says Hamblin, who earned $276,285 in 2005 (the most recent figure available on the AJGA’s IRS Form 990) as executive director.
“It’s always been a labor of love.”
And that devotion has led the AJGA to this: On Labor Day weekend at the inaugural Junior Players Championship, the PGA Tour paid for caddies for each of the AJGA’s 78 contestants. There is talk of making the tournament junior golf’s first fully televised event. The McDonald’s LPGA Championship has sponsored an AJGA event for years, and 12 of the AJGA’s top girls flew to Sweden to play in the Ping Junior Solheim Cup. The AJGA’s Junior-Ams, originally created to keep the AJGA out of the red, have raised more than $1 million for junior golf.
Other junior golf organizations have fed off the AJGA’s success. The Future Collegians World Tour (FCWT) has just entered its 11th season, while the International Junior Golf Tour (IJGT) is in its 13th. Both tours, played mostly during the AJGA’s offseason, plan on running 70 events this year.
“As far as running tournaments, we learned a lot from the AJGA. They’re the pioneers of the whole thing in junior golf,” says FCWT executive director Jack Hobson. “But we’re not competing with the AJGA. We complement the AJGA.”
Mike Holder, athletics director and former golf coach at Oklahoma State, says trying to compare the AJGA to another junior sports organization is “like trying to compare the PGA Tour to any other tour in the world.
“I think everyone else pales in comparison.”