AJGA's Stephen Hamblin reminisces on 30 years

Digger Smith, chairman of the AJGA Board of Directors, and AJGA executive director Stephen Hamblin.

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Asking Stephen Hamblin to remember his 30 years with the American Junior Golf Association includes a lot of side roads. Hamblin will be in the middle of a story, mention a player’s name, and suddenly is sidetracked by another anecdote. It speaks to executive director Hamblin’s hands-on approach with the junior organization through the years. There’s a long-running joke at the AJGA about today’s tour players: “We knew them before they were cool.”

When Hamblin was honored Nov. 24 for 30 years of service to the AJGA, you might say the way his colleagues chose to do it was a perfect fit for Hamblin’s body of work. The AJGA set out to raise $100,000 for an Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) Grant endowment in Hamblin’s name, and exceeded that goal.

“Endowments are set up to help programs or help people in perpetuity,” said Jason Miller, the AJGA’s Chief Financial Officer. “We felt that was a perfect way to honor him in the sense that he’s put in 30 years of helping people, helping our juniors obtain these scholarships.”

The ACE Grant has been a key component of Hamblin’s tenure. It was established after the creation of The First Tee. Hamblin heard that announcement, and decided it was time for the AJGA to find a way to reach out to underserved kids, too. The ACE Grant gives access to junior golfers with the ability but not the financial means to play a national junior golf schedule and compete for college golf scholarships.

“It’s very close to my heart,” Hamblin said. “I’ve seen families devastated with the financial crisis that we’ve had.”

• • •

Hamblin has never known anything but the helm of the AJGA, having signed on as executive director on “a leap of faith” in 1984. The face of the organziation has changed vastly in that time as the size of membership and breadth of tournaments has continued to grow.

Hamblin’s first look at the AJGA was as a local tournament director. He was working as a resident golf professional at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course in Palm Harbor, Fla., in the early 80s when the AJGA came to town. It was a fledgling operation, just a few years old at the time, but Hamblin was struck by its style. Most vivid is the year-end banquet of 1980, when a towheaded Billy Mayfair climbed on a chair to see over the podium as he presented an appreciation award to Innisbrook, which Hamblin accepted. Billy Andrade and Davis Love III were also in the room.

“Everyone is dying laughing and I have to go follow that,” Hamblin remembers.

At the time, Hamblin was in the PGA apprentice program. He only had his oral interview left to achieve Class A status. The opportunity with the AJGA “came out of right field,” and to top it off, Hamblin’s wife was nearly eight months pregnant with their first child. Still, a 29-year-old Hamblin eagerly accepted the position.

What followed was a memorable summer in a beat-up black and red Dodge Ram. Hamblin and a handful of staffers drove that van from Atlanta to Vermont to the Midwest to Florida and back. The ceiling was caved in and the seats were detached, Hamblin remembers, and when the van came to a stoplight, the cab would begin to smoke.

“I never in those early years would think there was going to be more than scores on a scoreboard,” Hamblin said, “because you couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

It was during those years, however, that Hamblin saw the roots of the AJGA and met players like Scott Verplank, Dottie Pepper and Phil Mickelson as juniors taking up the game. Hamblin was a seven-time Wyndham Cup (nee Canon Cup) captain, and knew Mickelson as the kid who gave the best winner’s speeches (once, as a 14-year-old, thanking a general manager for the low room rates players received that week).

With each generation, Hamblin has befriended a new crop of players. and still travels to about 20 AJGA events plus other tournaments in which AJGA members (current and past) play.

Nicole Morales, this year’s player representiative to the AJGA Board of Directors, remembers calling Hamblin when stranded in Atlanta on a flight from New York to Indiana for the U.S. Girls’ Junior. She hoped to crash at AJGA headquarters. Instead, Hamblin brought her home to his family for the night.

“How many executives can you call completely out of the blue, beg for a ride and have him invite you over to their house?” she said later.

Morales credits Hamblin’s dream for the AJGA in creating her a path to the University of Alabama, where she’ll play on a women’s golf scholarship beginning in the fall.

• • •

The first Hamblin heard of the endowment in his name was among the glitz and glitter of “The Greatest Night in Junior Golf,” the AJGA’s tagline for its Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet at PGA National in Plam Beach Gardens, Fla. Hamblin had opened the banquet that evening with a message on pace of play, or rather pace of banquet. The nearly 500 attendees rose to their feet when the endowment was announced to his surprise minutes later.

Aside from keeping it under Hamblin’s radar, Miller said raising the money for the award was easy. The spectrum of supporters was vast, and 100 percent of both the AJGA Board of Directors and the AJGA staff contributed.

Miller, in his 18th year with the AJGA, will tell you that Hamblin’s hand extended to every corner of the PGA National ballroom that night -- players to sponsors to parents to employees. Hamblin has created a tough love culture in the AJGA offices in Braselton, Ga., that has trickled down to shape the organization’s culture.

“Stephen is commited to coaching, managing, parenting and just all of those similar qualities,” Miller said. “That’s kind of how he lives his life. I think that you see that come out in a lot of different areas.”

Perhaps most apparent is the parenting aspect, as Hamblin is a father of five. The AJGA is famous for reminding players to remove their hats when they walk into a clubhouse and asking each player to write thank-you notes to tournament directors, sponsors and host facilities each time they walk into the scoring tent. Players carry sand bottles to fill their divots and follow a rigorous pace-of-play system. It all happened under Hamblin.

“We have to be doing this because the industry needs its junior development to be doing it right,” Hamblin said. It’s become a secondary mission, and helped the AJGA create a unique legacy.

The endowment, you might say, is just the industry’s giant thank-you note sent back to Hamblin.

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