What a time to be a junior golfer.
An alphabet soup of tours has spawned to satisfy all of the next Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie wannabes, each committed to helping junior golfers male and female ages 11-19 in their pursuit of earning college scholarships through competitive golf. More than ever, top junior golfers are traveling around the country – and the world. There are Junior Ryder Cup, Junior Solheim Cup and now even Junior Presidents Cup matches, plus the Drive, Chip and Putt with the carrot of a chance to compete in the finals at Augusta National.
The newest event on the scene is the Major Champions Invitational, which is being held this week at Bella Collina in Montverde, Fla., not far from where the Arnold Palmer Invitational is being played at Orlando's Bay Hill Club and Lodge.
Hailing from 23 countries around the world, 82 juniors ranging in age from 13 to 21 are competing in team and individual competitions in the junior tournament created by six-time major champion Nick Faldo.
Faldo, a World Golf Hall of Fame member, already has proved to be a champion of junior golf. The Faldo Series was established in 1996, expanding to Asia in 2006, and today hosts 40 tournaments in 30-plus countries worldwide, touching more than 7,000 golfers each year. Past champions include Yani Tseng and Rory McIlroy.
But the Major Champions Invitational may be Faldo's greatest contribution to junior golf. He conceived the idea last year when he traveled to South Africa with four juniors from his foundation and played a match against Ernie Els and a team from the Ernie Els and Fancourt Foundation.
“I thought, How do I make this even bigger and better?” Faldo said.
He pitched the idea of creating an event of major champions – male and female, past and present – to assemble their own teams of four junior golfers (two males and two females) using their own set of criteria. Among the first to sign up were Swedes Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam, both of whom organized qualifying tournaments to help select their teams. Next, Faldo got Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, American Jordan Spieth and Australia’s Adam Scott to participate. Faldo also wanted to honor Seve Ballesteros, so he spoke with his widow, Carmen, and son, Javier, and they agreed to send a Spanish squad. Faldo also wanted to celebrate the late Payne Stewart with a team.
“It just kind of snowballed,” Faldo said.
Try 19 major champions – Americans Jack Nicklaus, Nancy Lopez and Tom Watson among them – who agreed to field teams and partake in the inaugural year of this concept. It instantly becomes one of the most aspirational junior competitions in golf. Imagine the pride in being able to say you were a member of Spieth’s, McIlroy’s or Sorenstam’s team. Imagine what it will do for a player’s confidence.
“Kids can mingle with major champions. How cool is that? How unique is that?” Faldo said. “I’m chuffed. I think I’ve created something.”
Something that could be quite special. Faldo said each major champion contributed $25,000 into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to underwrite the expenses associated with travel and accommodations and of the competition. Whatever might be left over would go into a fund for future occasions.
The junior golfers arrived in Orlando on Saturday. They played practice rounds over the weekend and a 54-hole tournament that concludes Wednesday. There will be clinics and short-game contests and a barbecue dinner. Individual champions among the boys and girls will receive the Faldo Cup, a silver trophy with two knights on horseback, as well as a team champion, counting three of four scores each day. On Wednesday and Thursday, the junior participants will have the option of going to the Arnold Palmer Invitational or Universal Studios Florida theme park.
The field includes several notables, such as John Daly Jr., playing for his father, John, the two-time major champion, and Allan Kournikova, younger brother of tennis star Anna, on Team McIlroy. Canon Claycomb, Julian Perico and Ben Wong are some of the highly-touted juniors, and Lauren Stephenson (Alabama) and Paz Marfa Sans (Michigan State) are standout collegians. Scott invited Isabelle Taylor, an emerging teen who like Scott is from Queensland, Australia, and three other players at the recommendation of Golf Australia.
“Some of them are probably going to play against each other out here or the ladies tour soon,” said Scott, the 2013 Masters champion. “So, it allows them to see what their competition is and where they stack up.”
CBS is taping the competition for a special program, which will air in August. To play off the tagline of the PGA Championship, this could be major. Faldo hopes it becomes an annual event that is recognized as one of the leading international junior competitions.
“My No. 1 goal now is when they all leave, I’m already booked for 2019,” Faldo said.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak