PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – With apologies to the Web.com Tour, the true pathway to the PGA Tour really begins much earlier. The American Junior Golf Association, a national circuit for males and females ages 12-19, is celebrating its 40th year and has become one of golf's best success stories. This year, it consists of 120 events across the U.S., including the past weekend’s Junior Players, which featured an elite field of 78 globetrotting golfers from 15 countries at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
Where did Patrick Reed have his first match-play experience before he was Captain America, you ask? Not on the PGA Tour or even during NCAAs at Augusta State. At the Wyndham Cup (then known as the Canon Cup), Reed, a three-time Rolex Junior All-American, competed for the East in 2006 at Conway Farms Golf Club. (Rickie Fowler's West squad took the cup.)
Reed, Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer and the list goes on and on removed the training wheels at this training ground for the stars of tomorrow and learned to play fearless golf.
"Twenty-year-olds were not coming out in my generation and the generation before that feeling like they could compete," said instructor Sean Foley, who hosts two AJGA events. "So, we've got to think that the tournaments that have been provided by the AJGA have definitely helped the younger players come out on Tour knowing that they can contend."
Stephen Hamblin, the AJGA's executive director since 1984, has witnessed junior golf's transformation. He recalls the time during its salad days when the AJGA owned a broken-down van and was running 13-18 events a year and board member Jerry Cole stood up and predicted that it wouldn't be long before they'd be running multiple events.
"I looked at him like he had three heads," Hamblin said. "We could barely do what we were doing. But he was right. The goal was to bring tournaments to the kids so they didn't have to travel as far and reduce costs."
Hamblin chuckles as he recalls another seminal moment in the AJGA's growth. "We had a player meeting and one kid raised his hand and said we need more tournaments in civilization, and I asked, 'Where is civilization?' He said, 'California.' "
This year, the AJGA seemingly blankets the country to accommodate the growing demand (expect it to climb to 125 events next year, I'm told). Twelve years ago, Billy Dettlaff was serving as general manager and director of golf at TPC Sawgrass when he conceived the Junior Players.
"What if we could capture the best junior golfers and mirror the PGA Tour experience – give them a caddie, a spot in the locker room, a TaylorMade equipment truck to fine-tune their wrenches, the exact same tee and hole locations as the Players – and make it their most memorable experience in junior golf?" he said, recalling his thinking.
It's become a Labor Day weekend tradition and a carrot – much like the aspirational nature of reaching the finals of Drive, Chip and Putt at Augusta National – that pushes youngsters to keep striving. Jacksonville's own Bud Cauley became the first of what now are 18 golfers – including major champions Spieth, Thomas and Brooks Koepka – to play in the Junior Players and the big-boy version on the PGA Tour. That number will continue to grow. In August, seven of the 25 graduates of the Web.com Tour, including Sam Burns and Cameron Champ, took dead aim at the famed 17th island green as juniors.
One of the coolest developments in recent years is the way that male and female touring pros – 26 past and present, by my count – have attached their names to AJGA events. Some of the players, such as Spieth, Thomas, Daniel Berger, Ollie Schniederjans and Alison Lee, did so just a few years removed from playing in AJGA events. Spieth, for one, turned professional in 2012, became the second youngest to win the Masters, in 2015, and already has hosted the fifth annual Under Armour Jordan Spieth Championship in Austin, Texas, in June.
For many of the pros, this is more than a ceremonial role. Sergio Garcia flies players to the U.S. from his native Spain, and Annika Sorenstam is ever-present, giving personalized instructions and tips. Each year during Spieth's clinic, he challenges four juniors in the field to a closest-to-the-hole competition. The three-time major winner takes it in stride that he never has won the competition. This year, one of the juniors stuck it to 6 inches from 114 yards away.
An alphabet soup of tours has spawned to satisfy the next Tigers and Annikas of the world, with the AJGA at the top of the food chain. Its white, plastic bag tag with a competitor's name and year of graduation is the ultimate badge of honor. And yet for all the new circuits and tournament opportunities emerging, wait lists still abound.
The competition to play there is fierce, and it isn't cheap at any level. (The AJGA and other tours offer a financial-assistance program. Smylie Kaufman applied for an ACE grant after his father lost his job during the Great Recession and became the first recipient to win a PGA Tour event, in 2015. "It was all I could ever ask for," he said of receiving the AJGA's financial support.)
Travis Vick of Houston, class of 2019, joins a winners’ list that includes the likes of Morgan Hoffmann, Bobby Wyatt, Robby Shelton and Sam Horsfield (scores). It won't be long before one of the champions of the Junior Players claims the crystal that goes to the winner of the Players and completes the double. When I made this audacious claim to Hamblin, he smiled and didn't even look at me like I had three heads.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak