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We Are The Fifty aims to elevate junior golf in U.S.

Hammock Beach Ocean Course 17th green
The 17th hole (foreground) at Hammock Beach Resort’s Ocean Course, with the Atlantic Ocean as the backdrop, in Palm Coast, Fla.

Inaugural national tournament celebrates junior champions from 50 states by bringing them together in a season unlike any other

On a recent unseasonably warm spring day, Ari Flaisher trekked his way along Golf House Road, walking parallel to Merion (Pa.) Golf Club’s back nine while speaking exuberantly about a new endeavor. The We Are The Fifty (WAT50) founder lucidly described a new junior golf tournament that he hopes catches on annually.

“I felt as though golf was missing an element that other sports in the industries – if you think of the pageant industry – have capitalized on,” he said. “It’s about 50 states coming together as one entity in a different type of national championship that we currently don’t have in golf at this level.”

We Are The Fifty founder Ari Flaisher and family
Ari Flaisher (from left), founder of We Are The Fifty, with his family: wife Jen, son Jonah and daughter Libby

Other junior sports offer all-star games or awards for top players from each state. But nothing of this magnitude in golf.

Bringing together the current 50 overall state junior champions, the We Are The Fifty tournament recently was rescheduled for Sept. 18-20 at Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa in Palm Coast, Fla., due to the coronavirus pandemic. It originally had been scheduled for June 11-13.

The 36-hole format, featuring competitions for boys and girls 16 and older, will serve as a blueprint for all 50 states to be recognized. Moreover, WAT50 also plans on developing a new championship category for players 15 and younger who won either their state title, their local Junior PGA title, or placed highest in an overall state junior championship.

On premise alone, Flaisher’s brainchild isn’t cloying or just another staid attempt to cash in on junior golf’s growth. Rather, Flaisher desires showcasing some of junior golf’s champions in a convivial setting. Nothing wrong with that, considering there are so many high-stakes competitions.

Since 1995, according to a National Golf Foundation report, junior-golf participation increased exponentially – especially among females – until 2016, when the numbers plateaued. There are roughly 2.9 million junior golfers, and they represent about 12 percent of U.S. golfers, according to the NGF. In the past four years, competition, theoretically, strengthened with more inclusivity. So as difficult as it is to win any event, Flaisher sees the new tournament as a celebration of hard work paying off.

Although the tournament requires a $295 entrance fee, he is bankrolling it himself. “I am the seed money. I am the angel investor,” said a laughing Flaisher, 47, who now lives in Pennsylvania and runs the Delaware County (Delco) Junior Golf Championship.

“We have a for-profit LLC and a parallel nonprofit set up, as well, so when there are funds to carve off, we can deploy them around the country through the nonprofit. The goal is to one day make enough money through the events to share the wealth, so to speak.

“The WAT50 Foundation aims to give back by providing grant money to state and regional golf associations around the country for the purpose of supporting their golf participation and sustainability programs. We want to participate in the effort to strengthen the game, its players, and the environment that provides golfers its clean and green playgrounds.”

The idea was borne out of Flaisher’s days studying for a master’s degree in business administration at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., while also being involved in the Florida Open, the Dixie Amateur and a Champions Tour event, to name a few. Utilizing MBA program tenants – to think globally about an overarching concept that could provide a solution – he set his sights on golf.

The WAT50, with a staff of seven, has been burning phone lines talking with state associations, the PGA of America and even the American Junior Golf Association. Fifty-nine state and regional golf associations (Allied Golf Associations) partner with the U.S. Golf Association. Flaisher said their feedback has been positive, mainly because the WAT50 tournament serves as another reward.

This year, the WAT50 could be in a position to stand out among a junior-tournament field diminished by the coronavirus pandemic. The USGA and Western Golf Association recently canceled their boys and girls national championships, and the AJGA and other organizations have reduced their schedules.

In terms of the field, the WAT50 also has been working closely with the states to ensure that they aren’t penalized if a champion is unable to make it or declines an invitation. If that happens, the WAT50 then would open it up to a group of players. For instance, Michigan presented such a scenario when its girls champion declined. It prompted the WAT50 to send out a generic invitation to a group of players who competed to ensure that Michigan will have a representative.

“If second place couldn’t make it, it would be time-consuming and too cumbersome to go to third and fourth and so on,” Flaisher said.

Mizuno Golf, the tournament’s presenting sponsor, plans to host a club demonstration and skills clinic at Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa.

“Our passion and our brand mantra have always been a commitment to the advancement of sport,” said Jeremy Galbreth, director of golf at Mizuno USA. “When the opportunity to be a part of this event presented itself, we knew our brand would be a perfect fit to help elevate the experience for these young athletes.”

As the idea gained traction, Flaisher naturally sought a host course. The WAT50 used a third-party travel vendor to find interested sites in Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida and Texas. Flaisher visited Hammock Beach last August. Ultimately, the resort received the nod for various reasons. It had hosted the 2019 Florida Open and features two championship courses – Ocean, designed by Jack Nicklaus, and Conservatory, by Tom Watson – settled near the Atlantic Ocean. Additionally, proximity to Daytona Beach, Jacksonville and Orlando played a factor.

“Ultimately what it came down to was they really wanted us as much as we wanted them,” Flaisher said. “We like the idea of a family-inclusive tournament opportunity for the players, where their families can come and experience the resort and the Atlantic Ocean.”

Entering a competitive junior-golf market hasn’t been lost on Flaisher. The WAT50’s goal isn’t to alienate any player, association or entity. It’s just the opposite. So far, he said most of industry feedback has been positive. He also understands some have taken a wait-and-see stance.

“Being the new kid on the block, we want everyone to hear from us directly so they can learn about us, how we’re approaching this and how we want to fit in,” he said.

“With some, I understand it’s a measured approach, to make sure we’re in it for the right reasons and we’re doing it for the players and not pushing people around or out. We’re trying to be an inclusive event. We care about rolling out and celebrating state champions.”

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