Phil Mickelson…. Jordan Spieth… Tiger Woods… Rickie Fowler… Paula Creamer… Morgan Pressel…. and Nashville, Tenn.
One of these may seem to be out of place in this list, but Nashville and the top names in golf have a lot more in common than many know. Followers of professional golf in the Nashville area certainly know about the PGA TOUR success of local product and Vanderbilt alum Brandt Snedeker, who took home the PGA TOUR’s $10 million FedEx Cup in 2012 and came just one stroke short claiming his eighth win on Tour in last week’s Crowne Plaze Invitational at Colonial.
What many are not aware of though is that before players like Snedeker, Mickelson, Woods and so many more became household names, they honed their competitive games as youths with the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA).
The AJGA has been called the PGA TOUR of junior golf by some as it is the most competitive golf tour for junior golfers in the nation and one of the most respected in the world. It has also been where many of the professional golf stars walking the fairways each week got their start.
While each state has its own junior golf programs like the Tennessee Golf Foundation’s Sneds Tour, which is sponsored by Snedeker, they each focus on providing an opportunity for competitive junior golf to be played within their individual states. Those state tours typically consist of mainly of one day, or two day tournaments.
The AJGA is a truly national tour, compiling the top junior golf talent from across the nation to compete against one another, in three and four round tournaments mimicking those played on the professional level, that also include practice rounds and Junior-Armature rounds to raise money for local junior golf organizations.
Nashville has become an important leg of the AJGA’s tour and the Toyota Music City Junior will be played May 31-June 4 at Westhaven Golf Club in Franklin. With participants from over 15 states in this year’s field, the tournament is setting up to be one of the most diverse and competitive to date. Participants gain entry into the tournament either through points accumulated at other AJGA tournaments and prominent junior golf events, or through a qualifying round in which eight entries into the field will be awarded. If that model sounds familiar, it is very similar to the PGA TOUR tournament qualifying system.
Emulating the professional ranks not only lets the young participants feel as though they are playing on the big stage like their golf heroes, but it also prepares them for the rigors or playing golf in college and even professionally.
Snedeker credits much of his preparedness for professional golf to his days playing AJGA tournaments saying, “It was great to kind of get a sense of what professional golf was going to be like. A lot of traveling, three and four round events, practice rounds, how to prepare and how to be ready for an event when it came time to tee it up.”
Conducting national junior golf tournaments since 1978, the AJGA has developed a mission much larger than just providing an opportunity for junior golfers to compete against each other. The full mission of the AJGA is to dedicate itself to the overall growth and development of young men and women who aspire to earn college golf scholarships through competitive golf. While the tough competition on the course plays a large role in what the AJGA does, it also provides an opportunity for each of its members to been seen by college golf coaches all over the country. In the last 10 years over 6,000 AJGA members have signed college golf scholarships, and over 500 are already committed in 2015.
Additionally, when juniors participate in an AJGA tournament they do much more than just play golf to get exposure to college coaches. They also participate in “Care for the Course” parties that teach them how to leave the golf course in better condition than they found it each time they play, have the opportunity to learn the rules of golf more thoroughly with rules officials and get to participate in community service to help make a difference in every city that the AJGA hosts a tournament.
After taking last year off, as Nashville hosted the AJGA’s prestigious Rolex Tournament of Champions, this year’s Toyota Music City Junior will be the fourth playing of this Nashville tournament that was first added to the AJGA schedule in 2010. In what is always a competitive field of participants, the local talent in the Middle Tennessee area has become a real contender on the AJGA circuit, especially in the local tournament which was won by a pair of Tennessee natives in 2013. With history as an indicator, this year’s field stands to be just as competitive and there will be a number of local names looking to hoist the crystal trophy after the final putt drops.
Winning at the Toyota Music City Junior has not been easy, but those previous champions have gone ne to experience tremendous success at the collegiate level as well. On the boy’s side of the tournament, 2013 champion Dawson Armstrong of Brentwood just completed his first year at Lipscomb and was the only freshman included in Golfweek Magazine’s mid-season All-Atlantic Sun team. He claimed medalist honors at the Kenny Perry Invite and was named the A-Sun Freshman of the Year.
Ben Reeves, of Knoxville, lifted the Music City Junior trophy in 2012 and is now a junior at The University of Tennessee at Martin where he was the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and has twice been named an All-OVC selection. Zack Jaworski, 2011 champion, is a junior at Vanderbilt, turning in a number of top 10 finishes for the Commodores; while inaugural champion Chandler Fischer went on to play collegiate golf at Ole Miss.
On the girl’s side, each of the previous champions has gone on to play collegiately at Southeastern Conference schools. Teleri Hughes of Knoxville, the 2013 champion, is a sophomore with the Tennessee Lady Vols, while 2012 champion Sophia Schubert is a freshman at Auburn. Winners from 2010 and 2011, Janie Jackson and Emma Talley, both play for Alabama which won the NCAA Championship in 2013 – which was played at The Legends Club in Franklin. Additionally, Talley also won the 2013 U.S. Amateur and recently captured the 2015 NCAA Individual Championship.
“The amount of talent that is coming out of [Tennessee] now is phenomenal,” said AJGA Southeast Regional Director Ryan Tahara. “It’s really neat to see, and I think it has a lot to do with guys like Brandt Snedeker and Scott Stallings and their investment into the game of golf and growing it on the junior level.”
That growth in Tennessee junior golf is part of what makes Nashville an attractive stop on the AJGA’s schedule each year. In addition to the number of highly talented junior golfers in the area, Tahara added that, “Nashville is a great community that has plenty of great golf courses in the area, so it is a no brainer for us to bring a tournament to Nashville every year.”
The experience has been beneficial for the junior golfers as well, both on the course competitively and socially as Reeves looks back and notes.
“As I was growing up, junior golf was very big for me. It gave me a chance to compete and meet a lot of the other junior golfers in the region, while also exposing me to the rigors of the game. It really was a special time and a blessing to have the wins as a junior too, because it gave me confidence while now playing college tournaments to know I’ve been there before.”
At an AJGA Tournament, the participants aren’t the only extremely talented people you will see. The AJGA is also home to one of the hardest working staff of professionals you’ll see, and one of the most rigorous internship programs in the country. Each AJGA tournament is staffed by only a few full time employees along with a team of traveling interns that spend the entire summer going city-to-city around the country, assuring that every tournament is treated as the most important of the summer to provide participants and guests the best experience possible. When I, the author of this story, was an AJGA intern back in 2006, I traveled over 10,000 miles and visited over 21 states in only a four month span.
The AJGA’s strenuous schedule and commitment to perfection in every aspect have made their staff and internship alumni very attractive to future employers. Alumni have gone on to have tremendous success and influence in the golf world, the college and sports industry and beyond. The PGA TOUR, LPGA Tour, USGA and littered with AJGA alumni running tournaments, directing the communications and a wide variety of other jobs to put.
Alexis Witman, Communications Coordinator for the Nashville Predators, began her career with the AJGA as an intern and later joined the full-time staff.
“The AJGA does many, many things well, and one of those things is their internship experience,” she noted. “Both communications and operations interns are presented with the opportunities and given the responsibilities that make a lasting impression and give experience that is invaluable these days. I’m a firm believer that I wouldn’t be where I am professionally without the time I spent as both a member of the AJGA’s internship staff and as a member of the full-time communications staff.”
As the first week in June rolls around, there will be a lot of options of fun things to do in and around Nashville, but none will give you the opportunity to see the next generation of golfers up close like the AJGA’s Toyota Music City Junior will. If you do go, set your expectations high. The play on the course will be amazing and the environment produced by the staff will be reminiscent of a professional tour stop.