The AJGA: Where Junior Golfers, Like Spieth, Rise and Thrive
By Stephanie Wei under General

Damon Hack wrote an excellent story on 16-year-old Jordan Spieth, who made big headlines when he placed T16 at the Byron Nelson Championship a few weeks ago, and the role the AJGA plays in preparing teens for the college and pro ranks.

I enjoyed the article because, well, Damon is an excellent writer who always captures his subject very well and Spieth is a fascinating story, but I particularly liked it because it reminded me of the fond memories I had playing in the AJGA, which helped me receive college scholarship offers (even though I turned them down for Yale eventually). Most important, it gave me a glimpse of what touring life had the potential to be like — which was one I didn’t want despite the great times.

Some highlights from Damon’s article:

It’s the night before the Thunderbird International Junior, the big kahuna of the American Junior Golf Association season, and Jordan Spieth is in a banquet hall, hopping up and down on his right leg. “Simon says, ‘Pat your head,’ ” shouts one of the tournament emcees, and the 16-year-old Spieth and 77 other junior golfers are hopping and patting, hopping and patting, the boys decked out in orange shirts, the girls in pink.

I loved the activities the AJGA organized when I played. In fact, the horserace at the 2000 (or maybe 2001?) AJGA Trophy Lake Championship remains one of my favorite golfing memories. Andres Gonzales, who played at UNLV and now competes on the mini-tours, Paige Mackenzie, Amy Wang and I formed a team called “Andres and the Pussy Cats.” We thought up a few others, but let’s just say they weren’t family friendly. I don’t think we did very well, but we sure had way too much fun. Andres even kept our team ball with “Andres and the Pussy Cats” written on it with a sharpie marker — he found it as he was rummaging through his garage last summer.
Aside from yielding fun, the AJGA ingrains important etiquette lessons in junior golfers:

The AJGA also addresses an issue the pros could especially learn from the kids. The organization is a stickler for maintaining a good pace of play, with timing stations placed on every third hole and golfers given a red card if their group falls out of position. The first red card is a warning. If the golfers are still out of position by the next timing station, a second red card is handed out, and each player in the group is assessed a one-shot penalty.

“We averaged four-and-a-half hours for 85 tournaments, and college golf is played in five-and-a-half hours,” says Stephen Hamblin, the executive director of the AJGA. “We have the best pace-of-play program of any organization in the world.” Hamblin says about 1,500 red cards were issued last year but fewer than 30 penalty shots were assessed.

I think the card thing is new, but the AJGA was always tough on pace of play, never hesitating to put groups on the clock. I guess it never stuck with some of the pros, though. Something else the organization did for girls — the infamous dollar rule. There were strict regulations for the length of our shorts (I guess, skorts now, too), where they had to be long enough so that when we kneeled down, the space between the bottom of our shorts and our kneecap didn’t exceed the length of a dollar-bill. If your shorts looked too short, you’d be forced to do the test in front of officials on the first tee. And if you didn’t pass, you better have a spare pair or hope the pro shop had some in your size.

That test definitely never translated to the LPGA Tour. Even back then. I remember hearing mumblings like, “Has anyone seen the length of Grace Park’s shorts?” Lucky for me, I never failed the dollar-bill test, even though I cut it close sometimes. My friends always grumbled because they felt I got away with wearing shorts that were shorter since I was small. Whatever, guys! I practiced the dollar-bill test every night before. And hey, at least I got some sort of handicap for being 5’2”!

Anyway! Back to the article.

The primary mission of the AJGA is to set the juniors on a path for obtaining college scholarships, and that is another area of strength. About 35 college coaches, dressed in bright school garb, showed up for the first round of the Thunderbird to scout players representing 15 countries.

“It’s not as if you come here and it’s no big deal,” says Spieth, who has committed to attend Texas. “It’s not like, and I hate to say it, a high school tournament, no disrespect to high school golf. Without the AJGA it would be very difficult for the college coaches to find us. Every junior golfer around the country knows about the AJGA and knows that’s the way to get to college. And the way to get beyond college.”

Spieth couldn’t have said it more tactfully. With all due respect to high school golf, that’s not where most of us stepped up our games or looked to receive the attention from national college coaches. Back in my day (more than a decade ago!), we wrote letters to coaches telling them our schedules for the summer, hoping they would come watch us play if the event was in the area. I remember I’d keep my eye out, scoping the galleries for coaches I’d written to (they were easy to spot because they’d be decked out in their university’s gear). Once, I chunked a six-iron into the water in front of at least a handful of coaches, including the UCLA one. Timely.

I’m still grateful to the AJGA for providing me with the opportunities to compete on the highest junior level. And “touring” those events gave me a glimpse of what life as a professional would look like, which helped me make important decisions down the line. When I played, we received tournament towels upon checking-in, I still use them. Right now, the one from the 2001 Langdon Farms Junior Classic is hanging from my bag.

So, thanks, AJGA for, well, everything.