You could very well see the next Hunter Mahan, Phil Mickelson or Paula Creamer when the American Junior Golf Association’s Hale Irwin Colorado Junior tournament comes to CommonGround Golf Course in Aurora June 2-4.
Those professional stars and scores of others cut their competitive teeth on AJGA events. Founded in 1978, the Georgia-based organization annually conducts more than 100 tournaments for some 6,000 teenaged men and women across the country. How good is the competition? AJGA alumni comprise 75 percent of the past 32 NCAA Division I Men’s champions and 26 Division I Women’s champions.
“Every member of last year’s Ryder Cup team came through the AGJA,” boasts organization Co-founder and Chairman Jordan “Digger” Smith, the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame member after whom the AJGA has named its highest award. “And today we have 17 alumni sponsoring tournaments—including Jordan Spieth, Hunter Mahan, Stacy Lewis and Yani Tseng. They valued the experience of playing in our events so highly that they wanted to give back.”
The AJGA’s mission of developing “young men and women who aspire to earn college golf scholarships through competitive junior golf” dovetails perfectly with that of the Colorado Golf Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Colorado’s Allied Golf Associations that supports—among numerous golf organizations and youth-golf initiatives—the Hale Irwin Elite Player Program at CommonGround.
And so, as the Colorado golf community celebrates a Century of Golf this year, next month’s AJGA event represents a natural fit, reflecting an investment in the future of the game. “The whole goal of the Century of Golf is to make the biggest impact on the game,” says CGA Executive Director Ed Mate. “Hosting an AJGA event gives kids in Colorado a chance to shine and to see how they stack up against the kind of competition they’ll face in college.”
Josh Sieple of Castle Rock experienced that competition firsthand when he won the AJGA’s Aspen Junior Golf Classic in 2012, the last of the six years the annual event took place. Seiple, who had also won the qualifier, bested Cristian DiMarco—son of PGA Tour player Chris DiMarco—in a sudden-death playoff at Aspen Golf Club. The two now compete against each other collegiately: DiMarco plays for the University of Kentucky, Seiple at the University of Mississippi.
“Let me tell you how meaningful that win at Aspen was,” Josh’s father, John Sieple, says. “Before that, he had very few stars (the points awarded in AJGA events), and that win opened up all these other events to him. The next week at the Western Junior Invitational, a non-AJGA event in Florida, I was caddying for him. On the first tee, where normally there are eight to ten people watching, there were about 40 or 50. They followed him for nine holes. You don’t get that kind of exposure at state junior events.”
After watching the AJGA’s 2013 Junior Solheim Cup—which featured no Colorado girls on the winning U.S. team—at Inverness Golf Club, John Sieple felt so strongly about bringing a regular AJGA event back to Colorado that he contributed seed money to make it happen.
“The AJGA is the gold standard,” Sieple says. “And in order to put on an event of this caliber, you need adequate funding. I’m chairing the committee, and we’ve had tremendous support, especially for families who saw the benefit for their sons and daughters. We raised more than $55,000. To make it a sustainable event, however, we need corporate sponsorship. That’s one of the goals for this year and one we’ll work on for the future.”
The 54-hole no-cut Hale Irwin Junior will have total field of 96 players—all age 18 and under—with separate boys and girls divisions. The boys’ field projects to be roughly three times the size of the girls’. Players who have accumulated enough PBE (Performance Based Entry) stars through AJGA-recognized junior golf tournaments (including certain Colorado Junior Golf Association and Rocky Mountain Junior Golf Tour events) get priority and needed to apply by April 28. Boys can still qualify for one of eight spots, and girls for one of three, at the May 31 qualifier at CommonGround ($95-$120 entry). Junior-Am and practice rounds take place June 1.
The par-71 course will play at 7,088 yards for the boys and 6,206 for the girls. “I guarantee you the winning score will be under par,” Sieple says.
Another reason to have an AJGA event here is the $285 fee. “Not all families can afford to travel all over for tournaments, which gets very expensive,” says Sieple, who estimates half the field will come from Colorado. He also expects a strong contingent of Division I, II and III golf coaches from west of the Mississippi.
“The AJGA really is the PGA Tour for kids—the cream of the crop of junior golfers,” says University of Denver Men’s Golf Coach Erik Billinger, who competed in AJGA tournaments in the 1990s and signed two current freshmen, Chris Korte and Jake Kelley, after watching them play in AJGA events. “I’ll definitely be at CommonGround.”
A potential college scholarship is only one of the benefits. “One kid will come away with a victory and the rest will learn what they need to work on to get to the next level,” says Sieple. For the winners, that next level will be the HealthONE Colorado Open and HealthONE Colorado Women’s Open—both of which have given exemptions to the victors. Sieple predicts both will make the cut. One last thing: A threesome in the June 1 Junior-Am costs $1,200. Not a bad deal, considering that’s what it would have cost to play with Jordan Spieth just a couple years ago.
Tee It Up: Local funding for the Hale Irwin Junior runs through the Colorado Golf Foundation, which “exists to provide funding for Colorado-based golf organizations and programs that use golf to build important life skills and character, with an emphasis on instilling hard work and self-reliance in young people.” The CGF’s annual golf tournament takes place at CommonGround Golf Course on Thursday, May 28. Check-in is 6:30 a.m. for the 8 a.m. shotgun. Four-person teams compete in one gross/one net best ball. Lunch included. The cost: $200 per player; $800 per team; $1,500 for a team with a hole sponsorship. For more information, contact Ryan Smith at [email protected]
Colorado and the AJGA
• David Oraee of Greeley holds the national record for the largest margin of victory ever in an AJGA event. He won the 2009 AJGA Junior All-Star in Aspen by 18 strokes, shooting 16-under par for the three-day tournament.
• Leif Olson of Golden ranks fourth all-time in individual AJGA victories with six.
• Castle Rock’s Jordan “Digger” Smith became a lifelong advocate of the AJGA after his daughters, Shannon and Christine, competed in a 1978 event in Georgia. Now 80, the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame member remains the AJGA chairman and the inspiration behind its J. R. “Digger” Smith Award, which for 25 years annually honors individuals for longtime service and dedication to junior golf.
• Among the golf courses to host AJGA events are Aspen (1989-2002; 2007-2012), Eisenhower (1991), Flying Horse (2009), Fox Hill (2012), Legacy Ridge (1995-2000), Meridian (1986-1987) Pelican Lakes (2001), Saddleback (2002) and Walking Stick (2003). Inverness welcomed the Junior Solheim Cup in 2013; and in addition to hosting a tournament from 2003 to 2005, Hiwan hosted the 2006 Rolex Tournament of Champions and 2007
Rolex Girls Junior.
Jon Rizzi is Colorado AvidGolfer’s editor. To support the Hale Irwin Junior, send a check, made out to “COLORADO GOLF FOUNDATION” and earmarked “AJGA HALE IRWIN JUNIOR,” to Colorado Golf Foundation, 5990 Greenwood Plaza Blvd. Suite 102 Greenwood Village, CO 80111