There has been at least one call over the radio in Stephen Hamblin’s career that he’ll never forget.
Years ago, Hamblin, executive director of the American Junior Golf Association, recalls when players removed various items from their condos while competing at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida, and placed them around the golf course. Hamblin will never forget the ironing board, complete with the iron, standing on the putting green and the clothes dryer stuck in a bunker.
“The call came across from a person setting up the golf course, ‘Hey, is a dryer a loose impediment or a (temporary moveable obstruction)?’” he remembered.
This has been Hamblin’s career in junior golf, a corner of the game uniquely suited for, well, fun. The AJGA’s mission statement extends past simply developing high-level golfers. It’s about overall development, and fun is key.
Around AJGA competitions, there are care-for-the-course parties, long-drive contests and banquets. Players write thank you notes, but also play speed golf, throw water balloons and engage in dry heaving contests (a shot over water with the threat of push-ups) at a tournament in Arizona.
“When you would watch kids on the practice putting green, they’re not putting that much, they’re just kind of hanging out,” Hamblin said. That inspired the concept of social events.
Hamblin often goes back to something Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, told him when Tiger played the AJGA circuit in the early 1990s.
“I remember when Tiger got off the golf course, he never went to the range and beat balls afterward,” Hamblin said. “He’d go play ping pong and he’d play for hours and Earl’s comment was, he just grinded for four and a half hours and competed in a stressful environment, now it’s his time to be a kid.’”
Chief among the details that allowed the AJGA to chart a successful return to competition in 2020 amid a pandemic was a limited on-site presence. Tournament fields and on-site spectators were reduced. Normal social gatherings weren’t practical this year amid safety concerns, but social media allowed AJGA staff members to preserve some of the fun.
Communications assistant Dana Brown learned the AJGA ropes as an intern in 2019, so she knew how much of the AJGA’s DNA was in the social aspect when she returned this summer for a second AJGA stint.
“They’re there to play a golf tournament but so much of what I think it great about the AJGA is our juniors become friends with each other,” she said.
Adding TikTok, a video-sharing social network, helped staff engage with players more than anything else.
— AJGA (@AJGAGolf) September 7, 2020
Teams of twentysomething interns were challenged to post at least one TikTok video from each event. There are swing videos and trophy shots on the AJGA’s social media platforms, which includes Twitter and Instagram, but there are also one-offs like a video of an AJGA player using a putter to play an entire par 5. It was the first to go viral mid-summer with over 100,000 views, but other such videos have since exceeded that.
Communications intern Sadie Gruntmeir only knows what it’s like to work for the AJGA in a post-COVID world, which has elevated the importance of social media.
“It did make it more important to me that we were showcasing the juniors as best as possible on Instagram,” Gruntmeir said. “We can’t have as many people here and we also can’t have coaches out here watching the juniors.”
Gruntmeir and fellow communications intern Kevin Kennedy master-minded a “This is SportsCenter” parody. The two filmed various scenes during play and pumped in crowd sounds in unexpected ways: wild cheers for a missed birdie putt, laughter while a player searches for his ball in the woods and sudden applause that spooked one player so much he tossed a full Coca-Cola can over his shoulder.
“We spun it with the times as far as, there’s not a lot of spectators out, there’s not a lot of crowd noise that kids are used to,” Kennedy said.
Players are more than willing to participate.
“The more they knew us, the more they were comfortable with being in a video,” Kennedy said. “We found success walking up to a random group of kids and saying, here’s our idea, let’s do this.”
Long after Lauryn Nguyen, 17, has stopped playing AJGA events, she’ll remember things like that – and the GolfBoards. The memory of so many kids zooming around Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona, on the motorized, single-rider golf-mobiles at a past AJGA event (pre-COVID) always makes her laugh.
Nguyen will also remember the people, too – from opponents to the AJGA staff who met the challenge of keeping the summer of 2020 light-hearted.
“It was always so fun when I’m stopped during a practice round by an intern and asked if I could do a small video,” she said. “…Moments like those make me smile a lot.”
This story appeared in Issue 4 of Golfweek magazine.