The state of junior golf in Tennessee: Even better than you thought
Over the last 18 months, there is one thing that bonds some remarkable feats – four PGA TOUR wins, the FedEx Cup championship, a Ryder Cup appearance, the Nationwide Tour money title, the US Amateur title, and sinking the winning putt to seal an NCAA championship. That bond is that each of these monumental accomplishments in the game of golf has been achieved by alumni of the Tennessee Junior golf programs put on by the Tennessee Golf Foundation (TGF), which is located at Golf House Tennessee in Franklin, Tenn.
Nashville native and Vanderbilt graduate Brandt Snedeker captured multiple PGA TOUR wins en route to his 2012 FedEx Cup-winning season, which earned him a spot on the prestigious USA Ryder Cup team. He got his start playing golf on Nashville’s municipal courses and on the then-named Vince Gill Junior Golf Tour. Scott Stallings, a Knoxville, Tenn. native and Tennessee Tech graduate, collected his second career PGA TOUR win in 2012. In addition, Memphis native Casey Wittenberg, who played collegiately at golf powerhouse Oklahoma State, captured the Nationwide Tour’s money title in 2012, which earned him fully-exempt status for the 2013 PGA TOUR schedule. As with Snedeker, both Stallings and Wittenberg got their competitive golf starts with the Vince Gill Junior Golf Tour.
The performances of these recent Tennessee junior golf alumni alone show that the junior golf programs in Tennessee have produced some of the top talent in the country. Much of that credit goes to the work of the TGF and what it does to support junior golf, both locally and across the entire state.Hendersonville native and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga standout Steven Fox captured the 2012 US Amateur title, which is the national championship for all amateur players of all ages in the country, before beginning a professional golf career in August 2013. He too spent his early years in the game playing on the junior tours in Tennessee, as did current LPGA player Brooke Pancake, who grew up in the Chattanooga area and sank the winning putt on the final hole of 2012’s NCAA Tournament at the Vanderbilt Legends Club to seal the national championship for the University of Alabama.
With a mission to “promote golf and its life enhancing values with an emphasis on teaching youth and the disadvantaged” at its core, the TGF has been at work since 1991 strengthening the development of junior golf in Tennessee and has become a model for other states. It provides a competitive junior tour – the Toyota TGA Junior Tour – which had a record-setting 1,518 members in 2012. This bumper crop of members also broke the record for the number of competitive rounds played in 2012, with over 7,400 completed. As 2013 draws to a close, it is expected that this year’s participation numbers will set an even higher benchmark.
In addition, the TGF also operates the Tennessee Middle School Golf Association, which is made up of over 130 middle school programs across the state. The TGF also conducts the Tennessee Junior Cup, which is a Ryder Cup-style event hosted by Stallings. In last year’s Tennessee Junior Cup, participants in the event were split into two teams – one captained by Stallings and the other by Snedeker, giving juniors the opportunity to spend time with local guys who have made it to the highest level.
“Back when I was growing up, Tennessee had one of the best junior golf programs in the country, and I think it has only gotten better since,” said Snedeker of junior golf in Tennessee. “Everyone at the Tennessee Golf Foundation has done a great job of really building the game of golf, and we keep putting out great players year after year, earning college scholarships and taking the great talent we have here and making it better.”
It isn’t just former players who are contributing to the success of junior golf in the state, either. One of the biggest advocates for the game is country music superstar Vince Gill. The Country Music and Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame member’s annual fundraising tournament “The Vinny” has helped raise money for the TGF and other junior golf organizations around the state for 21 years now.
Speaking about why he continues to support junior golf in the way he does, Gill said simply, “to continue to let juniors have an opportunity.” Steve McDonald, the TGF’s Director of Competitions said of Gill and his efforts that, “we wouldn’t be where we are without his generosity and willingness to help out. [The Vinny] is a huge factor in how we are able to operate all our different programs across the state.”
The TGF isn’t just providing kids in Tennessee with a way to play; they are also taking the opportunity to teach the game, its etiquette and how that translates to life. Over 600 junior tour players, parents and middle school coaches have taken part in the TGF’s rules clinics that emphasize the rules and etiquette of the game. The rules are also taught extensively during the TGA’s Junior Golf Academies, which are week-long camp experiences for juniors where they receive invaluable instruction and coaching from some of the top teaching pros and college coaches in the state.
The combination of the TGF’s teaching efforts and its efforts to promote high-level competition for junior golfers has college coaches across the nation taking notice, too. There are currently over 350 Tennessee junior golf alumni playing collegiately, with 150 of those at Division I institutions.
Ben Reeves, who was a decorated junior player, is now a sophomore member of the University of Tennessee at Martin’s golf team. He was the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year in 2012, and he credits his time playing junior golf with much of his success today.
“As I was growing up, junior golf was very big for me,” said Reeves. “I had access to the different tours that 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.”
While the pinnacle moments over the last 18 months have been a new high point of success for Tennessee’s former junior golfers, it has certainly not surprised those involved with junior golf around the country. Ryan Tahara is the Southeast Regional Director for the American Junior Golf Association, which is the top junior golf tour in the country and where many of the game’s top names got their competitive start. “Each year we continue to see the level of competition grow among junior golfers in Tennessee,” stated Tahara. “The players get better and better, and I think it has a lot to do with the success of fellow Tennesseans like Brandt Snedeker and Scott Stallings on the PGA TOUR.”
That success is evident when you look at the Junior Golf Scoreboard’s Competitive State Rankings and the number of national junior tours making stops in Tennessee. The Competitive State Rankings list the strongest junior golf stats overall by graduation class, and in each of those rankings all the way out to the future class of 2020, Tennessee ranks among the top 10 in the country.
National tours like the AJGA, International Junior Golf Tour and PGA Junior Series have all added stops in Tennessee in recent years. The AJGA has two tour stops in Tennessee – the Under Armour/Scott Stallings Championship presented by True Temper at TPC Southwind in Memphis and the Bridgestone Golf/Brandt Snedeker Music City Junior presented by Toyota at Richland Country Club. Both stops feature international fields of competitors, but, at the Music City Junior in particular, Tennesseans have been the ones to shine of late.
In the 2012 event, Reeves claimed the boy’s title before starting his collegiate career at UT Martin, while this year Brentwood’s Dawson Armstrong collected a two-stroke victory. Armstrong, who has verbally committed to play collegiately at Lipscomb University, also shined again on the national level when he notched a top-five finish at the Junior PGA Championships held at Trump National Golf Club in Washington, D.C. in August 2013. His performance on the national level has earned him a No. 23 ranking in the POLO golf rankings, which rank the top juniors in the country.
On the girl’s side of the Music City Junior, Tennessee junior golfers showed their proficiency as well. Sophia Schubert of Oak Ridge, Tenn. who has verbally committed to Auburn, took home the title in 2012. In this year’s event, she was one of five Tennesseans to finish among the top 10 of the national field. This year’s winner of the Music City Junior was Teleri Hughes of Knoxville, who will continue her golf career with the Lady Vols of Tennessee in 2014.
Nashville’s own Alexandra Farnsworth, who is ranked No. 40 in the POLO Golf Rankings and has verbally committed to play at Vanderbilt, won the 2013 Under Armour/Scott Stallings Championship at TPC Southwind in Memphis this year, while fellow Tennessean Graham Gosselin of Knoxville captured the boy’s title. With Tennesseans winning the titles in both tournaments, it marks the first time in AJGA history that Tennesseans have held the title in every AJGA national event in the state.
With the tremendous success Tennessee juniors are currently having in the state and on a national stage, it is easy to see that the state of junior golf is very good right now.
The folks at the TGF want it to keep getting better, though. McDonald said that the TGF will continue to grow in the future, adding more elite events, more tournaments and continue being a launching pad for juniors to play in the top events around the country.
Originally published in Sports & Entertainment Nashville, November 2013.