Youth is served at Torrey Pines' Junior World

Monday December 8th, 2008
Phil Mickelson won one Junior World title.
San Diego Junior Golf Association

One of the most important golf tournaments in the world was born in a garage on Temecula Street in San Diego.

This was at the home of Lou Smith, a patriarch of the local golf scene, who along with two other ambitious boosters, Norrie West and John Brown, dreamed up the Junior World Golf Championships, conceived as the first junior event with an international field. It was an idea almost nobody believed would work.

"I sent a letter to Joe Dey of the USGA explaining what we wanted to do, and he wrote back saying we were crazy," says West, the last living founder, still spry at 91. "He said if it was possible, they would have already done it!"

But what Dey couldn't have known was the level of commitment among the hearty band of believers who congregated in Smith's three-car garage, which became a riot of folding tables, file cabinets, metal shelving and typewriters.

For the inaugural Junior World, played in 1968 at Torrey Pines and other San Diego area courses, about 8,000 invitations were blindly mailed to almost every course in the country and any foreign golf club for which an address could be obtained.

Joan Smith, Lou's daughter-in-law, spent weeks typing every single mailing label, working for the princely sum of 50 cents an hour.

"All those little labels are the reason I have to wear glasses now," Joan, 77, says with a giggle.

From these humble beginnings the Junior World quickly matured into junior golf's most far-reaching tournament, launching the careers of numerous superstars.

Tiger Woods and Lorena Ochoa built their first legacies at the Junior World, at which Woods won a record six titles and Ochoa took five. It is where Africans such as Nick Price, Ernie Els and Trevor Immelman became convinced that they could compete on a world stage, and where such overlooked talents as Corey Pavin and Adam Scott earned crucial college scholarships.

"Back then you circled it on your calendar like you do the Masters now," says five-time PGA Tour winner Billy Mayfair, a Junior World champ in 1976 (9-10 age group) and '79 (11-12).

The Junior World's prestige has only grown even as the junior golf circuit has become cluttered with a vast array of tournaments.

"If you win it, you're the best junior in the world at that time," says 20-year-old Jason Day, the hotshot PGA Tour rookie by way of Australia who won the 15-17 division in 2004.

The cachet is due to Torrey Pines's reputation and the glittering roll call of past champions. The 1984 tournament is a prime example of how the Junior World has identified future greatness. Victories by Joan Pitcock (15-17 group) and Leta Lindley (11-12) foreshadowed long careers on the LPGA tour.

On the boys' side, Eldrick Woods took his first Junior World title, mastering the 9-10 division; David Toms won the 15-17s; and the 13-14 division featured a dogfight between Theodore Ernest Els of Johannesburg, South Africa, and hometown hero Philip Mickelson.

"It was a pretty good match; we were both playing well," Phil says a quarter century later. Ernie prevailed by a shot, a reputation- making performance on both sides of the globe.

"When he won, it was certainly a big deal nationally and a big deal for me as well," says Els's countryman Immelman, who was 4 1/2 at the time and just being introduced to the game by his brother, Mark, a contemporary of Els's. "I always looked to Ernie in everything I did, and so competing in the Junior World became a goal of mine."

Beginning in 1994 Immelman would play in four of them, three times finishing in the top five of his age group. That was the latest link in the southern African chain, given that in '74 Nicholas Price of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had prevailed in the 15-17 division, a victory Els had heard about throughout his golfing adolescence.

Says Price, "None of us knew how good we were. We had no idea. Where I grew up, there were probably 15 or 20 kids who could play to a four handicap or less. I get to Torrey, there are 120 scratch handicaps swinging on the range. It was absolutely mind-boggling."

The influence of the Junior World was viral, spreading from player to player and country to country. The first edition, in '68, was basically a very good regional tournament featuring only six nations. Seven of the eight age-group winners were from the San Diego area. The next year Dale Hayes of South Africa won the boys' 15-17 division, while a Florida girl, Sharon Lang, prevailed in the 9-10 age group. From there, West knew how to spread the word.

"For whatever reason the Philippines had very strong representation in the early years," says West, "so I wrote a letter to the Japanese Golf Federation telling them all about that. Soon enough the Japanese players started coming."

By its 10th anniversary the Junior World was attracting players from some three dozen countries, and it was about that time that the USGA's Dey wrote West a letter apologizing for having been so skeptical. This year's tournament, to be played July 15-18, will feature 1,050 players in six age groups (beginning with the 6-and-unders) each for boys and girls from at least 52 countries and 45 U.S. states.

The Junior World's diversity has always been a defining trait but so too has its sense of place. From the beginning Torrey Pines has hosted the 15-17 division, with boys on the South course and girls taking over the North.

"As a kid, that was all the golf course you could handle," says Toms, the 2001 PGA champion. "It was a thrill to play there, knowing it was a PGA Tour venue."

Other age groups play at other courses — this year there will be eight venues, public and private.

The courses donate their facilities (and in the old days, they provided free food too). The tournament's initial operating budget through the San Diego Junior Golf Association was around $15,000. In recognition of the steep travel expenses incurred by many players, the entry fee for years was a mere $1, and it's still low today, ranging from $125 for the youngsters to $240 for the 15-17 group. (The golf federation in a player's home country often helps defray the costs.)

The tradition of volunteerism that began in Lou Smith's garage continues. For many years players were hosted in private homes, leading to some lasting relationships, and the large corps of helpers who came out every year allowed the Junior World to enjoy all the trimmings, such as walking scorers and marshals, which back in the day were highly unusual at a junior event.

According to tournament lore Jackie Nicklaus went home after his first time playing the Junior World and raved to his dad, Jack, that it was conducted just like a pro event.

Since the Junior World is a labor of love for so many, the tournament has "a nice family atmosphere," according to Mayfair, and the vibe is distinctly Southern California mellow. Mayfair, who grew up in Phoenix, treasures an old photo of himself competing in the World in which he is wearing surfer shorts and a bucket hat.

"I look like I just came from the beach," he says.

However relaxed the atmosphere, the tournament was serious business for many players. In 1977 Pavin arrived having just graduated from Oxnard (Calif.) High and still searching for a place to play college golf. After he prevailed at Torrey, he was offered a scholarship to UCLA.

"That was very important to my career," says Pavin, the 1995 U.S. Open champion.

Future six-time Tour winner Scott, visiting from Australia, was similarly spotted and wound up at UNLV.

Sometimes the discovery comes from within. Anthony Kim, 22, has had a breakthrough year on the PGA Tour, but to hear him tell it, his career really began when he won the 15-17 age group at the 2001 Junior World.

"I feel as if it changed my life because from that point on I realized this is what I wanted to do," says Kim. "It was a huge deal."

Woods began his typically legendary Junior World career in 1982, when he was six, finishing eighth out of 150 players in the 9-10 division. All seven kids who placed ahead of him were 10. Two years later he won the 9-10 division, then defended the title in '85. In '88 he took the 11-12s, and then in '89 and '90 he double-dipped in the 13-14s. In '91 he won the 15-17s at Torrey Pines.

Mickelson, who now resides about 15 minutes from Torrey, will be the coheadliner at the Open. He has won three Buicks, but his Junior World record is proof that playing a home game does not always bring out Phil's best.

A perennial favorite, he won only one Junior World title, in the 9-10 division in 1980. No doubt he was trying a little too hard.

"There is a lot of itchiness to win this one," a 17-year-old Phil told The San Diego Union-Tribune on the eve of the '87 World.

But Torrey Pines is not immune to kismet. For decades Betty Stadler was one of the dedicated volunteers in Lou Smith's garage and for the San Diego Junior Golf Association as a whole. In 1970 her son Craig won the Junior World's 15-17 division (12 years later he'd win the Masters), and 27 years later her grandson Kevin duplicated the feat, seven years before he'd play on Tour.

"We were all pleased as punch for Betty," says Joan Smith.

For West the coming Open, with a field full of Junior World alums, has left him more nostalgic than usual.

"I feel as if it's all come full circle," he says. "I'm not sure any of us knew how big this thing was going to get, but it feels wonderful to have made a contribution to golf."

And to golfers. The Junior World is more global than ever — in recent years winners have come from Colombia, India, Japan, Peru, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand — and for many of the competitors a trip to the tournament is their first exposure to the U.S.

The Junior World long ago moved into spiffy new offices, and a paid staff of four looks after all the details, while title sponsor Callaway foots most of the bills, but one thing that will never change is the impact the tournament can have on a young, ambitious golfer.

Thirty-four years later Price still gets a little emotional reliving the experience. The 1974 tournament was his first time leaving Africa, and his mother, Wendy, shared in the adventure. Their host family showed them all of the sights, including a Padres game.

"It was the week of a lifetime," says Price. "I was in awe of everything."

On the long journey home his oversized trophy took up a seat between Nick and Wendy on various airplanes.

Price would go on to win 42 professional events, but it is the Junior World trophy that has pride of place at his mother's house in England. He sighs: "She says she'll give it back to me — someday."

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