Six degrees of Stephen
Not much in golf can’t be traced back to the AJGA and longtime leader Stephen Hamblin
July 30, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Stephen Hamblin has been the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) Executive Director for 35-plus years, so you expect him to have plenty of stories about some of the greatest players the game has ever seen. He does, and we’ll get to those momentarily. Tiger and Phil. Jordan and Justin. Rickie. Patrick. All of them cut their teeth on the country’s premier junior golf circuit.
But first, to underline just how long Hamblin has been at it, consider that he can tell you about the junior golf careers of players who are now, ahem, seniors.
“Steve (Stricker, the 12-time PGA TOUR winner turned PGA TOUR Champions pro) was not someone who you would have immediately picked out as a future star,” says Hamblin, who recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview at AJGA headquarters in Braselton, Georgia. “He just got a little bit better at every level. Matt Kuchar was the same way. That’s a good way to go.”
Hamblin’s fingerprints will be all over this week’s Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield Country Club. Brandt Snedeker (2018), Davis Love III (’92, ’06, ’15), Webb Simpson (2011), Sergio Garcia (2012) and Patrick Reed (2013) are some of the past champions who played the AJGA before they played the TOUR. That’s not unusual when it comes to players; you can find similar echoes of the AJGA up and down the FedExCup standings.
Now add the fact that Wyndham Tournament Director Mark Brazil used to work for Hamblin at the AJGA, and you truly begin to understand the man’s influence and reach.
Hamblin was 29 when he started in 1984. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. The AJGA had just 13 events. Now there are 120 in the United States and Canada, many hosted by AJGA standouts who have gone on to successful TOUR careers, from Jordan Spieth (in his hometown of Dallas) and Reed (Houston) to Stewart Cink, Scott Stallings, Brendan Steele and beyond.
The AJGA aims to give players a platform to be noticed for college scholarships, but many keep going all the way to the top. Hamblin sees them early in the journey, before life starts to get complicated. No FedExCup points, money, agents, endorsements, autographs.
Just – them.
Ask Hamblin for his favorite Tiger story, and he prefaces it with one of his worst career bogeys - his refusal to allow Woods to compete in the 15-17 age division when he was just 14. Woods and his father, Earl, who sat on the AJGA’s board, accepted it, but Hamblin rues the decision.
“It was a bad rule that’s since been changed,” he says.
He smiles, though, when he recalls playing with Woods at an AJGA event at Legacy Golf Club in Las Vegas. Art Sellinger, a two-time world long-drive champion (and AJGA alumnus), was set to tee off with each group, and Woods -- then 17 -- was intrigued.
“He wanted to know what hole Art was going to be on,” Hamblin says. “So I told him the 15th, a par 5. The whole front nine, he was relaxed, having fun, trying some different shots. But when we made the turn his demeanor changed, and by 12, 13, 14, he started to get very serious.”
Woods and Sellinger had met the year before at a Houston Astros baseball game, and as they stood on the 15th tee, Woods tried to get Sellinger to hit first.
“This is my show, Tiger,” replied Sellinger.
Like every other junior, Woods would go first, and get just one ball.
“I remember in Houston the year before,” Sellinger recalls. “It was Hamblin, myself, Tiger and Earl, we went to an Astros game, and it was a blast. We went into the radio booth and called a couple innings. But that day in Vegas, I’m telling you he looked right through me, and he spoke to me without words, with his eyes. He said, ‘I’m going to hit it right by you.’”
Weighing just about 140 pounds and wielding a TaylorMade metal wood with metal shaft, Woods closed his stance and hit a percussive sling-draw that started out right, by design. The ball took a huge, helping kick off of the bouncy, dormant grass, shot forward and left into the fairway, and stopped some 360 yards away. (It was later measured.)
“When I looked back at Art,” Hamblin says, laughing, “I could tell he was concerned.”
Sellinger guesses that he outweighed Woods by about 100 pounds, but that wasn’t necessarily going to help him now. Nor would he be aided by any special equipment; he says he, too, was hitting a TaylorMade metal wood with a regulation-length shaft. He also didn’t play a big hook but more of a straight ball or a slight cut, which wouldn’t help matters.
“I said, all right, I need to step on this one,” Sellinger says. “And I did. I hit it. We went up to the amateur tee and the amateurs hit, and Tiger didn’t say a word. I had a cart, and I got in, Tiger was on foot, and he almost beat me to the ball, he was so fired up to see how it had turned out.
“I want to say I was 16 yards past him, because we paced it off,” Sellinger continues. “We just grinned at each other, and I went over there and shook his hand and said, ‘That was a big shot you just hit.’ I’d never seen someone so serious on the tee. He was like an assassin. I liked it.”
Adds Hamblin, who still gets a kick out of telling the story, “Art put his arm around me and said, ‘Stephen, that was the best drive I ever hit in my life.’”
One night, Hamblin found himself seated next to Arnold Palmer at dinner.
What was the AJGA going to do, Palmer asked, about all these kids wearing hats indoors?
“Oh, we don’t allow it,” Hamblin said.
Palmer nodded. “Good,” he said.
Manners, presentation, thank-you notes – these things matter to Hamblin, and have since they were impressed upon him by his father, Allen, a West Point man who flew 30 missions in Vietnam.
“Yeah, he was tough,” Hamblin says with a smile. “Not in a harsh way, but just in that common punctuality was critically important, and he impressed on me at an early age. Presentation of self. Polish your shoes, iron your clothes, make your bed every day, clean your room.”
Born in Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, Florida, Hamblin had the prototypical itinerant childhood of the military brat, bouncing around from the South to the Rockies to the West Coast. He never joined the military himself; he had a bad kidney that was removed when he was 13.
Still, his father imbued him with a strong sense of accountability and attention to detail, which paid off both at Michigan State (landscape architecture) and when he landed his first big job in golf, as the resident pro at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club under then-Director of Golf Jay Overton. It was there, outside Tampa, Florida, that Hamblin found himself working for a hard-driving, no-nonsense boss who reminded him a little of his father. Among other job duties, carts needed to be set out two-by-two each morning, with military precision.
“Jay’s thing was, when you pull that cart up, it better be clean, and the scorecard better not be tilted one way or the other,” Hamblin says. “It better be square, with a pencil, and a rake. If any of those things were off … I told my guys, every day we’re perfect, I take you guys to lunch. They had this place called Chicken King that they liked. Well, we were perfect every day, and it irritated Jay that he couldn’t catch me (making a mistake).
“One day, he pulled his car up and took a rent set off our bag drop, threw it in the trunk of his car and drove off,” Hamblin continues. “One of my guys was coming up the ramp and saw it, and Jay didn’t think anyone was there. So, at the end of the day, Jay would always call, ‘How many rounds of golf, merchandise numbers, blah, blah, blah.’ And he called and asked about all that, and finally he said, ‘Any problems?’ ‘No, no problems.’ ‘None at all?’ I said, ‘Other than the rental set that’s in the trunk of your car.’ He said, ‘Who told you about that!?’ I said, ‘Jay, if you gotta do that, I’m really winning this little game we’re playing.’ He loved me.”
(Overton says the man who saw him drive off with the rental set was Peter Ripa, another former employee of Hamblin’s who would go on to run the Farmers Insurance Open.)
Crucially, Innisbrook was where Hamblin first encountered the AJGA, in 1980. The junior organization was holding its end-of-the-year Thanksgiving tournament, featuring juniors such as Davis Love III, Billy Andrade, Billy Mayfair, Heather Farr and others. Hamblin was smitten.
“I was just absolutely taken with their maturity,” he says. “Their passion for the game, their willingness to work hard at it, their respect. They would lose a match and stop by the shop and say, ‘Hey, pro, thank you. Copperhead is great.’ They just lost! I was totally impressed by them.”
Hamblin kept his head down, the carts clean, and the scorecards square on those steering wheels.
In November 1983, two AJGA board members, talking with Overton at Innisbrook, copped to being at a loss over who should be the new top man at the junior organization. Overton knew right away. In a way, he’d known ever since Hamblin had worked for him as a teenager at Pinehurst, painting fences and even acting as a night security guard for a week when he slept in a mobile, soft-sided pro shop. Hamblin needed to be running something.
“I said the person should be able to turn this organization into what it needs to be, not what it currently is,” says Overton, who is now the Host Professional at Corales Golf Club in the Dominican Republic. “They went, ‘Who?’ I said, ‘Turn around and look through the window at that guy standing in the pro shop. That’s your guy.’”
Phil Mickelson still has the most career wins on the AJGA, with 12, while Woods and Charles Howell III are among those tied for second with eight. Alumni testimonials abound. Spieth cites enduring relationships, but also, “To be able to play against the best players in the world in a junior golf event at an early age is fantastic.” Simpson says the AJGA “built my game up and gave me confidence and allowed me to play college golf and now on the PGA TOUR.”
On Wednesday, Harold Varner III -- raised in Gastonia, North Carolina, less than two hours from Greensboro – announced plans to host an AJGA event, the HV3 Foundation Junior All-Star Classic in Winston-Salem. Varner has been involved in making golf accessible for all juniors, remembering his days when he could play golf for four months in the summer for $100. “It gave me a chance to fall in love with the game,” he said.
It was only fitting that Hamblin and Wyndham tournament director Brazil sat right next to him for the announcement. For Hamblin it was just one more cool moment in a career full of them.
More fun are Hamblin’s testimonials about the players.
Another Woods story: He was sizing up a long second shot to a par 5 when he was forced to back off the shot by a bumbling TV cameraman approaching in a badly overloaded golf cart. Woods leaned on his 3-wood and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
“All set?” he said when the man had finally got himself together.
“All set,” the cameraman said.
At long last, and with the camera on, Woods blasted a gorgeous shot that hung in the air forever and landed on the green. Even then, Hamblin says, Woods was used to having a camera on him. He received so much media attention that he asked if the AJGA could just tape-record his answers, since the questions he got from city to city were almost always all the same. Hamblin said no.
Something in Mickelson’s mental make-up, Hamblin says, set the lefthander apart, the tip-off being when young Phil was asked by a reporter if he was happy to be out there giving it his all.
With all due respect, Mickelson said, according to Hamblin, he was aiming a lot higher than that. In fact, he considered himself the man to beat any time he teed it up.
“I mean, what 15-year-old says that?” Hamblin says with a laugh.
Several years later, Hamblin played in a junior-amateur with shy, diminutive Justin Thomas, who hit nearly every fairway and green but couldn’t seem to buy a putt.
“It’s OK not to make all those putts today and save them for tomorrow,” Hamblin says he told Thomas, “because tomorrow you’ll make them all and shoot 64.”
The next day, Thomas made them all and shot 64.
Mickelson was one of the hardest workers, always inventing new challenges for himself, even if it meant trying to hit driver from a divot. Spieth was one of the most well-spoken players, Chris Riley one of the funniest (and fastest). At one tournament, there was so much electricity in the air that Riley’s hair shot out in all directions at once, like a fright wig.
“He walked by me like that,” Hamblin says, “and he said, ‘I think we’ve got a problem.’ We blew the horn right after that. He was like my lightning detector.”
There was the girl with cystic fibrosis whose game was surprisingly good despite having to stop mid-round to empty her lungs of mucus. Another girl who worked at a driving range in Texas didn’t have enough money to actually play anywhere. Until, that is, a local benefactor and an ACE grant (the AJGA’s financial-aid program) got her into a national tournament, where she played so well she landed a scholarship and became the first in her family to go to college.
Hamblin and the AJGA have been impactful for others, too, even if they work outside the ropes. Steve Ethun, who handles media for Augusta National Golf Club, worked for Hamblin and the AJGA, as have several PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour tournament directors, plus others still who have left the AJGA only to remain in golf in some other capacity.
So many roads in golf lead back to the AJGA, Hamblin calls it “a training organization.” That goes for administrators and officials, but especially for players, who continue to dominate the TOUR. Indeed, if a career can be measured by lives touched, Stephen A. Hamblin has few peers.
“It’s been a good run,” he says, “but I still have a lot to do here.”