A successful reboot of the American Junior Golf Association’s competition schedule in June started with questions. Pages and pages of questions.
AJGA executive director Stephen Hamblin’s first directive to his staff was to come up with every uncertainty in every scenario. Reducing touchpoints and field sizes – to 78 players – in the name of safety was the guiding principle, but the finer points of how, exactly, to make it work needed mush hashing out.
“I told them OK, get every question that you have – every doubt, every worry – put it on paper,” he said. “And they did. And then I told them, now answer all these questions. You answer them as to what you would do.”
Three hundred questions got 300 answers. And 300 answers allowed the AJGA to conduct 97 tournaments from a June 7 restart to the time the Rolex Tournament of Champions closed the season on Thanksgiving weekend.
Hamblin often refers to the document that resulted from a massive AJGA problem-solving effort as the COVID playbook. It’s nearly 20 pages long, but it held up through a season that continued despite a global pandemic. Key in the document’s effectiveness was that the AJGA never abandoned it.
“No matter what happens, no matter if (COVID is) subsiding, we’re going to stick with it,” Hamblin said. “Other tournaments, by the end of summer, were allowing kids to touch a flagstick and touch rakes and we didn’t.”
Looking back on 2020, it’s somewhat remarkable what the AJGA was able to accomplish in the second half of the year. The organization ran 101 events in 2020.
David Ford won the AJGA Invitational at Sedgefield, the first AJGA event after the COVID lockdown. (AJGA photo)
The AJGA veered off its normal course mid-February after the AJGA Simplify Boys Championship – what amounts to an AJGA “major” – was conducted. The schedule went dark for the next 12 weeks, but the gears were still turning at AJGA headquarters in Braselton, Georgia. A task force made up of tournament operations officials got to work
Nearly every aspect of the way the AJGA operates got a COVID makeover. Instead of writing thank-you notes at the end of each event, players filmed thank-you videos. Meals were all grab and go. Scoring went digital.
Hamblin thinks the latter two are elements that improved AJGA operations. Those modifications will stay, post-COVID.
The AJGA model depends heavily on people. As meticulous as the COVID playbook was, a successful summer depended on buy-in from everyone involved in tournament operations. Staff could not let their guard down, and to Hamblin, that “was the big question mark” at the beginning of the summer. He need not have worried.
“Yes, protocols,” Hamblin said is summing up the season,” but I guarantee you, there’s some luck involved in this as well. I love (Ben) Hogan’s comment, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I get that’s kind of part of it.”
Since the beginning of Hamblin’s nearly 40-year tenure at the AJGA, the organization’s intern structure has been paramount to its operations. Seven traveling teams of seven interns were the backbone of the summer tournament schedule in 2020, as always.
Hamblin & Co., run potential interns – the AJGA receives upwards of 1,500 applications for the position – through the ringer to find the right fit. Hamblin won’t hire an individual for a full-time position if he or she didn’t complete the internship.
The AJGA did intern training in six sessions in 2020. But by June, anyone who was going to be a part of tournament operations made the trip to Greensboro for at least a day as a way of ripping off the bandaid for the restart.
Mark Brazil, tournament director for the Wyndham Championship and tournament chair of the AJGA Invitational at Sedgefield, was there waiting. Brazil had looked at the AJGA’s COVID protocols from a PGA Tour perspective and knew they were solid.
“I’d been dealing with the PGA Tour on all of theirs too and so it just felt to me like we could do it,” he said of being in the AJGA lead-off position. “Keep everybody outside. Park your car, get your shoes on, you go play golf. If you want to grab a sandwich, you grab a sandwich.”
“They put it all together and it was a success.”
While COVID protocols were being drafted and enacted, Jason Ross, the AJGA’s Chief Tournament Business Officer, was helping lay out the roadmap for the second half of the year. Ross found that in talking to tournament venues, volunteers and sponsors, the AJGA’s safety plan inspired a lot of confidence.
Ross and his team navigated 150 schedule changes from mid-March on to pull off 101 tournaments. At the start of the year, the AJGA was aiming for about 124 tournaments – a standard number for a normal season.
Roughly 38 tournaments canceled for various reasons. The final schedule also included 23 added events or replacement venues, plus four events added in what Ross calls the double model – adding an open championship, a qualifier event or a preview event at an existing host venue.
“It was a way to get back a lot of the events that we lost in the spring,” Ross said.
In the process of talking to venues and local health departments, Ross found he would often have something to contribute to AJGA protocols. It was an ever-evolving document.
Ross logged hours on the phone navigating the schedule before getting in the field for the first time at the beginning of July for the KJ Choi Foundation Texas Junior Championship in Plano, Texas.
His first thought?
“I felt safe,” he said. “Everyone, the kids and the parents, were following the protocols, our staff was executing the protocols. It was neat to see.
“It was different than what you’re used to. We knew that going in. The field might not be the same without the social and the interaction. Our operations department came up with an unbelievable plan and it worked.”
AJGA ends a non-traditional 2020 by taking 'Greatest Night in Junior Golf' virtual
Junior golf: Kelly Chinn, Rose Zhang salvaged 2020 and came out with the AJGA's highest honor
Play hard, kids: AJGA represents a corner of the game where fun is key, even in a pandemic