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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.