Mike Bentley leaves lasting impression

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More than 30 years ago, a sports reporter in an Atlanta suburb had a vision that would revolutionize junior golf. Creating a national organization based on four basic principles, he transformed the world of golf and has impacted the lives of juniors around the world.

1974

Mike Bentley forms the DeKalb Junior Golf Association.

Ninety players sign up for the first season.

1976

Bentley creates the Atlanta Junior Golf Association.

1978

The American Junior Golf Association holds its first event, the Tournament of Champions, at Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla.

Willie Wood, the first Player of the Year, and Denise Hermida, are crowned champions of the event. The first Rolex Junior All- America Team is named.

Chris Haack receives the first-ever Sportsmanship Award. Tom Watson serves as the first honorary chairman.

1979

The AJGA holds a tournament in Florida and a third is added in Texas.

1980

AJGA players Tommy Moore and Tracy Phillips win the Junior World Cup at St. Andrews Old Course.

1981

Digger Smith is named president of the Board of Directors.

Davis Love III tees it up in his first AJGA event.

1983

The first three tournaments are added to the Midwest.

The tournament schedule grows to 17 events.

The first permanent headquarters is established at Horseshoe Bend Country Club in Roswell, Ga.

Mike Bentley, founder of the American Junior Golf Association, passed away April 8, 2010, at age 59. The president and leader of the Association for its first five years, Bentley’s legacy at the AJGA will not be forgotten.

“What a story is there to tell on how we arrived on the golfing scene in our nation,” Bentley wrote in the first AJGA newsletter. “To offer a bit of history, I must go back several years as this has been no hastily conceived, quickly prepared undertaking.”

A sports writer for a small newspaper in DeKalb County, Bentley was covering local high school sports. His passion for golf led him to the realization there were not opportunities for junior golfers in Atlanta, home of the great Bobby Jones, and Bentley vowed to change that. Bentley formed the DeKalb Junior Golf Association in 1974, which eventually expanded into the present-day Atlanta Junior Golf Association. Former players remember him sitting on the first tee with a big glass of sweet tea collecting the minimal entry fee. With a modest budget, he ran six tournaments with 90 participants. In the coming years, the organization worked its way up to three tournaments a week with a season-ending championship at Pinehurst Country Club.

Bentley had bigger plans in mind and recognized the need for junior golf on a national scale. While the USGA, PGA and National Golf Foundation existed, they were devoted to promoting golf on all levels. The country lacked a central organization, dedicated to the support of junior golf. In 1977, the American Junior Golf Association began taking shape. “He was a rebel with a cause,” AJGA executive director Stephen Hamblin said. “He saw that competitive junior golf needed attention. He created a mission and purpose, one we have not deviated from today.” The AJGA was based on four primary goals.

1. Serve as a clearinghouse and information center for junior golfers;

2. Strive for the establishment of junior golf programs in local communities throughout the nations;

3. Foster interest in junior golf through the promotion and attention to those young men and women who demonstrate a desire to participate in the game of golf;

4. Sponsor and conduct national events for the benefit of junior golfers.

“It was a crazy idea,” said the first Tournament Director Jim Heard. “A lot of people didn’t think it had any validity to it or that there was really a place for it.”

The critics were wrong. The AJGA quickly surpassed its first-year membership goal of 2,000 juniors, and it was clear Bentley was on to something.

In August 1978, the AJGA held its first event, the Tournament of Champions (now the Rolex Tournament of Champions), at Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Fla. The Rolex Tournament of Champions and Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet remain an integral part of the AJGA schedule today.

“Mike was the father of modern junior golf,” said Georgia men’s golf coach Chris Haack, a former AJGA player and longtime staff member. “He took junior golf to the next level. There are always going to be the local organizations putting on tournaments, but when he raised the level to make a national competition – that is what got them involved. It was the pinnacle of junior golf.”

One of the AJGA’s first milestones was the construction of its first headquarters in 1983 at Horseshoe Bend Country Club in Roswell, Ga. President of the Board, Digger Smith, provided the financial means for the building that would serve as the AJGA home for 17 years. “Having a building gave the organization permanency,” Hamblin said. “You knew it was real.”

By the mid-90s, the AJGA had grown to three times the occupancy of its current headquarters. Funded by private donations, the AJGA moved to its new National Headquarters in September of 2000, approximately a 22,000-square foot building located at Château Élan Resort in Braselton, Ga.

Hamblin noted several of Bentley’s principles that have led to the current structure of junior golf. Bentley was the first to seek out corporate sponsorship in junior golf, beginning with Ann Lee Realty Company as the first event sponsor in 1979.

He believed in having a trained and dedicated staff. The previous mindset viewed junior golf as a volunteer position and no one had a fulltime professional staff devoted solely to the cause. To give the staff credibility, Bentley wanted certified Rules Officials serving as tournament directors.

These ideas created a foundation for the modernday AJGA. In 2010, the Association has over 45 tournament title sponsors, as well as numerous tournament partners and suppliers that make the extensive schedule possible. Bentley’s partnership with the Ben Hogan Company supplied the famous red pants to the staff, while today’s employees are outfitted in Polo Ralph Lauren. The AJGA is made up of 58 full-time staff, including 27 who have scored 92 or higher on the PGA/USGA Rules Exam, and more than 50 interns that assist the organization with tournaments across the country.

Bentley’s vision has impacted more people than he could have ever imagined. Joe Quirk, AJGA Board member and former Atlanta Junior Golf Association player, has watched the influence Bentley has had on golf from the start.

“Just name all of the great golf stars of today, the staff who have come through the organization and moved into the golf industry or become sponsors of the AJGA,” Quirk said.

“Anything that traces itself through the AJGA, past, current and future will forever link to the vision of a national, now global, junior golf organization.” To see Bentley’s legacy, look at any of the 5,000 junior golfers playing in AJGA events. His vision, dedication and perseverance are visible in each of the nearly 1,300 championships that have been conducted. Because of Bentley, the junior golf world has been forever changed.