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NOW PLAYING: IMG Junior World celebrates 50 years
Recognize anyone? Tiger Woods (far rt) stands next to Chris Riley
Recognize anyone? Tiger Woods (far rt) stands next to Chris Riley
by Tod Leonard, San Diego Union Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (July 10, 2017) -- Joe Dey thought it was a terrible idea.

He was coming to the end of a 34-year run as the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, and about to become the PGA Tour’s first commissioner, when he got a letter from three folks in San Diego who had this grand idea to put on a junior golf tournament and invite the world.

As Norrie West – one of those dreamers – would recount years later in an interview, Dey wrote back and pulled no punches:

“Who the hell do you think you are trying to run such a tournament? We’ve tried, and with all our clout we couldn’t get it done.”

The idea was audacious, to be sure. There was no other tournament like it in the world. The only national golf tournaments in the United States were the U.S. girls and boys juniors run by the USGA. To think you could attract kids from other countries to play in a fledgling golf event was brash or naïve, and probably both.

The San Diego trio – West, John Brown and Lou Smith – ignored Dey’s condemnation, and over breakfast at Mission Valley’s Stardust Country Club in February 1968, they voted amongst themselves to press on.

“We should have known better,” recalled West, who died in 2010. “We should have said no. I’ve thought that many times. It’s so damn much work.”

Work, yes, with an incredible payoff.

The Junior World, now sponsored by IMG Academy, will be played for the 50th time in the coming week, with more than 1,200 golfers entered from 56 countries. And while opportunities to compete in national junior tournaments have grown exponentially in the past couple of decades, the Junior World remains the granddaddy.

Tens of thousands of kids from more than 80 countries have competed. They’ve come from virtually every portion of the map. Among them, many places you wouldn’t readily connect with golf: Egypt, El Salvador, Nigeria, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Zambia, the Mariana Islands.

No other youth golf tournament has produced so many high-profile winners. Eleven former Junior World champions have captured professional golf majors. Many more have won on pro circuits.

“Junior World has always been an amazing tournament,” said native San Diegan Chris Riley, the longtime PGA Tour pro and newly named men’s golf coach at USD. “I look back to when I was young and the great players who were winning … Nick Price, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods -- these guys who would go on to have unbelievable professional careers.

“As a kid, you always looked forward to that second week in July. That was Junior World time.”

With so many characters accomplishing so much, it’s worth looking back at the first 49 years while peering forward to many more.

KING OF THE JUNIOR WORLD

Riley remembers the first time he laid eyes on Eldrick Woods. It was at the Presidio Hills Golf Course as they prepared to tee off in their first Junior World in 1984. Chris was 10, Eldrick was 8.

“They call him Tiger?” Riley asked someone.

“He had the Coke-bottle thick glasses, but he could flat-out play.”

Woods shot 3-under-par 51 at par-3 Presidio in the third and final round that year to beat runner-up Riley by two shots. It would be the first of Woods’ record six Junior World wins in four different age categories.

In the aftermath of his last triumph in 1991, when Woods became the first 15-year-old to capture the 15-17 Division at Torrey Pines, Tiger lounged on a sofa in the tournament office and said, “The win here that was special to me was the first one, when I shot (3-under) the last day to come from behind.”

Woods’ victories came at Presidio, Mission Bay, Mission Trails and Torrey Pines South.

Woods already was on his way to changing the face of golf. In his last three Junior World appearances, he was given the tournament’s first special exemptions because the organizers feared that other junior tournaments might lure him away.

Riley and Woods had a memorable showdown in the ’91 Junior World at Torrey. Through the first three rounds they shot the same scores (74-70-73) and were still tied for the lead after the final round’s front nine.

Riley then birdied the 11th to take a one-shot lead. But on the long, par-4 12th, Woods bombed his tee shot 30 to 40 yards past Riley, and that spooked the San Diegan.

“I was, like, holy mackerel! “ Riley recalled. “I had wood into the green and he had 7-iron. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, here we go.’ “

Woods birdied 12 and 13, Riley went bogey-par, and Tiger pulled away for a three-shot victory by shooting 69.

It was the last time Woods would win Junior World on the future site of his eight PGA Tour victories, including the 2008 U.S. Open.

Woods, who won the U.S. Junior Amateur three straight years beginning in ’91, was beaten in Junior World in ’92 when Venezuelan Gilberto Morales (who would go on to play college golf with Riley and Charley Hoffman at UNLV) turned a five-shot deficit into a three-shot win by shooting 67 in the final round.

Riley would eventually play with Woods on the U.S. Walker Cup and Ryder Cup teams, and Woods always got a kick out of his “goofy” sidekick.

“Those are the times that I look back on that are really special to me,” Riley said. “I know for sure that they’re special to Tiger. He’s never forgotten guys like myself and Jason Gore – the Southern California guys who have known him forever. He trusted us because we knew him way back when.”

Riley is one of a couple dozen San Diegans to have seized Junior World titles. Indicative of the tournament’s slow buildup in popularity, locals won seven of the eight divisions in the inaugural tournament, and they haven’t come close to that kind of dominance since.

Riley got his win when he escaped Woods by moving into an older division, prevailing among the 11-12 Boys at Mission Bay in 1986. The kid who came closest to beating him, Michael Cross from Australia, happened to be staying at Riley’s house in Clairemont that week.

The hosting practice has mostly been abandoned by parents who travel with their kids and stay in hotels.

“My parents just dropped me off at the course in the station wagon and said, ‘Go get ‘em,’ “ Riley said. “Parents didn’t follow every shot like they do now.

“With anything back in the day, it was a little more lax. I hope these kids (now) are having fun. Seems like there’s a lot more pressure on them.”

One of the sweetest parts of Riley’s victory was receiving the trophy from John “Brownie” Brown, the man who founded the San Diego Junior Golf Association and got Chris’ dad, Mike, started in golf.

An example of how scores and skills have changed: Riley shot 4-over 178 at executive-length Mission Bay. Last year, Encinitas’ Luke Potter won the 11-12 division by carding 4-under at par-72 Morgan Run.

In another quirky note from Riley, he and his wife, Michelle Louviere – a former LPGA player -- realized that they played at the same time in Junior World at Torrey Pines without realizing it until they were married.

Many people assume San Diegan Phil Mickelson, a five-time pro major winner, dominated in Junior World. But he won just once, at Presidio in 1980 as a 10-year-old.

Mickelson’s most notable loss was a 1984 three-shot defeat in 13-14 at Balboa to a strapping South African then known more formally as Ernest Els.

Mickelson could argue that he could have captured a Junior World at Torrey Pines, but for one player’s brilliant week. Carito Villaroman of the Philippines shot an incredible 15-under total in ’86 to set a scoring record and beat a runner-up Mickelson by 11 shots. (Villaroman went on to star at Weber State, but never made an impact in pro golf.)

BARRETT'S LONG RUN

Easily the most successful San Diegan in Junior World was Spring Valley’s Sharon Barrett, a future LPGA Tour player who held the record for most victories (four achieved in the late ‘70s) until that was eclipsed by Woods among the boys and World Golf Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa and Japan’s Kumiko Kaneda, who each had five girls wins.

It is said that young golfers need to learn how to win. Soft-spoken and eminently genteel, Ochoa was a menace at Junior World, where she achieved what not even Woods could do — triumph five straight years (1990-94).

Ochoa backed it all up with two tremendous years at the University of Arizona before embarking on an LPGA career that made her one of Mexico’s all-time favorite athletes. She won 27 times on the LPGA and retired, at 28, when she was on top of the world rankings.

In a letter she wrote for Junior World to commemorate the 50th playing, Ochoa said, “The Junior World family has a very special place in my heart. I love the time at the tournaments and cherish all of the accomplishments, but most importantly I love the people involved.”

STADLER DOUBLE

There’s only one father-son duo that has won Junior World, and that’s “Walrus” and the “Smallrus” -- Craig and Kevin Stadler.

Craig, a future Masters champ who grew up in San Diego, made 30- and 40-foot birdie putts in his final round to win the 1970 Junior World at 4 over par. Twenty-seven years later, Kevin fired 9 under to defeat future Masters winner Trevor Immelman.

Kevin got to deliver the news to his dad, who had missed the cut in the British Open that week.

“He’ll be more excited than I am right now,” the son, who possesses all of his dad’s mannerisms, deadpanned.

There is no legacy in Junior World quite like that of the Stadlers. It was Craig’s mom, Betty, who served Junior World and SDJGA for decades.

FAMOUS DADS

Among West’s favorite years in the tournament — 1977, because sons of Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, Bruce Devlin and Bing Crosby all played.

“Bing stayed all week, walked with Nathaniel and was good company for all of us,” West recalled in 1997.

Sadly, West noted, Bing would die of a heart attack almost exactly three months later after playing a round of golf in Spain.

'SLEEPY' PRINCE

The most international media attention the tournament ever drew was during the 2007 appearance of Japanese teenager Ryo Ishikawa, known as the “Bashful Prince.” The 15-year-old won a Japanese professional tournament that year and Torrey Pines was swarming with reporters and cameras.

Ishikawa begged off interviews after the first round because he said he needed a nap, and he stumbled in the tournament by finishing 23rd -- 16 shots behind winner Dylan Frittelli of South Africa.

As timing would have it, Frittelli, 27 – who helped Texas win an NCAA national title -- captured his first European Tour win on June 11. Ishikawa, 25, has 15 pro victories, but none of them in the big leagues of the PGA or European tours. He’s ranked 159th in the world.

GOLF COACHES CONVENTION

Through the years, Junior World became a hot bed for college coaches to scout talent. Dozens now show up and traipse the fairways in the school colors.

Local PR man Rick Schloss, who has worked with the tournament for years, remembered standing with UNLV coach Dwaine Knight on the clubhouse deck overlooking the North Course’s first hole.

Knight was reminiscing about getting Adam Scott, future Masters winner, to come play for the Rebels.

“Committed on that bench right there,” Knight said.

DISAPPEARING ACTS

There are a few players who have been world-beaters as juniors, but are rarely heard from as adults.

Perhaps the best example is Philip Francis, an Arizona product who won four consecutive Junior Worlds from 1999-2002. He was such good friends with Rickie Fowler that they vowed to attend the same college together. But while Francis chose UCLA and later transferred to Arizona State, Fowler backed off his verbal commitment with the Bruins and went to Oklahoma State.

Judged a “can’t-miss” kid by Sports Illustrated, Francis struggled with mechanics, according to his former UCLA coach, and has knocked around mini-tour golf as a pro.

On the girls’ side, Japan’s Kumiko Kaneda started winning Junior World at 8 and tied Ochoa’s mark by seizing her fifth title in 2004. Kaneda turned pro in 2009 and won a tournament in Japan, but hasn’t earned a spot on the LPGA.

Remember the name Joaquin Niemann. You may hear it a lot in coming years.

Niemann, from Chile, won his second straight Junior World at Torrey Pines last summer, and in May the 18-year-old became the No. 1-ranked amateur player in the world. [World Amateur Golf Rankings]

He is set to begin his college career in the fall at the University of South Florida; it’d be a surprise if he stays four years there.

Another player with big talent is Rancho Cucamonga’s Rico Hoey, who won two Junior Worlds and is finishing up a strong career at USC. He’s got game and confidence to match the huge cubic zirconia earrings he wears.

In the women’s game, Lilia Vu’s career is shaping up to be much like Ochoa’s. She captured four Junior Worlds in a five-year stretch and just completed a sophomore season at UCLA in which she won four straight tournaments, including the Pac-12 Championship.

View results for IMG Junior World Golf Championships

ABOUT THE IMG Junior World

Age Divisions: 15-17, 13-14, 11-12, 9-10, 7-8, 6-under. 72 hole stroke play event for 15-17 division, 54 holes for other divisions. Qualifying required for 15-17, other divisions. Played at multiple courses in the San Diego area. Online application process begins approx. Feb 1.

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