On the tee at the Carolina Cup (AJGA/Twitter photo)
Patrick Cover is grinding through the second stage of Web.com Tour Qualifying School this week. Thomas Walsh is studying as he approaches the halfway point of his senior year at Virginia. At 22, they’ve long outgrown the American Junior Golf Association but their charitable brain child is just picking up steam.
Back in 2010, when Cover and Walsh were a couple of middle schoolers living in North Carolina, the two recruited 22 fellow golfers to play a two-team match-play event at their home course, the Dormie Club in West End, N.C. The catch was that they also tasked each player with raising money for charity in order to compete.
The impact, in many ways, was far greater than they had counted on. As Walsh noted eight years later, it’s crazy to consider the support that two middle schoolers were able to rally.
“Giving back is such a large part of golf and to be able to get kids involved early is a powerful thing,” Walsh wrote in an email. “This game has been so good to us and it is our responsibility to give back to the people that need our help.”
Walsh and Cover clearly were on to something, maybe more than they realized at the time. Under their leadership, the Dormie Cup continued through 2012. In that final year, more than $46,000 was raised and split between the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, The First Tee of the Sandhills, and the AJGA’s ACE Grant, which gives golf opportunities to talented players who lack financial resources to play in national level junior tournaments.
But kids grow up, graduate, and move on from junior golf, and even when that happened for the founders, a next generation was ready to take over. The “Dormie Cup” name went away as the venue changed, but the idea remained the same. Thus the Carolina Cup was born.
The Cup transitioned in 2013 to National Golf Club in Pinehurst, N.C., which in 2014 became Pinehurst No. 9. But stewards are just as important as the venue, and the success of the Carolina Cup ultimately depends on the willingness of a junior golfer and his family to step in and take ownership. Michal Sanders and his father James, from Davidson, N.C., were instrumental in picking up the torch once Walsh and Cover had moved on, and also put key touches on the project.
“They really wanted to give it direction, they wanted to be very specific on what the weekend was,” said Beth Docktor, AJGA programs director. “It was about understanding why they’re raising money for charity. . . . James and Michael Sanders were very adamant that if we have 24 or 28 young men together, we need to teach them about charity.”
And so the outreach grew. In fact, Docktor credits the Sanders family with realizing the potential for the larger State Cup Series, which effectively means replicating the Dormie Cup model in any state with an interested golfer and a willing venue.
“Now that we have a blueprint, we know how it works, we know what it takes to have a successful one: A top player and a top venue,” Docktor said. Another important element is that the organizing family gets to pick the charity that is most important to them. It allows the host player to fundraise passionately for a cause close to his or her heart.
A third generation inherited the Carolina Cup when Michael Sanders started as a freshman on the LSU golf team this fall. The Cup now has strong roots in the Pinehurst area thanks to the Van Paris family. Jackson Van Paris, 15, is the No. 14-ranked junior by Golfweek
and was among the youngest players to qualify for this summer’s U.S. Amateur. He went out in the second round of match play.
There’s no denying that the event fits into the AJGA’s larger mission of grooming up-and-coming golfers for success down the road, all the way to a professional career. Giving back, of course, is a big part of that. But giving back is a part of how the AJGA does business, too.
“I would say we don’t really know yet what the vision for it is, as far as overall growth,” said Kevin Rinker, the AJGA’s senior vice president of development. “We’ve seen that it raises money and it gives back and makes a difference.”
Growth seems in the cards in one way or another. Rinker can see a point where the State Cup Series includes as many as 10 states.
For now, it has outgrown North Carolina’s borders and into two additional states: Kentucky and Alabama.
Kentucky’s version is named the Mason Cup for the Mason Goodnight Foundation. Tournament organizer Canon Claycomb, a U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team member committed to play for Alabama next fall, and his family lost their friend Mason to meningitis. The Claycombs used Kentucky’s state cup event to raise funds and awareness in Goodnight’s memory.
In an interesting bit of symmetry, it was played last month at Olde Stone Golf Club in Bowling Green, Ky., where Cover this summer won the Southern Amateur.
When the Alabama Cup is played Nov. 10-11, it will benefit Children’s Harbor and the American Cancer Society Alabama Chapter starting in 2018. Hosts Gordon Sargent and Reynolds Lambert are part of a field that includes four of Golfweek’s
top-ranked Alabama juniors.
This inaugural Alabama Cup also has the distinction of taking place at Shoal Creek Country Club, site of this past summer’s U.S. Women’s Open. Another twist? Tour players Trey Mullinax and Casey Wittenberg will serve as captains for the two teams.
As for Walsh, there are moments he will never forget from his time organizing the Dormie Cup alongside Cover. Among those was an early experience at the Cup where wounded war veterans caddied for the young players and shared their stories of sacrifice. Walsh also remembered the year that the featured speaker was a 12-year-old struggling in his battle with leukemia.
All told, this initiative that stems from Walsh and Cover has raised $348,718 for charities since it began in 2010.
“I think we hoped that it would continue past our high school careers but obviously when everyone goes to college it is tough to plan around everyone’s schedule,” Walsh said. “… It’s amazing that an idea that two middle schoolers had became such a large thing across the country.”