The Origins of Junior Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament

Every Memorial Day weekend since 2000, the world’s best junior golfers gather at Grayhawk Golf Club to compete in the Thunderbird International Junior – an event that has grown into the most prestigious tournament on the AJGA calendar. To follow the action, visit the official tournament website and TaylorMade-Adidas Golf Live Scoring

Given the AJGA’s history as an incubator of talent, it only seems fitting that its most notable alumni is the driving force behind the success. Phil Mickelson played AJGA golf from 1985-1989 – posting 12 victories in 26 events – the most individual career boys titles in AJGA history. He’s also the first AJGA alum in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

“Phil’s Hall of Fame credentials extend far beyond the golf course,” said Tournament co-chairman Mike Kennedy. “Sixteen years ago, Phil challenged The Thunderbirds and Grayhawk to develop the most competitive junior golf tournament in the world, and his inspiration, oversight and generous annual financial support from the Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation made that happen.”

All the tournament supporters did such a good job that Mickelson now competes on tour against many players who played in the Thunderbird International Junior such as Ryan Moore, Hunter Mahan, Kevin Na, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa and Jordan Spieth. Same goes for the LPGA. Paula Creamer, Inbee Park, Alison Lee, Lexi Thompson, Belen Mozo and Jessica Wallace also made the cut at the professional level.


in his junior golf days.

Mickelson’s Valley connection goes back to his college days at ASU. After turning pro, he became an ambassador for Grayhawk and still sports the club’s logo on his bag. The Captain of the Club, Del Cochran, and Mike Kennedy are both members of The Thunderbirds, the civic-minded organization behind the WM Phoenix Open. Together they hatched a plan to host a world-class competition with unparalleled hospitality, thereby creating the ultimate “players” event.

The overall experience is enhanced in a number of ways. The club’s event hall is transformed into the player’s hospitality hub. They bring in table tennis, foosball, video games and air hockey to keep the players busy between rounds. The tournament also includes families at the welcome dinner, family BBQ and awards ceremony. Players participate in activities such as a glow-ball putting contest and a par-3 contest. All of the evening social events are one-of-a-kind and provide a unique way for players to bond and make new friendships.

Digger Smith Award

Del Cochran and Mike Kennedy

Mike Kennedy and Del Cochran

The Thunderbird International Junior has earned many honors: AJGA’s Tournament of the Year, Volunteer of the Year and Hospitality of the Year. And in 2010, tournament co-chairs, Mike Kennedy and Del Cochran, earned the Digger Smith Award.

“This event is really a dream come true,” Kennedy said. “This is a group of people who had an idea and try to make it better every year.”

Named after the AJGA’s chairman, the award has been presented annually since 1991 to those with longtime dedication to junior golf. The tournament reinforces The Thunderbird’s aim to improve the quality of life in the local communities. Each year, players designate a benefitting charity and The Thunderbirds donate $1,000 to that charity in their name.

“One of the things that Mike and I are really proud of is the fact that we’ve given more than $220,000 to charities,” Cochran said. “That means that every participant has made a positive impact in somebody’s life.”

Tournament Sponsors


A History of Greatness

The Thunderbird International Junior is a 54-hole stroke-play competition played on the par-72 Raptor Course. The event features 48 boys and 30 girls, ages 12-18, from 17 states and 14 countries. A few notable players include:

  • Paula Creamer finished T2 in 2009
  • Rickie Fowler finished T7 in 2006
  • Brittany Lincicome finished 3rd in 2003
  • Webb Simpson finished T2 in 2004
  • 2010 WM Phoenix Open Champion, Hunter Mahan, finished T9 in 2000
  • Lexi Thompson finished T5 in 2008
  • 2012 WM Phoenix Open Champion, Kyle Stanley, finished 6th in 2006

Champion's Timeline