From left to right: Digger Smith and Joe Quirk
The American Junior Golf Association named Joe Quirk the recipient of the J.R. “Digger” Smith Award, which honors longtime service and dedication to junior golf.
Presented annually since 1991, the J.R. “Digger” Smith Award is given to a supporter who is devoted to the AJGA mission and purpose of developing young men and women through competitive junior golf. The award is named in honor of AJGA Chairman of the Board J.R. “Digger” Smith, who has dedicated himself to the AJGA and to junior golf for more than three decades.
“Joe is totally unique,” Stephen Hamblin, AJGA executive director, said. “He was here before there was a Digger Smith, before I was here. He can tell you the history, the places, the people. This award is way overdue. To give your time for as long as Joe has speaks volumes of him and for the AJGA in how special it is for him to want to be involved for so long.”
Quirk’s story begins with the inception of the AJGA itself. As a high school golfer in the Atlanta area, Quirk was one of the original 99 members of the DeKalb Junior Golf Association. He served as assistant executive director before college, where he attended Georgia Tech on a golf scholarship, and worked in the summers as the original roots of the AJGA were planted.
“The AJGA has been a part of my life since I was 21 years old,” Quirk said. “When you’re part of something over that long period of time, sometimes you don’t really step back and see what’s really happened. You grow with it.”
Some of the original staff members including tournament director Jim Heard, brother Art Quirk and player-turned-AJGA employee-turned college golf coach Chris Haack, reflected on the changes over the years from Ben Hogan uniforms of red and peach polyester pants, to growing a portfolio of events from two in 1978 to more than 100 in 2014.
“We had fun together but it was so fragile in the beginning, there were so many obstacles,” said Heard, now President & CEO of Atlanta-based Windham Brannon Financial Group, LLC. “The organization grew and took hold especially as Digger became involved. For the last 40 years, Joe has created a legacy behind the scenes, approached it with a quiet commitment, and in the process, has helped tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of kids. He is the only person who has been there the whole way.”
Since the AJGA was formally established, Quirk has served on the AJGA Board of Directors. Some of his favorite memories include teaming up with then-AJGA Player Representative Phil Mickelson to win a friendly match over Executive Director Stephen Hamblin and Trip Kuehne in Las Colinas, Texas, and spending all but two Thanksgivings with the AJGA since 1978. Quirk married wife Kim in November of 1983, and left two weeks later to work at the Polo Golf Junior Classic. During the annual Thanksgiving-week event, the staff celebrates with a special dinner.
“The Thanksgiving feast started out as just the staff, maybe a few players traveling alone and a few international players,” Quirk said. “We went to a local restaurant, ate dinner, and afterward we sang Christmas carols, fight songs and whatever came up.
“I always say that Thanksgiving dinner is the oldest non-golf tradition of the AJGA. It means a lot to the staff there. They are there with people who share the same vision and passion.”
Several times when the event was held at Disney (1995-2003), Quirk’s family including son Joey and daughter Carrie, came along for the trip. Both Quirk and Hamblin recall their children eating together at Thanksgiving dinner.
To this day, Quirk is an avid golfer who is involved with his Richardson, Texas, home course. At Canyon Creek Country Club, he is past president of the men’s golf association, past member of board of governors and chairman of the club. Quirk is currently employed at L-3 Communications, and has been in the defense aerospace business for more than 35 years.
In addition to his AJGA Board of Directories duties, Quirk serves as senior rules official during the Polo Golf Junior Classic. The time offers the opportunity to get to know new staff (with whom he is affectionately nicknamed simply Joe Q.) and tell stories with old friends.
“When the AJGA was just a bunch of high school and college kids, which were most of us who started the program, you had to do everything: serve as rules officials, starters, call local newspapers to get scores in,” Quirk said. “I think that is what has made the AJGA so successful: the staff is not that far removed from the juniors and that’s the way it was when I started. There was a connection and I liked being a part of it. The AJGA is my extended family.”
The benefit of his long-term involvement provides Quirk with not just longevity but a role as the unofficial guardian of AJGA history.
“I think it’s one of the things I’m most proud of: I was there when the AJGA was just an idea and I’m still here living the dream.”