The American Junior Golf Association mourns the death of Mike Kennedy (left), longtime chairman of the Thunderbird International Junior.
Kennedy, co-founding partner of the Gallagher & Kennedy law firm and a key figure in Arizona professional sports, built a legacy in the Phoenix area around one special junior golf event.
On the 15th tee during the 1998 now-named Waste Management Phoenix Open, he and fellow Thunderbird and Grayhawk Golf Club Captain Del Cochran were talking junior golf to PGA TOUR star Phil Mickelson.
The three-time Rolex Junior Player of the Year issued a challenge: create a competitive local tournament.
The rest was history: “the three of us decided that [we] might as well make it one of the best among all of the AJGA events.”
Kennedy and Cochran got to work for the first time in 2000 with Grayhawk Golf Club, The Thunderbirds – a civic organization in Phoenix which has raised more than $160 million for local charities to date, Phil and Amy Mickelson Charitable Foundation, and support from brands Callaway and Under Armour®.
We lost a special man in the passing of Mike Kennedy. He was a pillar of the community in so many ways … more importantly he was an incredible husband, father, and friend. Mike’s legacy will live forever in the Arizona community, where we will miss his infectious smile and passion for excellence.
As an attorney, Kennedy practiced in general civil litigation and served as local, regional and national counsel to a variety of business clients, including Arizona sports teams, law firms, retailers and energy companies. He graduated magna cum laude from Duke (a lifelong Blue Devils fan) and earned his J.D. from Virginia.
Kennedy's list of career achievements is long - ranging from recognition as “Best Lawyer” by Best Lawyers in America from 2005 to 2020, to Arizona Host Committee chairman for Super Bowl XLII, to Chairman of the Waste Management Phoenix Open and President of the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation.
Known to the junior golf world first as a parent (son Rusty played college golf at Texas) and later as a generous sponsor and mentor, he also guided hundreds of golfers into charitable giving.
During Thunderbird International Junior registration, players could designate a charity to receive a $1,000 gift from The Thunderbirds in their honor. This program, created to mirror similar charitable giving opportunities in professional golf, created more than $500,000 of support to national nonprofits.
Kennedy, Cochran, and the tournament committee laid a foundation for many current-day AJGA best practices.
The Thunderbird International Junior provided a financial stipend to offset player travel, housing accommodations, meals for guests, and hosted creative dinners and cookouts. Kennedy and his team were interested in developing a top international field and outmatched tournament experience with options like personalized lockers, Masters-style scoreboards on the course, a unique trophy, and more than 100 volunteers.
The event also built a special reputation among players based on building lifetime friendships, through fun. Evening social activities gained acclaim: the famous Dry Heave - a short but nerve-wracking wedge shot over water with pushups for misses, a Glo-Birds mini-golf course made of neon glowsticks, milkshake bar, and ping pong grudge matches.
Mike loved junior golf, loved the AJGA and loved The Thunderbird International! Along with Phil Mickelson, Grayhawk and The Thunderbirds, he and Del Cochran created one of the premier junior golf championships in the world. We will be forever grateful to Mike for his vision, passion and his devotion to junior golf and the AJGA.
When both men were honored with the 2010 Digger Smith Award, the AJGA’s highest honor, Kennedy reflected on the moment saying: “by assembling an all-star cast [of supporters], we answered Phil's challenge with 10 years of innovation, success, intense competition and friendships.”
During its 20 years on the schedule, the Thunderbird International Junior was honored with 2015 and 2005 tournament awards alongside recognition for top volunteers (2002), hospitality (2007), superintendents Ernie Pock & Ed Juba (2012), and golf professional Joe Shershenovich (2012).
The event also created a pipeline of opportunity for other top aspiring junior golfers.
Related: Sports Illustrated Prep School feature 2010 - "It's the night before the Thunderbird International Junior, the big kahuna of the American Junior Golf Association season, and Jordan Spieth is in a banquet hall, hopping up and down on his right leg."
Webb Simpson, 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open champion, narrowly missed winning the Thunderbird International Junior in 2004 (his third year playing) after a final-round 6-under-par 66. 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open champion Rickie Fowler and 2012 champion Kyle Stanley also played in the event as teens.
In 2020, 44 PGA TOUR, 43 Korn Ferry, 34 LPGA, and 36 Symetra Tour players claimed tied to the Thunderbird International Junior. Notable past specific players include Morgan Pressel, Ariya Jutanugarn, Paula Creamer, Inbee Park, Alison Lee, Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Kevin Na, Patrick Reed, Hunter Mahan, Mathew Wolff, and Collin Morikawa.
Inspiring to AJGA staff and golfers alike, he had a presence that was larger than life, yet humble at the same time. Always ready with a broad smile and big handshake, he made everyone feel welcome and important. He was all about doing good and living with humanity and personified those traits. He provided guidance that was always on point — above and beyond that, he was generous with his time.
In reports around Phoenix at the news of his passing, Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwell told the Arizona Republic Kennedy was the "type of person we all aspire to be but so few actually are."
Mr. Kennedy, 70, died after a two-year battle with liver cancer on Feb. 9.