The American Junior Golf Association named Jim Ahern the recipient of the J.R. “Digger” Smith Award, which honors longtime service and dedication to junior golf, on Saturday, Nov. 21.
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 25 years.
Ahern, director of player development administration with the Acushnet Company, has walked the fairways for all levels of golf and along the way, built relationships with the top players.
“Jim is a close friend and a wonderful ambassador of golf, beginning at the junior level,” said AJGA Executive Director Stephen Hamblin. “It is wonderful to have the opportunity to recognize his outstanding contributions. He is the perfect recipient of the Digger Smith Award as a man who has spent his life giving back to golf.”
When Titleist upgraded its involvement from an equipment supplier into the AJGA’s National Sponsor in 1989, Ahern ensured the partnership’s success. When the contract was signed, the AJGA ran just 26 events, had 2,600 members and 10 full-time staff members. Today, there are more than 115 events, 6,600 members and 65 full-time staff members.
“I’ve been living the dream,” said Ahern who began with Acushnet in 1981. “My vocation is my avocation.”
Ahern has been a staple at golf tournaments for more than 25 years, serving current Titleist players and identifying the next generation of the game’s biggest names.
“He’s a wonderful man and someone I’ve known since I was probably nine years old,” said PGA TOUR professional and AJGA alumnus Justin Thomas. “I’ll always have a great friendship with him. He’s treated me so well and so many other juniors. This award is very deserving.”
In addition to his contributions in growing the game from a player perspective, many golf industry professionals credit Jim’s influence to their professional development. Ann Cain, an AJGA staff alumnus, has worked alongside Ahern, developing players on the women’s side.
“Nobody is more deserving of this award,” said Cain, who combines with Ahern for nearly 55 years of service with Acushnet. “He works the longest hours and has spent more time at the golf course than anyone.
“You don’t meet a person who doesn’t know who Jim Ahern, or at least, is someone whose life or career he has touched at some point. He’s been around a long time and done a lot for junior golf. He’s been there any time I ever needed anything.”
Oklahoma State women’s golf coach Courtney Jones met Ahern as an AJGA intern and over the years, he served as a mentor in many ways – from the big picture of recruiting players to how she could find her best fit in the industry.
“For Jim, it’s not just a job. It’s his life,” Jones said. “It’s incredible how much he’s given back, not just to the AJGA, but to the game of golf.”
Longtime friend Randall Lein, now-retired Arizona State golf coach met Ahern when they were both beginning their professional careers.
“One day he’ll be club fitting a junior in San Diego and the next he was at a college event on the east coast,” Lein said. “He’s well-traveled, he’s well versed, he loves the game, he loves the interaction with coaches, players, juniors, parents, and AJGA tournament crew. He’s the go-to guy in the golf industry.”
Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler recalls meeting Ahern in Las Vegas when he was first an assistant coach.
“I’ve never met anyone who cares about his job the way he does,” Heppler said. “Never in history will it be repeated the number of holes he’s walked in support of kids and that impact flows up through college golf and has for more than 30 years.”
About the AJGA
The American Junior Golf Association is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the overall growth and development of young men and women who aspire to earn college golf scholarships through competitive junior golf. The AJGA provides valuable exposure for college golf scholarships, and has an annual junior membership (boys and girls, ages 12-18) of more than 6,300 members from 48 states and more than 50 foreign countries. Through initiatives like the Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) Grant, a financial assistance program, and Leadership Links, a service-oriented platform that teaches juniors charitable-giving skills, the AJGA fosters the growth of golf’s next generation.
Titleist, the AJGA's National Sponsor, has been the catalyst and driving force behind the Association's success since 1989. Rolex, which is in its fourth decade of AJGA support, became the inaugural AJGA Premier Partner in 2004. In 2007, after 12 years of support, Ralph Lauren became the AJGA's second Premier Partner.
AJGA alumni have risen to the top of amateur, collegiate and professional golf. Former AJGA juniors have compiled more than 600 victories on the PGA and LPGA Tours. AJGA alumni include Jordan Spieth, Brandt Snedeker, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Hunter Mahan, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Stacy Lewis, Vicky Hurst, Inbee Park, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Brittany Lincicome and Morgan Pressel.