Thunderbird International Junior History


By Tony McDaniel, Communications staff


Since the turn of the 21st century, Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona has played host to the Thunderbird International Junior, one of the premier events on the AJGA schedule. 

The Thunderbird International Junior boasts a rich history and a past winners list that is littered with names that appear each week in PGA and LPGA Tour events like Ryan Moore, Brian Harman, Brittany Lang and Yueer Cindy Feng, who is the only two-time champion of the event.

This tournament in particular is unique in the sense that the Thunderbirds, a civic organization based in Phoenix that aims to promote the city through athletics, assists the AJGA and Grayhawk Golf Club in running the tournament. 

“Over the years we’ve had the most or second most competitive junior event,” Mike Kennedy, the Thunderbird International Junior’s tournament chairman said. “We took the idea to the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds loved the idea; it was consistent with what the Thunderbirds are all about. Once we set our mind to it, it was really pretty easy. (The tournament) has worked very, very well.”

The Thunderbirds also play an integral role in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. The Thunderbird’s involvement helps evolve this event from not only an AJGA Invitational, but an AJGA Invitational that aims to create the best player experience of any junior golf tournament in the world.

When PGA Tour great Phil Mickelson came up with the idea to have a junior golf tournament with some of the top players from around the world he challenged the Thunderbirds to make his idea a reality.

“(Mickelson’s) suggestion wasn’t trying to make the event more exclusive, but he was trying to restore the ultra-competitive event,” Kennedy said. “Phil was willing to provide financial support and that became attractive to the Thunderbirds and then they provided financial support.”

The champion’s list is a direct representation of Mickelson’s idea. Players from as close as Scottsdale and as far away as Thailand have won the event. An international player has won the tournament seven times helping remind anyone associated with the event why it’s called the Thunderbird International Junior.

The Raptor Course at Grayhawk Golf Club has seen changes in its layout through the years, but the challenge associated with desert golf has remained a constant. A shot too far left or right will land a player in the hard-packed desert dirt that lines the fairways.

Despite how difficult the course plays, two players have posted sub-200 tournament totals in the three-round event. In 2009, Daniel Lee of Valencia, California, set the tournament record by turning in an 18-under-par 198. Five years later in 2014, Andy Zhang, of Winter Garden, Florida, came close to tying Lee’s record, but came up one stroke short with a 17-under-par 199. In 2006, Kimberly Kim from Pahoa, Hawaii, set the Girls Division tournament record with a score of 10-under-par 206.

Tournament champions are immortalized on a plaque that sits on a post as people walk to and from the Raptor Course’s first tee. On Monday, two players will have their names added to the list, but first they’ll have to avoid the Raptor Course’s bite and outplay the toughest competitors from around the world.