By Tim Wing, Communications Staff
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Grayhawk Golf Club plays host to the Thunderbird International Junior for the 16th year, bringing in 78 juniors from around the world to Scottsdale, Arizona.
With support from the Thunderbirds, a civic organization developed to promote the city of Phoenix through athletics, professional Phil Mickelson, and Grayhawk Golf Club, the event has been able to proudly and consistently bring in the strongest fields for the past 16 years, said Director of Golf Joe Shershenovich.
“To have an AJGA Invitational here is big,” Shershenovich said. “To be on the junior circuit and to be at the elevation we were with Phil Mickelson’s involvement with the Thunderbirds—that’s why this place was built. It matches up with what we are trying to accomplish.”
Shershenovich added that the Thunderbirds have truly embraced the event, helping the tournament grow into what it has become today. Another factor that sets the Thunderbird International Junior apart from other events is how it has successfully raised more than $330,000 dollars to be donated to charitable organizations of the players' choosing.
“You see the Thunderbirds enthusiasm for the event,” Shershenovich said. “As more and more people come through Grayhawk over the years, they stop and pay attention to these AJGA plaques in the locker rooms. They stop and they sit there and go through the names, and they say ‘wow.’ We are building history every year.”
The idea originated with Tournament Chairmen and Thunderbirds Mike Kennedy and Del Cochran, who each had a strong desire to bring an event to Arizona. Shershenovich said that many of the Thunderbirds had children playing junior golf, and that having an event in their own backyard was important to their development.
“Everybody was cautiously optimistic,” Shershenovich said of the tournament’s early stages. “We weren’t familiar with the AJGA and we weren’t familiar with what we were getting into. But it was Grayhawk, it was the Thunderbirds, it was Phil Mickelson, and it was the AJGA. We had the right ingredients to have a successful event, and it’s been wonderful.”
Throughout the international event’s history, champions from outside the United States have emerged from Canada (Jessica Wallace, 2008), South Korea (Hyun Seok Lim, 2008), United Kingdom (Max Orrin, 2012), Spain (Belen Mozo, 2004), and Thailand (Ariya Jutanugarn, 2012; Virada Nirapathpongporn, 2000).
Last year, Andy Zhang of Reunion, Florida, finished with a tournament record of 9-under-par 63 in the final round to capture his first career AJGA victory with a 17-under-par 199 total. In the Girls Division, Maddie Szeryk of Allen, Texas, and Andrea Lee of Hermosa Beach, California both finished the tournament at 2-under-par 214 before Szeryk won in a two-hole playoff.
“When you tell people about these juniors shooting these scores, the first question out of their mouth will be, “What tees did they play?” Shershenovich said. “I don’t even let them ask the question, I say this kid shot what he shot from championship tees, the same tees that the tour players shoot from, same golf course, same conditions. They are this good, and I always get this look as if I was making it up, or that it’s impossible, but they are this good.”
The Boys Division features 10 returning players from 2014, including top-five finishers Sam Burns (3) and Nathan Jeansonne (T5), and the Girls Division returns 14 players, including runner-up Lee and Kristin Gillman, Bailey Tardy and Cheyenne Knight, who each finished T3.
“It’s nice to see some kids that have played here come back, and it’s always wonderful to see the new kids and the new parents come in from all over the world for their first experience at Grayhawk,” Shershenovich said. “It showcases Grayhawk, it showcases the AJGA, it showcases junior golf, and it showcases Scottsdale, Arizona.”