In 1948, the USGA inaugurated the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship to determine the best junior golfer in the United States and also to help junior golfers learn how to realize the most from the game, win or lose.
The Junior Amateur was hardly the first junior competition to attract a national field. The Western Junior had been established in 1914. In 1946, two more competitions appeared, each with a claim on the national title. One was sponsored by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, the other by the Hearst Newspapers.
The first U.S. Junior Amateur was played at the University of Michigan Golf Course and drew 495 entries. The starting field of 128 players was determined by sectional qualifying rounds at 41 sites. Dean Lind of Rockford, Ill., was the first champion. Lind defeated Ken Venturi, of San Francisco, a future U.S. Open champion, in the final.
By 1963, entries had surged to 2,230, a record for the 14th consecutive year. At the time, there was no handicap limitation for entrants. That changed in 1964 when a handicap limit of 10 strokes was introduced. In 1999, the championship attracted a record 4,508 entries.
In 1978, the USGA conducted the Junior Amateur over the South Course of the Wilmington (Del.) Country Club, while the Girls’ Junior was being staged on the North Course. This was the first time the USGA conducted two national championships simultaneously at the same golf club.
The Junior Amateur is among the most difficult of all USGA championships to win, because of two factors: the age limit and the tremendous number of fine young players who enter each year. Only two players, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, have won the Junior Amateur more than once; Woods winning in 1991, 1992 and 1993, and Spieth in 2009 and 2011. In fact, only six players have reached the final twice.
Woods, who was 15 years, six months, and 28 days old when he won in 1991, was surpassed as the youngest champion in 2010 by Jim Liu, who was 14 years, 11 months, when he beat Justin Thomas in the final at Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada, Mich.
The Junior Amateur has another, more dubious, distinction. It is the only USGA championship for which Jack Nicklaus has been eligible that he did not win at least once. Nicklaus qualified for the championship five times. His best finish came in 1956 when he was a semifinalist.
The Junior Amateur remains today an educational opportunity as well as a competitive outlet. Pre-championship players’ dinners have attracted guest speakers such as Francis Ouimet, Arnold Palmer and Johnny Miller, all willing to share their knowledge and experience with young players.