BELLEFONTE Typical of sports and society in 2020, the Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior presented by Encova Insurance won’t perfectly resemble the 36 that came before it.
But the longest-running American Junior Golf Association event to take place at the same location will roll on at Bellefonte Country Club, if not as scheduled, then about a month and a half late — which is good enough for veteran tournament co-chairman Jeff Conley.
“It would be bad if I were the one that were in (charge) and it didn’t continue on,” said Conley, both a member of the host course and vice president of the tournament’s title sponsor, with a half-chuckle. “It’s extremely important for me to continue this thing on the way it needs to be.”
The tournament field will shrink to 78 players from the 144 of last season, with a qualifier today determining the final nine spots. That’s a change made by the AJGA — all tournaments feature fields of 78, said first-year tournament coordinator Jay Scott, to work to comply with social distancing directives.
“Demand is very high” for the Bluegrass Junior and other AJGA tournaments, Scott said, as players seek to make up for time lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bluegrass Junior had about 150 boys applications alone, Scott said.
The AJGA shut down tournaments from March through June 8 — the same weekend the Bluegrass Junior is held in a normal summer — but has a heavy schedule until nearly Halloween, which is later than usual, according to Scott.
“We don’t really have any breaks from here until then,” Scott said, “just because we’re just trying to fit as many playing opportunities as we can on the schedule. That’s been the biggest thing — we normally have a pretty front-loaded spring schedule, but since that was postponed, we’re filling spots in the fall.”
Other changes include the cancellation of receptions and gatherings that typically accompany tournaments, limiting spectators to one per player and using Golf Ball E-Z Lyfts on flagsticks — a device that allows for touchless retrieval of the ball from the cup.
“It’s been a difficult process with all of our new protocols, just adjusting to everything that we’re doing and making sure that everyone buys into what we’re doing,” Scott said. “But it’s been great to be able to get the kids out here again.”
Conley said he went to AJGA headquarters near Atlanta in early March to work on logistics and order apparel and equipment. Shortly after that, the coronavirus occupied national attention and “we had to kinda stop everything because we didn’t know if we were gonna have (the event),” Conley said.
Once Kentucky entered Phase 2 of Gov. Andy Beshear’s economic and societal re-opening plan, which allowed for “low-touch” outdoor youth sports to return with restrictions, on June 15, Conley felt “fairly comfortable with being able to put on the tournament.”
“Because it’s a smaller field, not that many kids that we have to deal with, the routine is completely different,” Conley said. “This year is very unique. ... It’s been a little easier planning (with fewer tournament frills), but we’d like to see it get back to the 144-player field, like it usually is.”
Tri-State entrants include Olivia Hensley, the 2019 KHSAA state girls golf champion for Boyd County, Drew Stultz and Dylan Stultz of Greenup, Connor Calhoun of Grayson, Billy Gussler of Ashland, Trevin Mault of Portsmouth and Landon Roberts of Proctorville.
In a scheduling quirk, the final day of the Bluegrass Junior — Friday — is also the first day of the KHSAA golf season, the only high school season in the commonwealth that has been approved to proceed as scheduled pending a Board of Control meeting Tuesday.
“We’re just trying to pick and choose our spots where we’re putting these tournaments and trying not to take away from the high school season or state associations,” Scott said, “but at the same time, we want this event to go on so these players can show off to college coaches.”
The field prior to qualifying includes players from 16 states, as well as Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico and Taiwan.
The qualifier begins today at 7 a.m., with six boys spots and three girls berths on the line. Tuesday is set aside for a practice round and a junior-am fundraising tournament, and the 54-hole main event gets going on Wednesday at 7 a.m.
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