ASHLAND Jeff Conley and Justin Thomas are forever linked in Bluegrass Junior history.

Conley began his stint as tournament co-chairman in 2008 — the year Thomas won his first Natural Resource Partners Junior championship at Bellefonte Country Club.

“That was significant because the Bluegrass Junior was the first AJGA tournament Justin was able to participate in and we all knew even before he won the event he was destined for the PGA tour,” Conley said in Tom Cooksey’s history book of the tournament.  

Thomas, from Louisville, shattered the Bluegrass Junior record the following year with a three-round score of 12-under-par 198. The rest is history, as Thomas rose to take his current place among the world’s elite players.

Conley and wife Barbara are now in their 12th year overseeing the longest running tournament on the American Junior Golf Association tour.

“It’s easy to remember when we started because of Justin,” Conley said Thursday on Bluegrass Junior media day.

The 2019 NRP Bluegrass Junior presented by BrickStreet Insurance kicks into gear Monday with an 18-hole qualifier. One hundred players, representing several countries, will compete for an estimated 11 remaining spots in the main field.

A practice round and Junior-Am fundraising tournament follow on Tuesday. The Bluegrass Junior begins a three-day run on Wednesday at 7 a.m.

“It’s a very special time of year when this tournament rolls around,” Jeff Conley said. “It seems as it gets close, there’s a vibe here at the club that picks up.”

Preparations began far in advance, however.  

“Our work starts early,” Conley said. “Doing things in January and February to get ready makes it less burdensome. Jay (Perry) and Michelle (Townsend) have done a wonderful job supporting us as co-chairs. It’s an exciting time for everybody associated with the tournament. I think we’ve got a good team.”

Barbara Conley organizes the tournament’s 40 on-course volunteers. She also coordinates assistance from area high school golf teams.

The Bluegrass Junior is in its 36th year at BCC. Admission is free and open to the public. Visitors this week can check out such recent additions as the Grill Room and Pub Deck. Out on the course, the largest project this spring was revamping bunkers on No. 3.

Britta Snyder (Ames, Iowa) and Leila Raines (Galena, Ohio) are rated highest in the girls division with Rolex AJGA Rankings of 116 and 137, respectively.

Snyder, a Baylor commit, won two AJGA events in 2017. Raines owns three AJGA top 10 finishes and has made a verbal to Michigan State.

Other AJGA champions in the girls field include: Morgan Ellison (Peachtree City, Georgia);  Jordan Hamelsky (Newton, Massachusetts); Yoona Kim (South Korea, Fair Lawn, New Jersey); Borina Sutikto (Fremont, California); and Yoko Tai (Singapore).

Local players Kate Hanni and Olivia Hensley both finished in the top 12 of the Kentucky high school state tournament last fall.

In April, Hanni won a qualifier for the Justin Thomas Junior Championship at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen.

On the boys side, Yuze Zhang of Windermere, Florida, carries the highest ranking at 214. He had two top-10 AJGA finishes last year.   

Area boys in the tournament include: Billy Gussler (Ashland), brothers Drew and Dylan Stultz (Greenup), Connor Calhoun (Grayson), Brett Bentley (South Shore), Jacob Perry (Huntington) and Trevin Mault (Wheelersburg).     

The past eight years, Kentucky and non-Bluegrass State players have alternated winning the boys championship.

Last year’s champ, Jay Nimmo of Benton, Kentucky, shot 68-67-70—205 and used the top finish as a springboard to continued success. He’s climbed to No. 32 in the rankings, including a junior All-Star victory this season. Nimmo earned a spot in this week’s Wyndham Invitational in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The AJGA’s motto is “Developing Golf’s Next Generation.”

More than 300 AJGA alumni play on the PGA and LPGA Tours and have earned more than 900 tour victories.

Through the years, the Bluegrass Junior has received high marks from junior players and the AJGA. This week, nine local families are providing housing for 12 AJGA interns working the event.

“When you look back, the best indication of how we are doing is driving the van that shuttles people back to the parking lot,” Jeff Conley said. “Seldom do we get negative comments. This is very much a teamwork thing, a community event with the volunteers.”

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rstanley@dailyindependent.com