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Cooksey retires after 30 years

Jun. 14, 2013 @ 08:17 AM

ASHLAND — Friday is going to be emotional for Tom Cooksey.

Cooksey helped land an American Junior Golf Association event at Bellefonte Country Club in 1984. He spent the first 16 years as tournament director as well as senior rules official throughout.

The AJGA event is now known as the Natural Resource Partners Bluegrass Junior. This is the tournament’s 30th anniversary at Bellefonte and Friday marks the final time Cooksey will hop in a cart, monitor his radio and speed to the site if paged.

“This tournament is so successful I don’t need to be here,” Cooksey, who turns 70 in August, said early Thursday afternoon during what turned into a two-hour rain delay. “I’ve known that for a long time. Thirty is a good number to quit on.”

Cooksey said he plans to return to Bellefonte in the future to watch golf’s young guns tangle with the tight, par-70 layout.

“I’ll come when I want and leave when I want,” Cooksey said. “I’ll be able to enjoy what I’m seeing.”

The AJGA has conducted tournaments for golfers between the ages of 12 and 18 since 1978. The tour had five staffers in 1983. That number now has swelled to more than 60-full time employees. The tour’s home is at Chateau Elan Resort in Braselton, Ga.

The AJGA originally entered Kentucky with tournaments in Lexington (1981) and Richmond (1982). When non-club member Cooksey found out there was no Kentucky event on the calendar for the following year, he worked with Bellefonte member Tom Rupert to see if the Bluegrass Junior could find a home at the private facility. They did and the rest is history although a 30-year run wasn’t in his thoughts back then.

“You wonder will it succeed? Do they (Bellefonte members) want it again?” Cooksey said. “It goes on for a few years and you finally think you’re in for the long haul.

“The AJGA was in a growth spurt. We never knew if they wanted to come back. They go to a lot of famous courses, resorts now. Credit the Bellefonte members. They give up their course for a week. And we’re at the point now where the community wants it.”

AJGA staff members and tournament officials honored Cooksey and wife Pat during the event’s popular cookout Wednesday night. Nick Carter, president and chief operating officer of Natural Resource Partners, presented Cooksey with framed artwork of the par-3 15th hole, Bellefonte’s signature hole. At one time, Pat used to drive a cart used to shuttle players from the 15th tee to the green.

“We’ll sorely miss Tom. He’s been the face of this tournament for 30 years,” tournament chairman Jeff Conley said. “There’s not a better rules official around.”

The Cookseys began a tradition of husband-wife teams sharing Bluegrass Junior chairman duties. Bill and Mary Jo Thompson served in that capacity followed by Kevin and Tammy Wall. Jeff and Barbara Conley are in year six. Natural Resource Partners became the title sponsor 10 years ago.

Cooksey knows having the AJGA at Bellefonte provides juniors the chance to compete at a high level. Many Bellefonte champs have gone on to standout careers in college and the pros. On the boys side, names include Steve Flesch, Charles Howell III, Ben Curtis, Jessie Mudd, Cody Gribble and Justin Thomas. Success stories for the girls include Vickie Goetze, Leigh Anne Hardin, Whitney Wade (she’s now assistant women’s coach at Georgia and watched the players Thursday) and Emma Talley.

“Some mighty good players have come through here,” Cooksey said. “You can’t help but take a little pride in knowing you helped player development. The players who achieve do because they work at it. All you can do is provide the opportunity.

“The AJGA is the Cadillac of junior golf around the world. They have the best product out there. They do it right.”

Back in 1984, Cooksey knew it would take money to make the tournament a go. He and Rupert and Chris Haack, the AJGA’s director of operations then and now head coach at Georgia, brainstormed and the idea of a junior-am evolved. Tournament sponsors and a junior are paired together for a round on Tuesday afternoon. In the early days, the field numbered about 14 teams. That number has grown and created the need a Monday junior-am.

“We show the sponsors what the kids are like. They like that,” Cooksey said.

The NRP Bluegrass Junior is one of the most decorated tournaments on the AJGA schedule, receiving the Charitable Giving award the past two years. It was the Tournament of the Year in 2009 and has been recognized with Junior Am and Volunteer awards through the years. Since 2007, the tournament has awarded $195,000 to assist junior golf.

Although he’s leaving the Bluegrass Junior, Cooksey will stay involved in golf. The retired air traffic controller is president of the Kentucky Golf Association through 2014, after which he will assume the office of KGA-PGA president. He also is executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Junior Golf Association and conducts tournaments each summer.

“I’ll stay busy helping the game. Just not here,” Cooksey said.