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Back in the mid-1970s, a junior golf movement stirred in Wilson County.
Spearheaded by the late Les Garnett, a county-wide tournament was organized through the auspices of Wilson car dealers.
The endeavor never reached a popular point and was abandoned after a couple of years. But the concept intrigued.
Eventually, after a round of golf, Larry Pittman, Jack Kennedy and Charlie Clement, all now deceased, gathered in the clubroom at Willow Springs Country Club. The Wilson County Junior Golf Championship was born.
Open to only youngsters who were county residents, the county championship steadily grew. Pittman died in 1984 and 1986 marked the advent of renaming the championship the Larry Pittman Memorial/Wilson County Junior Golf Championship.
The tournament thrived to the point of attracting as many as 150 youngsters, who embraced the challenge of playing three rounds of golf, three days and on three different courses. Participation was free.
Just a couple of days away is the 40th version, and long-time tournament officials find the milestone worthy of a special celebration.
The championship opens Monday at Wilson Country Club, shifts to Wedgewood Public Golf Course for Tuesday’s second round and concludes with Wednesday’s final round at Willow Springs Country Club.
The banquet is scheduled for Wednesday evening at Willow Springs.
The featured speaker will be Jay Pittman, the son of Larry Pittman, a golf professional and participant in the inaugural Wilson County Junior Golf Championship.
Jay Pittman is planning a panel discussion of the event’s 40 years. All past presidents have been invited. Also on the agenda is a tribute to the late Pat Fagala from Barbara Pittman, still active with the tournament and the widow of Larry Pittman.
GATEWAY TO COMPETITION
Legendary Fike High girls and boys head golf coach Jim Boykin Jr., who became associated with the junior championship in 1983, hails the tournament as the “gateway to competition.”
Justin Hayes, three times the Wilson County Amateur men’s champion and a county junior champ on multiple occasions, declares the event’s legacy is the number of junior golfers who spent their youth in Wilson County, played in the county championship and eventually qualified for the Wilson Cup, which will be observing its 25th anniversary in late August.
Junior participants who became North Carolina High School Athletic Association individual champions are Fike’s John-Tyler Griffin and Bryson Boyette, the 2017 county male medalist; and Hunt’s Stephen Satterly.
Former junior standouts later became members of five teams — four from Hunt and one from Fike — that seized NCHSAA team championships.
Gene Williams won the first two championships in the county junior. The girls division originated a couple years later and Linda Harrison won the first three titles.
QUICK 40 YEARS
“You blink your eyes a couple of times, wake up and it’s been 40 years,” Williams said in dismay. “Hands down, it is a testament to the community of Wilson that it has lasted this long. Luckily, we still have kids that want to play in it. Something being around for 40 years just doesn’t happen any more.”
Participation has fluctuated, with approximately 60 registered for 2018 competition in six boys and five girls age groups next week.
Williams remembers he outdueled his brother, John, for the first title and, in repeating in 1980, played his three rounds at 2-under-par.
“It was a big deal,” Gene Williams assured. “The Happy Valley tourney was the only other thing around here for juniors. The exciting part was that you realized, if you went out and did well, you could gain confidence.”
Williams cited the effort of such juniors as his brother, John; Jay Pittman, Mike Kennedy, John Clayton and others in promoting the county championship. Not to be overlooked were other sets of adults and, added Williams: “Volunteers came out of the woodwork.”
Coinciding with the establishing the tournament was creating a junior board of directors and electing officers. Williams was also the president the first two years.
“I remember our biggest arguments,” Williams commented. “The adults want to give trophies to everybody and some of us didn’t want to do that.
“The adults then said: ‘OK, now go out and raise money.’ My response was: ‘What do we do?’ My first stop was Yellow Freight and (the late) Nick Luper gave me $100. It was on! I know it had to have happened, but I don’t ever remember being turned down.”
Williams credits the community for being “very generous” in its support of county junior golf.
Regarding the squabble over the trophies, Barbara Pittman remembers: “They wanted trophies bigger than their pocketbooks.”
She remarked she has found the experience overwhelming.
“Wow! Can you believe it’s lasted this long?” she asked. “Thirty-nine years ago, I never thought we would be having this conversation So far, we’ve had no financial worries. It has just been unbelievable!”
Barbara Pittman expresses the tournament is about the youngsters.
“Sincere appreciation to the people who have made it possible,” she added. “I am very excited about our 40th year. So far, everything is in order.”
Boykin, who followed Clement as the tournament director, joked: “It just means a few of us are getting a lot older.
“But it’s great it has lasted this long. That so many kids have played in it and that it has lasted this long is a pretty good feeling.”
Boykin acknowledged “ups and downs” in attracting participants and admitted he was disappointed in the representation from the high school ranks in this year’s tournament.
But he looks forward to a “fun night” at the banquet.
Headlining this year’s lineup are Jake Herring, Ethan Boyette and twins Drew and Nate O’Neal in the boys ranks and Sarah Bunn and Bree Council on the girls scene.
The largest age division is 13 entrants for Boys 13-14.
The first tee time each day will be 8 a.m. off the Nos. 1 and 10 tees.
Youngsters are asked to report to the starter some 15 minutes before their respective tee times and to drink plenty of fluids for proper hydration in expected hot weather for three days.
So, will the Larry Pittman Memorial/Wilson County Junior Golf Championship be around for another 40 years?
“Golf is on the decline,” responded a concerned Williams. “(Youngsters) are interested in soccer and other things that don’t take as long.”
“Who knows?” reasoned Boykin. “It has been great for this community, good for golf and good for kids. A lot of kids picked up a club because of this tournament.”
They still do.