Tom Cunningham – Forever Young

By Bill Huffman

Tom Cunningham has been the executive director of the Junior Golf Association of Arizona for the past 13 years. As one of state’s most influential people in the golf industry, Cunningham oversees 1,100 junior golf members with a total reach of up to 3,000 children annually. A long-time resident of Phoenix, Cunningham, 64, is both well-organized and well-respected by his peers, and the children who play under the JGAA banner think the world of him. Recently he sat down with Arizona, The State of Golf to answer some questions about his life and the vision behind the JGAA.
Q: What led you into golf?
A: I started playing a little bit when I was at West High School [in Phoenix], and a little less when I was at Arizona State.When I married my wife of 40 years, Dorothy, that’s when I started playing regularly. She was an avid golfer and we became members at Phoenix Country Club. That’s when I was playing a lot of golf.
Q: Who were the people that influenced your early life the most?
A: I think about that question a lot, because I lost my father when I was 24 and my mother when I was 26. I guess probably my father-inlaw, Frank Middleton, who had a company called the Standard Insurance Agency, where I worked for 20 years. It was a real family business. It was all in the family, so to speak.
Q: How did you make your way to executive director of the JGAA?
A: After I left the insurance company, I went to work for a bank here in town. At that time I also was completing my second term as president of the JGAA, which had become my passion. There was some turmoil in the JGAA at the time, so I took a temporary leave of absence from the bank the summer of 1994 to get things straightened out. Almost immediately, I discovered I loved working with kids, and here I am.
Q: How has the philosophy of the JGAA evolved in your 13 years?
A: My objective originally was to stabilize the organization and reinsert some discipline in our programs. I felt the tail was wagging the dog, and I wanted to bring back the etiquette and discipline that it needed to re-establish that respect factor. Today, we still stick to those basic principles, but promoting the game for all skill levels also is a big
part of that mission.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the JGAA?
A: I hate to say this, but [eroding] family values. They’re just not as strong as they
once were. Sadly, kids get away with too much, but you have to have rules and discipline. For instance, they might not understand why they didn’t get to play
because they were five minutes late for their tee time. But eventually they learn how being late effects golf and their life.
Q: What are the most important lessons you teach junior golfers?
A: Respect, not only for the game of golf, but for the people who help run it.We not only encourage them to do things like fix ball marks and send thank-you notes, we also teach them how to give back through volunteer work. It’s not just about being respectful towards our staff; it’s also about going in and thanking the guy in the pro shop, too.
Q: How does teaching girls differ from teaching boys, and visa versa?
A: What I’ve found over the years is that girls tend to be a little more social about golf than boys. They like to hang out  with each other more than the boys do and they’re not as consumed with scores. Boys on the other hand, are a lot more competitive at all levels, even at ages 8, 9 and 10. So you handle them accordingly.
Q: Has the First Tee been as successful as you originally thought it would be?
A: Initially, most of the focus of the First Tee was on getting as many kids in the game as possible, focusing on those who were underprivileged. Unfortunately, it was hard to grow that group because, for many, the game was too hard, or harder than they thought. Then they flipped that philosophy over to the core values of life, and it’s been a big success even if the numbers don’t reflect that yet. But now it’s about quality rather than
quantity, and one of the best at following that path is right here in Phoenix. The First Tee of Phoenix has been a big success.
Q: Are parents getting better or worse when it comes to their role in junior golf?
A: [Laughter] Well, that’s a good question. [More laughter] That’s very hard to answer.
I’ll say this: the biggest problems come from parents who don’t play golf but their kids do. So there’s a lot of explaining that goes on, and a lot of mixed messages. In most cases you just need to be patient.
Q: What’s your advice to parents who have a potential “future star?”
A: Let them be themselves. Let them enjoy the game and allow them to be as competitive as they want to be. Don’t be too quick moving them along, because it’s such a fine line. But if a kid has the talent and has already mastered what he or she needs to master at that level, I don’t mind seeing them moving up [in competition].
Q: Is junior golf growing like you thought it would?
A: It hasn’t quite recovered from 9-11; it really took a hit that year just like golf, in general. Today, there’s a lot more enthusiasm, and we are getting a lot of inquiries. It’s steady, and we’ve actually increased our membership every year for the last four years. The key to growth is accessibility and affordability, and making it as least intrusive as possible for the family. The way I look at it is, if we can get them on the course, they’ll have a good time.
Q: What do you gain the most satisfaction from when it comes to junior golf?
A: At the end of the day, when a kid comes up to me or someone else involved with a tournament or event and says, “Thank you,’’ or if they just mention how much they have enjoyed the day. The other day, Ted Purdy told me if it wasn’t for junior golf, he wouldn’t be where he is today. I’m sure he’s giving us more credit than we might deserve, but that’s a really nice thing to say.
Q: The Thunderbirds have always been a big part of your life. What’s that been like?
A: Being part of the Thunderbirds has been one of the best things about my life. I was active for five years, and I’ve been around for another 20 years doing whatever they needed help with. I’m so proud of the FBR Open, how it’s grown, and all we’ve done for charity. I am eternally grateful I was chosen to be a Thunderbird.
Q: How’s you golf game? Do you get to play much?
A: I did all that earlier in my life. I was a 4 [handicap] at one time, but today I’m an 8 and I can’t break 90. I’m not burned out, but with my job there are time constraints. Maybe when I retire I’ll get back to it. But even then it will probably only be nine holes. I’m not an 18-holer any more.
Q: What’s something that few people know about Tom Cunningham?
A: [Laughing] Well, I’m not an open book. That’s a tough one. I can’t think of any secrets because what you see is what you get. I guess if anything, I bite my tongue a lot. It’s gotten a lot shorter over the years. [More laughter]
Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?
A: Being married to my wife for 40 years, and raising our four boys, who all are a joy to be around. That my family loves being a family is very gratifying to me.We’re close; we’re tight. That’s a very comforting, satisfying feeling.
Q: How much longer to you plan to lead the JGAA?
A: We’re in the process of that [retirement] happening with the arrival of Sean Ferris, who will succeed me. I’d like to do the job for two or three more years if my health allows it. I’ve still got a few things to accomplish; mostly getting out JGAA’s message. When I leave I want people to know what the JGAA does, and that our message is clear.
Q: What would you like your legacy to be?
A: That he was honest and treated people fairly, and what he did was always based on improving things and making things better. It’s never been about me; it’s always been about us. I’d like to be known as someone who gave way more than he took.