Wherever he plays, Michael Sanders has a white band around his right wrist with a quote that means a lot more to him than any golf shot.
It’s a short verse from the Bible. Romans 12:12.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”
Sanders, a rising senior on the LSU golf team, is not the only golfer to carry a motto on the course. Many have one with them, in fact. But what makes this verse powerful ‒ what gets Sanders choked up as he speaks ‒ is that it came from a friend he never met.
Back in 2015 when he was in his second year running the Carolina Cup, a tournament coordinated by AJGA juniors that has sparked similar events in different states across the country, Sanders and his friends received a video out of the blue. It was from the family of Harris Armstrong, a young man who passed away in Tampa, Florida, at the age of 12 after losing a battle with cancer in 2008.
Armstrong’s passion was golf. He was a two-time national finalist in Golf Channel’s Drive, Chip and Putt skills competition, a kid happiest when he had a club in his hand. Through the darkest moments of his health crisis, he read Romans 12:12 each day. It was his favorite one to hear, the one where he found the most comfort in the worst situation a human being can face.
Seven years after his passing, Armstrong’s family still wanted to keep his legacy alive. In the video, they thanked Sanders and all of the juniors involved with the Carolina Cup for raising over $60,000 the previous year for the Jack Nicklaus Health Care Foundation, an organization that helped Armstrong through his fight. And then they sent a basket of white wristbands, each saying “Praystrong” followed by the Bible verse.
Sanders brought the wristbands to the tournament, passing them out to each player while explaining that this tournament was not about the golf ‒ it was about people like Harris Armstrong. Many of the contestants, including Sanders, have continued to wear it throughout the years. Sanders has dozens of them in his room in case his current one breaks. On his putter, “Romans 12:12” is stamped into the face.
He never met Harris, but Sanders believes their stories are forever intertwined.
The formula is simple: terrific, iconic host sites with top-ranked juniors running the events. And the word “running” is not used lightly here. Although the AJGA does provide some basic nuts-and-bolts resources for the kids, most everything is done by the juniors themselves.
“It’s played a big role in my life, knowing that this family was able to have so much faith through this time,” Sanders said. “Their son was sick in the hospital and they stayed faithful, he stayed faithful. … I try to share Harris’ story wherever I go.”
This wonderful connection of strangers is just one example of how the AJGA’s state cup series has taken on a grand meaning beyond the golf that is played.
The origins of the program go back to 2009 when the AJGA launched Leadership Links, an initiative where juniors would be supported in efforts to volunteer and fundraise for charities. Thomas Walsh, a former Virginia Cavalier and now a Korn Ferry Tour player, and friend Patrick Cover, who went to play at UNC-Wilmington, decided they wanted to fundraise by holding a Ryder Cup-style match in the Pinehurst area called the Dormie Cup.
Walsh and Cover recruited their friends to play while taking on the bulk of logistical challenges that come with running a tournament. The event started slowly, raising around $12,000 in the first year, but by the time Walsh was headed to UVa and wouldn’t be as involved, the Dormie Cup had gained enough momentum that younger juniors were called upon to keep the event going.
It became a ritual where a player would be the de facto CEO of the event for a couple of years and then pass it off to someone else. The Dormie Cup, which changed its name to the Carolina Cup as it moved to Pinehurst Resort instead of the Dormie Club, has now been through five different families ‒ most recently Jackson Van Paris, a soon-to-be Vanderbilt player, was the leader. Sanders, who left for LSU in 2018, preceded Van Paris.
Since 2010, the event has raised more than $500,000 for the aforementioned Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation in addition to supporting the First Tee of the Sandhills and the AJGA ACE Grant Program, which provides financial assistance to young men and women who aspire to earn a college golf scholarship. Each player commits to raising at least $1,000, and they typically surpass that amount with ease.
The Dormie Cup had been such a success, it was decided in late 2017 that other state cups should give it a try as well. With the help of Sanders and others, the AJGA reached out to Gordon Sargent, a player who is about to start his Vanderbilt career alongside Van Paris, to start an Alabama Cup. They also reached out to Canon Claycomb, who now plays at Alabama, who started the Mason Cup in Kentucky.
It went from one to three. And then it took off in an unimaginable way, with state cups popping up in places like Georgia (Atlanta Athletic Club), Wisconsin (Whistling Straits), Texas (Austin Country Club) and Illinois (Conway Farms).
“We went from one to three to seven to nine to now 13,” said Kevin Rinker, the AJGA’s senior vice president of development. “And we’re always looking for ways to grow.”
Fundraising records are being broken. The Georgia Junior Cup in February raised just short of $77,000, holding the record until the Texas Cup raised well north of $120,000 in April.
The formula is simple: terrific, iconic host sites with top-ranked juniors running the events. And the word “running” is not used lightly here. Although the AJGA does provide some basic nuts-and-bolts resources for the kids, most everything is done by the juniors themselves. They come up with the competition format, who gets invited to play, how the pairings are constructed, who will speak at the banquet and countless other tasks. The first two state cups were all-male but now about half of them have both boys and girls.
Before Rachel Heck took the college golf world by storm this year winning an NCAA Championship at Stanford, she was one of the leaders of the Tennessee Cup. Having players of her caliber be a part of state cup events is one of the primary reasons why the concept has grown.
“Getting to recruit other Tennessee juniors to play, trying to come up with a unique format, that was my favorite part of it,” Heck said. “It was a special time. Everyone had such a great weekend and was excited to come back and raise money for the next year.”
As for Sanders, he looks back on his time running the Carolina Cup with great fondness. He says the golf itself was an entertaining experience, but the lasting memory is of the money raised to support those in need.
There are others like Harris Armstrong who have benefited from the efforts of Sanders and other state cup program leaders raising money for a variety of causes. It puts hitting a ball out of bounds or missing a short putt into perspective.
“I’m still trying to carry on his legacy,” Sanders said.
The way the state cup program is trending, the legacy should live on.
Top: Faith and helping others through the Carolina Cup event played a big role in Michael Sanders' (second from left) junior career.