If you played competitive golf at the junior, collegiate or elite amateur level at any time in the past three decades, there is a strong likelihood that you met, and perhaps even befriended, Jim Ahern.
For 35 years, Ahern has patrolled the global fairways of the amateur game, proudly representing the Acushnet Company’s Titleist brand of golf equipment. He was as ubiquitous at key amateur stops all year long; if he was there, attired in his company’s gear and sitting on his umbrella chair, you knew it was important.
Today, it is the rule rather than the exception to see representatives of the leading golf equipment brands walking the practice tee and shadowing players. But in the early 1980s, Ahern was alone. He invented the job.
A native of Southern California, Ahern worked for the legendary Tommy Jacobs at La Costa Resort in San Diego after college. He would take a position in customer service at the nearby Titleist club facility before moving east to company headquarters in Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, he set about creating the position that he would hold for 35 years: director of player development.
It was a job that took him around the world to 23 countries, always trying to identify and help elite amateurs who might represent the company one day in the professional game. He would observe players’ swings and their ability to get the ball in the hole quickly, but he was interested in more than that. He wanted to know about a player’s golf IQ, his attitude, his heart.
“Jim’s instincts and understanding of the competitive amateur game are extraordinary,” said David Maher, president and chief executive officer at Acushnet. “He has been an invaluable resource to me and so many others at Acushnet over the course of his remarkable 38 year career.”
What set him apart, according to Chris Tuten, senior vice president of tour promotion for Titleist, was Ahern’s “commitment to his craft and his dogged determination. He was everywhere amateur golf was played. He was a pioneer, the first of his kind.”
Along the way, he counseled juniors and their families about the path to the college game, and he guided impressionable young collegians about the realities of the professional game. He would hold court at a tournament, greeting players by name, dispensing wisdom and advice to one and all, free of charge.
He made countless friends and impacted an equal number of lives. And he represented his company’s brand with class and distinction.
A personal remembrance, one I have told many times over: I showed up at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Ore., in August 1996. A young man named Tiger Woods was gunning for his sixth consecutive USGA title and third U.S. Amateur crown in a row. Since winning the NCAA Championship earlier in the summer, rumors were swirling that this was the end of his amateur career, that he was turning pro after the Amateur.
If anyone would have information, I thought to myself, it was Jim Ahern. So I asked him, and he kind of shrugged and said something to the effect of: “I don’t really know”.
Just days later, Woods would say, “Hello, world,” at the Greater Milwaukee Open, having signed a prosperous multiyear endorsement deal with Titleist.
Moral of the story: Do not get into a big-stakes poker game with Jim Ahern.
Ahern has had the best seat in the house for the past three decades as he watched the elite amateur game develop.
“Today’s players have gotten so much better, largely because there are so many playing opportunities. That’s the only way to get better – compete.”
His favorite moment in the past three-plus decades? He acknowledges the historic nature of Woods’ six-title run at USGA amateur championships, for which he was present. But for Ahern, the 2007 Walker Cup is forever burned into his memory: “Royal County Down. Rickie (Fowler) and Rory (McIlroy). Great competition, great golf. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Now Ahern is retiring from Titleist after a 38-year career. What will he miss most? “The people,” he quickly responded. “The players, the tournament directors, the USGA officials, the college coaches. You just don’t find any bad people in golf. And I have been fortunate to meet a lot of really great people.”
Observed former college coach and current junior golf mentor John Brooks about Ahern, “when you think about competitive junior golf, college golf or elite level amateur golf, you have to consider all the people and institutions who have created and supported the arena that has allowed these players to demonstrate their incredible golf skills.
“No one has played a more significant and meaningful role in this regard than Jim Ahern. His contributions to the game are immeasurable. He has single handedly had a positive impact on countless golfers and their families for close to 40 years now. It will require a team of individuals to fill this void as he transitions to retirement and playing his own golf.”
Added Buddy Alexander, a hall-of-fame college coach who won the 1986 U.S. Amateur championship: “I can’t even begin to imagine what college, amateur and junior golf would look like without the contributions of Jim Ahern. He provided so many innovations and opportunities for so many golfers.”
I’ll leave the final word to retired Acushnet Golf chief executive officer Wally Uihlein: “What Jim Ahern has meant to the Acushnet company is truly company Hall of Fame material. His fingerprints will remain on the legacy of the Titleist brand for still generations to come.”