When he was nearly finished with his bachelor’s degree in business management at Kansas State University in 1999, Darren Nelson took a part-time job at Manhattan Country Club.

It was there that the golf bug bit him.

“I really hadn’t been around or played golf at all through high school,” said Nelson, who now serves as one of five regional directors for the American Junior Golf Association.

He is responsible for the South Central region, of which Kansas is one of eight states included (New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana being the others).

“I’d played tennis and competed in track, but really didn’t know much about the game of golf,” he said.

Today, Nelson oversees a 23-tournament schedule as part of a larger AJGA network of tournaments that will provide 121 events from mid-January to early December to more than 6,000 junior golfers from all 50 states and more than 50 countries worldwide.

Nelson was only in his part-time job at Manhattan Country Club for three months, but it was evident early on that sports and management were of great interest to the Lindsborg native, who graduated from Smoky Valley High School in 1994.

“After K-State, I decided I wanted to go into sports administration of some kind,” Nelson said in a Tuesday afternoon interview at the fifth AJGA Kansas Junior being conducted at Buffalo Dunes Golf Course. “It was a two-year program that required a one-year internship.”

That internship turned into a one-year job at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where he worked on the National Rental Car Golf Classic.

“I liked working at the golf course, picking up the game a little bit, but I just enjoyed the wide variety of projects that were involved,” Nelson said. “You’re working with sponsors, the golf course personnel, the committee people.”

Then, it was one day on the golf course where he was paired with a then 13-year-old girl and her parents to play a round of golf.

“We got to talking during the round and this little girl was there to play in an AJGA golf tournament, and I had no idea what that organization was,” Nelson said with a smile. “The girl happened to be Paula Creamer. I happened to follow their live scoring and she was so good (eventually Creamer was AJGA Player of the Year). It really got me interested in the organization.”

Upon completing his internship at Disney World, Nelson returned to the Sunflower State to work on his family farm, but eventually he saw an internship with the AJGA advertised and he was accepted into the program in 2003.

“Paula would be playing in some of the events where I was working, and I’d just always see her,” Nelson said. “We’ve remained good friends since.”

Nelson said as his internship was ending with the AJGA, he told the organization’s chief operating officer that he would be interested in a full-time position.

“I was able to get an interview for the job, and they said if I moved back to Atlanta to start the job, then eventually they would be locating directors at other areas around the country,” Nelson said. “It was a chance to get my foot in the door.”

By the time 2004 arrived, Nelson was working in operations for the AJGA and he remained in that job through 2007.

In 2008, he was promoted to his current regional director position, and the geographic region that appealed to him was his current South Central section, opting to base out of Dallas as opposed to Houston.

“Everything’s just easier out of Dallas as far as getting flights, and then able to drive to many of our events in Texas,” Nelson said. “One of our objectives is to work with state golf associations in scheduling so we don’t cannibalize their events. Our main responsibilities include finding courses, finding sponsors and then building committees to work the events.”

Two other tournaments are held in Kansas and the Kansas City, Mo., area — the Under Armour/Gary Woodland Championship played at the Jayhawk Club (formerly Alvamar Country Club) in Lawrence and the Lockton Kansas City Junior at Blue Hills Country Club in Kansas City, Mo.

After a decade of working with the largest youth golf organization in the world, Nelson likes the mission of the AJGA and how it has impacted its membership through the years.

He cites the more than $3 million raised since 2003 for the AJGA’s ACE grant program, which reimburses young golfers for expenses and entries into the tournaments for those who otherwise might not be able to afford the game.

“I think there was a time where the AJGA was seen as an elitist organization, and this is a direct way to help curtail or change that perception,” Nelson said.

More than 1,500 young golfers have benefited from the grant program, including current PGA Tour player Smiley Kaufman, a Louisiana State graduate who was the first ACE Grant recipient to win a Tour event.

Nelson also said the AJGA has done a good job in developing young men and women both on and off the golf course.

“Our young people write thank you notes to the sponsors, they write thank you notes to the people who play in our Junior-Am events,” Nelson said. “It’s a great way for the young people to have adult conversations and network with our sponsors.”

Nelson indicated that many have learned how to be public speakers, as tournament winners are required to make remarks at the awards ceremonies when the events are concluded. He also cited the Care for the Course program, in which each contestant is provided a small sand bottle to carry in their bag and replace divots on the course.

“I think we’re the only golf organization that does anything like that,” Nelson said. “There’s a lot of character development of the young people that is important to us. It’s a high priority.”

The list of AJGA alumni is a who’s who in both men’s and women’s professional golf.

But Nelson recalls the one golfer who likely influenced his early interest in the game.

That was Tiger Woods.

“I remember watching him win the U.S. Amateur and he was wearing a straw hat,” Nelson recalled of one of the all-time great golfers at both the amateur and professional level. “It’s the first time I really ever watched golf on television. He was kind of my connection to the game, and I think he’s one of the major reasons the game grew during that that time.”

While Nelson enjoys the different events in which he is involved, there remains that one thought in which he would be working on just one tournament for an entire year.

“There’s advantages to both types of jobs in golf,” Nelson said. “I really like what we do and I enjoy the young people.”

Contact Brett Marshall at bmarshall@gctelegram.com

Contact Brett Marshall at bmarshall@gctelegram.com