GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – The key to winning the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, it turns out, was a steady hand — not major experience.
Holding a lead for the first time in a national event, Zachary Olsen showed the mettle of a proven performer Sunday, playing solidly during a difficult final round to capture one of the most prestigious titles in junior golf.
“It’s not going to sink in for a while,” said Olsen, who closed with 73 to finish at 7-under 209, three shots clear of Wyndham Clark, Robby Shelton, Taylor Moore and Matthew NeSmith.
Though he never previously had held the lead in a major tournament, Olsen previewed the experience while playing the back nine Saturday with a comfortable cushion and in front of TV cameramen. Dressed in an orange Oklahoma State shirt and white pants, and sporting wraparound shades, Olsen was unflinching in his pursuit of his first significant title Sunday.
The finish wasn’t pretty — snap-hook off 18 tee, blast out of the fairway bunker and ensuing bogey — but staked to a four-shot lead, it didn’t have to be. At the trophy presentation, Olsen hoisted the Gibbs Trophy and slipped into the winner’s gold blazer, about two sizes too big for his slight frame.
Said Olsen’s local caddie, Kim Jones: “Zach just stayed really calm and had that tunnel vision. He knew he could get this done.”
Olsen’s inexperience in major events notwithstanding, the biggest question entering Sunday was how the course would be set up for the final round: Would the “Masters of Junior Golf” resemble Sunday at Augusta National, where runs can be made on the back nine . . . or would it continue to be set up like the first two rounds, with a few tucked hole locations and speedy greens and juicy rough?
Weather played a more significant factor than course setup, however. For the first time all week, the players were confronted with a stiff breeze and unseasonably cool temperatures (60-65 degrees). The greens were a tad slower as well, the product of rain showers overnight and early Sunday morning.
Among the three players in the final group, it seemed Clark — with the glitziest resume (four top 8s in AJGA invitationals last year) and highest ranking (No. 11, according to Golfweek) — would be best-suited to handle the adverse conditions. But the Oklahoma State signee launched his opening tee shot into the hazard, double-bogeyed the 12th after a bad break in a greenside bunker and never seriously threatened.
“You gotta give it to him,” Clark said of Olsen. “He stayed in the present, bounced back with a lot of good shots and took care of business.”
Shelton, meanwhile, had won prolifically on the local and state level in Alabama, and someday soon will have his pick of the top-tier programs in the Southeast (Alabama, Auburn, Georgia Tech), but he recorded nine consecutive pars after an opening birdie and came home in 38. “I had my chances,” Shelton lamented, “and I just didn’t convert.”
That left Olsen, 17, who never had slept on a lead in a major championship, who never had finished better than fourth in an AJGA event, who never had even shot consecutive rounds in the 60s in an elite tournament. Not surprisingly, he battled nerves on the eve of the final round and early Sunday. “Breakfast didn’t taste very good this morning,” he conceded.
In two years, Olsen, of Cordova, Tenn., and Clark (who begins school in the fall) will be teammates at Oklahoma State, but before the final round there was no talk of dorm living or sorority girls — they exchanged nary a word on the practice tee. Shelton isn’t exactly a chatterbox either, so for much of the final day, it felt like watching a silent film.
Olsen created a spark with an emphatic fist pump on the par-3 seventh hole, after draining a slippery, 25-foot birdie putt to push his advantage back to three shots. That kind of lead certainly wasn’t insurmountable, especially here at Sage Valley — first-round leader Cody Proveaux, for instance, up by two shots as he played the par-3 second Saturday, walked off the green having fallen one behind.
Nonetheless, Olsen stayed comfortably atop the leaderboard, never leading by fewer than two strokes all day. In recent months, Zachary and his swing coach/father, Brad, have focused on hitting a consistent fade and shoring up his short game: flighting wedges on the proper trajectory, getting up-and-down more often, holing more putts.
“It’s validation for how much hard work I’ve been putting in,” said Olsen, No. 17 in Golfweek’s rankings.
His main goal now is to make the Junior Ryder Cup team — the prospects for which became much brighter after his breakthrough victory at Sage Valley.
“I felt like if he could get in the winner’s circle, he could really start to believe in himself like I knew he could,” Brad Olsen said. “I think it’s a huge steppingstone for him.”