GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – As spring approached, Corey Shaun was glued to Golfweek’s junior rankings. Shaun, of Encinitas, Calif., teetered on the edge of an invitation to the Junior Invitational. All the 17-year-old knew was that by the time the azaleas bloomed at Sage Valley Golf Club, he wanted to be secure in that field.
Shaun, who this spring moved safely up the rankings to secure his invitation, had hoped for a spot in this event for the past two years. The Junior Invitational, relatively young in golf history, has drawn the strongest field according to Golfweek’s rankings since its inception in 2011. So for Shaun, the rumors were true.
“Every player is capable of winning,” he said, but it takes a strong short game and a level head around the greens.
Brad Dalke, 16, can say the same – in fact, it’s a big reason the country’s No. 5-ranked player, and one with three AJGA invitational titles, has not finished better than 16th here in two previous tries. Dalke doesn’t even have a license to drive the 2005 Chevy truck in his driveway, but he’s vying for the Junior Invitational’s traditional gold jacket for a third time, and two more opportunities await.
“It’s not quite preparing for the greens right,” Dalke said of his track record here. “You have a lot of putts where you have to aim a foot out.”
The Junior Invitational is best known for its depth of field, exclusivity and general excessiveness. Players live like both kids and kings on these grounds. Plates of fried chicken and brownies are both luscious and bottomless. Players spend the week in their own on-site cabins and at night have free run of Sage Valley’s three-hole short course like a pack of Lost Boys.
This is the one tournament players star on their calendars each year, and Tom Wyatt, Sage Valley president, is glad to hear it. Already this week, a family from North Texas approached him to say they could hardly wait to get here.
“That makes you feel like you’re doing it right,” he said. Wyatt and dad Weldon, owner and developer at Sage Valley, are doing it right twofold.
The tournament came to fruition in 2011 as the brainchild of Sage Valley member Paul Simon, who first pitched the idea as a way to fundraise for the start-up First Tee chapter in Aiken, S.C. Years ago, when Tom was a junior golfer, Weldon had started a high school event in the area.
“We always wanted to do something here for junior golf,” Tom said of reviving that tournament and transforming it into the top junior event in the world. “We always saw how important golf was for kids.”
The multi-layered approach of Sage Valley’s event is one reason it has had such staying power. The two-day Junior-Am that precedes the 54-hole event proper last year brought in about $200,000 each for the Aiken and Augusta, Ga., First Tee chapters.
“That’s just an essential part of it,” Wyatt said. “I see that always being part of it.”
Locals and Sage Valley members support the Junior-Am heartily, frequently buying a team then giving up their spot so that a First Tee member can play. Locals also line the fairways with lawn chairs late in the week. They’re especially glued to the 18th green.
Now four years into the Junior Invitational, Wyatt describes the tournament’s stronghold among elite juniors with the famous line from the movie “Field of Dreams.”
“The Sage Valley experience,” Wyatt said. “I think kids will always be attracted to that.”
For the first time this year, a past Junior Invitational participant played across town at The Masters. Matthew Fitzpatrick, who earned his invitation courtesy of his U.S. Amateur victory, barely missed the cut at Augusta National. The previous two winners of the Haskins Award, given to the top player in college golf, also played at Sage Valley. Those men, Michael Kim and Justin Thomas, have since turned professional.
“I think you’ll start seeing more and more of that,” Wyatt said of past competitors cycling through to the PGA Tour.
Thanks to the international presence at the Junior Invitational, there’s a pipeline to the European Tour, too. The Junior Invitational’s reputation has grown overseas, and it’s why players like Dominic Foos of Germany keep coming back. Foos returns this year after a top-10 finish at last year’s event. His stateside golf trips are limited, but the Junior Invitational ranks up with the U.S. Junior Amateur, the U.S. Amateur, the Junior Orange Bowl and the Western Amateur.
Foos, who arrived early because his family had tickets to the Masters, calls it a great honor to be at Sage Valley.
That, and “you can go out and get as much food as you want.”