GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Tom Humphrey watched his son Theo’s pre-shot routine on the first tee at Sage Valley Golf Club on a bright Friday morning and knew Theo’s nerves were in check. Theo is deliberate in his preparation, but quick to take his place over the ball. By mid-afternoon, he had turned a single-shot headstart into a four-shot lead, and had the world’s best at his heels.
“His game has matured because he goes through his routine,” Tom said. “He sticks to his process. He’s all business.”
To close out a Junior Invitational victory on Saturday, Theo must make Sage Valley’s closing holes his business. He burned his lead there in the second round with a double-bogey at No. 16, and bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18. Humphrey also went 2 over on those holes in Round 1, allowing the field to come back to him. He enters the final round one shot off top-ranked Scottie Scheffler’s lead.
“I felt good all day, hit a lot of great shots,” said Humphrey, who finished with an even-par 72. “The last three are tough.”
Humphrey, No. 20 in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings, is vying for the biggest title of his career. His growth has been rapid, and Tom sings the praises of two men who were crucial in getting Theo to this point.
As Theo matured in golf, Tom brought in John Brooks, a former college coach who helps junior players through the recruiting process. Brooks quickly became a family friend and a mentor for Theo, and helped connect him with swing coach Todd Anderson, the director of instruction at Sea Island (Ga.) Golf Club. Those relationships also guided Theo to Vanderbilt, where he’ll play on a golf scholarship beginning in the fall.
“Theo was just a kid from Greenwich who liked to play golf,” Tom said on a breezy evening at Sage Valley. Over his shoulder, his son’s name sat high on the leaderboard, one of only three names next to a red number.
Humphrey, a lanky 17-year-old with brown curls peaking out of a fitted Commodore cap, put on a ball-striking show on Friday. When he got in trouble, emotion poured out. Humphrey is a player able to let it fly before refocusing on the shot at hand. He is good at minimizing the damage.
“Theo is animated, but once he gets to the next shot, he’s over it,” Tom said. “It’s the way he is.”
With Anderson’s help, Theo has reined in his misses. He’s a more accurate player these days, and now time spent with Anderson is about maintaining what he’s built.
“My misses were really bad and I needed to correct that,” he said.
He’ll need the accuracy on Saturday to take his lead back from Scheffler and keep it. Playing in the next-to-last group, Scheffler made few errors on Friday. A missed 6-footer at the 18th gave him his only bogey in a 3-under 69. He eagled No. 15 to cut Humphrey’s lead from four shots to two, then made a 30-footer for birdie at No. 17 to pull even. Humphrey’s hiccups coming in gave Scheffler the outright lead.
Scheffler didn’t see a leaderboard until the 15th tee, at which point Humphrey was 6 under. Scheffler figured he could get to 3 or 4 under and be in position. Up to that point in the round, he’d been focusing on playing his own game – a hard thing to do when paired with bombers Cameron Champ (tied for fourth at even par) and Austen Truslow (T-12 at 2 over).
“I tried to not watch them tee off,” Scheffler said. Champ, for one, averages 310 yards off the tee. He hit the par-5 eighth in two on Friday, using a 4-iron from 228 yards out.
Scheffler kept pace effectively, and felt the momentum turn in his favor late in the round after missing makeable birdie putts at Nos. 13 and 14.
Scheffler is the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion, and the only U.S. Golf Association champion in this 54-man field. He will be 18 by the time that tournament is played again in July and ineligible to defend his title. Scheffler isn’t sure yet, but the Junior Invitational could be his final junior event before he joins the University of Texas in the fall.
“This position feels good to me because I’m in control of what I need to do tomorrow,” he said of taking a lead into the final round.
A lead for any player, it seems, means little upon reaching the Sage Valley gauntlet.