GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Four years ago, when the Junior Invitational was just a fledgling event that drew the top juniors in the world to Sage Valley Golf Club, Nicholas Reach blistered the Tom Fazio-track. He left town the first victor in the event’s history, after a smoking 20-under 196 total.
That may never happen again.
Since that first year, when Reach blew out the field by eight shots, the golf course has become considerably harder. Dave Christensen, general manager at Sage Valley, says it has matured. The scores show it, too. The past two years, it took a 7-under total and 4-under total, respectively, to win the event.
“We’ve made some changes to the golf course, specifically 17 and 18, to make those holes more challenging.” Christensen said.
As a result, the tournament inevitably comes down to the final three holes.
The 16th is a long par 3 with trees on three sides of the green and bunkers guarding the front. The 17th was lengthened by nearly 100 yards before the 2013 event and the green was moved down a hill, bringing a lake into play on the right side of the hole. As for 18, an extra tee box was added to make the hole play nearly 60 yards longer. Most notably, though, a front tee box was moved from the left to the right, and trees bordering the left side of the hole have grown out farther, putting a bunker on the right side of the fairway more in play.
“Those three are tough,” said competitor Theo Humphrey after Round 2. He had watched a two-shot lead become a one-shot deficit over that stretch.
Last year’s winner, Carson Young, had been hanging near the leaders all day, but birdies at Nos. 16 and 18 ultimately gave him the title.
The first Junior Invitational also was played in rainy conditions, making greens soft and receptive. Still, Christensen remains in awe of Reach’s opening 62 (a score Justin Thomas also shot later in the week). It’s an especially legitimate score considering Reach shot another 62 across town at Palmetto Club later that summer at the Southern Cross, an amateur event
This year’s event could be unique in that a big-name junior may walk away with the traditional gold jacket for the first time. Consider Reach, 2012 winner Zachary Olsen and Young all underdogs. Top-ranked Scottie Scheffler, the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion, and No. 4-ranked Brad Dalke, a 16-year-old phenom who has made junior-golf headlines since committing to Oklahoma as a 12-year-old, are securely in the hunt. Scheffler has a one-shot lead on Humphrey, and Dalke is three back.
For a big-name tournament, a big-name winner certainly wouldn’t hurt in providing staying power.