A year ago, Cameron Champ might have let his emotions get the best of him.
But after failing to complete a final-round comeback Saturday at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, Champ handled defeat well and although he faltered late, he showed a marked improvement in dealing with the pressures of contending.
“First two years here, I never had the chance to win, kind of just middle of the pack, played well the last day sort of thing,” said Champ, who was T-13 last year at Sage Valley and T-14 in 2012. “It was really nice to play well today. I haven’t felt those nerves in a while, so it was definitely nice to control it well, except for those last two holes. But I’m learning, it’s golf and hopefully next time I can just par them.”
Champ referred to his bogey-bogey finish that left him with a 4-under 68, which still tied for the best round of the tournament. It yielded a runner-up finish at 4-under 212, one shot back of champion Scottie Scheffler.
Known for hitting his driver a country mile – and then some – the long hitter from Sacramento, Calif., put himself in bad spots off the tee at the 17th and 18th holes. At 17, he found a bunker with his drive, missed the green and couldn’t get up-and-down for par. And at 18, he pounded his drive a little right, but ended up getting blocked out by some trees on the dogleg left par 4. He had to punch out and settled for bogey.
“Last two holes are probably the two hardest holes on the course, especially 17,” Champ said. “If you par there (at 17), you almost gain a stroke on field.”
The poor finish came after a brilliant first 15 holes. He birdied the par-4 third hole before notching three straight birdies, at Nos. 6-8. “That was the start I needed to give myself a chance on the back nine,” Champ said.
He had a bogey at the par-5 10th after a poor tee shot, but added a birdie at the par-4 14th and an eagle at the par-5 15th. At the 15th, Champ hit driver and then, from 209 yards out, stuck a 7-iron to about 5 feet, making eagle to grab a one-shot lead.
“I knew I was close,” Champ said. “I thought I might have had the lead, but I wasn’t sure until I asked.”
In the end, it was Scheffler, not Champ, who was slipping on the gold jacket. But for Champ, if anyone could have beaten him, he was glad it was his good friend – even if he did lose some bragging rights.
“It was funny because I told him last night that I was going to shoot the course record (Saturday) just to mess around with him,” Champ said. “I wish I could’ve finished better, but props to Scottie.”
Said Scheffler: “He told me (before the round) if I heard some roars in front of me then I’d know he was coming, and he was right.”
Scheffler and Champ became close a couple of years ago during the Junior Ryder Cup. They roomed together this week at Sage Valley, hanging out after rounds and eating meals together, including breakfast Saturday morning before their rounds.
“We kind of did everything together, so it was a fun week,” Champ said.
Scheffler will attend Texas this fall while Champ will play golf for rival Texas A&M. And speaking of the Aggies, he’ll arrive in College Station with 31 completed college credits thanks to the five college classes he’s taking online.
“I’ll technically be a sophomore when I get there,” said Champ, who even had to write a couple of essays for a class Friday night.
The hard work in the classroom has paid off. So too has the hard work on his golf game.
Champ started working with instructor Sean Foley about five months ago. Foley was at Sage Valley Friday to speak to the players. Afterward, he took time to look at some video of Champ’s swing with his pupil.
“Me and Sean have blended very well together,” Champ said.
Champ credits Foley with not only helping his golf game, but also his mental game, which paid dividends this week at Sage Valley.
“(What he’s taught me), it’s been more mental. . . . Live life with a happy mindset,” Champ said. “If you think a certain way, you’re going to act a certain way. I’m trying to mature and just create tunnel vision, even though that’s very difficult to do still. I still have a lot of learning and maturing to do, but it’s definitely helped.”
Champ has come a long way already. A year ago at Sage Valley, he was noticeably frustrated with missed shots and putts on occasion. This week, he looked calm and focused.
He looked like a champion, and Saturday, he was oh so close to being one.