GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – With just more than an hour to go until the final group’s players hit their tee shots in the deciding round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, I experienced something I never have in covering junior golf: a traffic jam.
As we crept down that steep entrance road in our big shuttle bus, one car after another bailed left, hopping a curb and parking alongside the road after a field designated for parking had overflown. That many people wanted to pass through Sage Valley Golf Club’s gates on a beautiful Saturday morning to watch the final round of the top-ranked junior tournament in the world.
If nothing else about the Junior Invitational impresses you, that should. Overflow parking in junior golf rarely exists, much less fills up.
The Junior Invitational truly is on a level of its own in terms of skill, golf course and amenities. Early in the week, Sage Valley president Tom Wyatt suggested such a junior-golf phenomenon might not be possible anywhere else. People in this part of the country embrace their golf, but it’s more than that. The pieces are in place here, and nothing goes overlooked. It’s admirable cohesion, even if it is slightly over the top. But as Wyatt said, “The Sage Valley experience, I think kids will always be attracted to that.”
The Sage Valley experience is that of a mini Masters. Distinguished-looking men strode through the pine needles in green jackets all week, and even the menus carried the kind of low prices and “patron favorites” that I’ve seen only in the cellphone pictures of Masters attendees. The sounds of bagpipes flow over the loudspeaker every day at 6 p.m. The fairways, greens, flower beds and even the mulch surrounding them are manicured.
The golf is equally precise, which is the real draw of the week. It was easy to forget I was watching kids play the game. Most of them still can’t drive a car, and many of them handed duffel bags of dirty clothes to their mothers at week’s end. But I watched player after player hit par 5s in two – many with irons – shape shots around trees and compress the ball with the strength of players twice their size.
I see graduation years on the tee sheet and calculate ages in my head, and it seems as if they shouldn’t have such skill at such a young age. The Junior Invitational further drives home the point that the gap between these kids and the next level is not quite so big as you might imagine.
After a compelling battle through the Sage Valley gantlet of Nos. 15-18 on April 26 (the final two holes were made harder in the past two years to help set up eleventh-hour drama), Scottie Scheffler became the fourth winner in tournament history. Scheffler entered the week as Golfweek‘s top-ranked junior and is the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion. He’s the first favorite in tournament history to prevail at week’s end, and that’s a good thing for this tournament.
Finally, the Junior Invitational has its No. 1 guy.