Junior Ryder Cup offers invaluable experience
NEWPORT, Wales – Justin Thomas made the cut in a PGA Tour event last year, so it’s obvious the 17-year-old knows how to play well in front of crowds.
But Thomas, of Goshen, Ky., looked confused when he saw hundreds of spectators crowded around Celtic Manor’s 16th tee on Thursday. Thomas, golf bag on his shoulders, waited in the crowd for a couple minutes before being summoned to the tee.
The crowds weren’t there for Thomas, one of the United States’ top juniors. No, they were watching Europe’s Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Peter Hanson make final preparations for the Ryder Cup, which begins Friday at Celtic Manor.
After the Europeans cleared the fairway, Thomas and his playing partners had to continue waiting as European captain Colin Montgomerie, assistant Sergio Garcia and other assistant captains discussed strategy in front of the tee. An official politely asked the captains to clear out for the juniors.
“I was joking, saying, ‘What are these guys doing? Don’t they know they need to get out of the way?’ ” Thomas said. “But obviously it was all about them.”
Thursday’s play was just part of a special week for the best juniors from the United States and Europe. They competed in the Junior Ryder Cup on Monday and Tuesday at Gleneagles in Scotland. The United States won 13 1/2-10 1/2.
Thursday’s exhibition, the Junior Ryder Cup Friendship Bowl, featured foursomes of one boy and one girl from both the United States and Europe. The teams played nine holes Friday at Celtic Manor, just one day before it hosts the Ryder Cup.
Thomas’ group, which included fellow American Ginger Howard, won the contest, at 4 under par. A team’s score consisted of the best two scores per hole. The bowl will be displayed at Celtic Manor.
Playing behind the Europeans gave Thomas’ group the opportunity to play in front of large crowds. When Thomas hit his tee shot on the 211-yard, par-3 17th within 30 feet of the hole, the fans in the packed grandstand applauded the shot.
“It was pretty cool,” Thomas said. “Every time I play something like this, it just keeps reminding me of everything these guys deal with, and how much better I need to get. It’s just a great experience.”
Golf is a fickle game, so no one can guarantee that Thursday’s participants will one day represent their countries as professionals, but exposing them to international team competition, especially the Ryder Cup environment, is valuable.
The European team has brought a non-competing player to the past two Ryder Cups for that very reason.
Howard was especially excited to see Garcia. “I love him,” Howard, of Bradenton, Fla., said with a wide smile.
Most of the Junior Ryder Cup participants will stay in Wales this weekend to watch the Ryder Cup. When Anthony Paolucci leaves Wales after the Ryder Cup, it’ll be the end of a 25-day stay in the United Kingdom.
He came Sept. 10 to play the Duke of York, a stroke-play event at Royal St. Georges, site of next year’s British Open. After finishing seventh, Paolucci stayed in the British Isles to play four courses on the British Open rota – Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Muirfield and two rounds at Turnberry.
“I have to figure out what I’m going to say to my teachers when I get back,” said Paolucci, of Del Mar, Calif.
He could regale them with plenty of tales from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“This introduces to you what it’s like (playing with a gallery),” said Paolucci, who also played in the 2008 Junior Ryder Cup and Friendship Bowl. “You see, if I block this one, I might hit this person. It makes you focus on what you have to do.
“It was awesome.”