First Tee players use Sage Valley for inspiration

First Tee member Sam Wimbrow, 17, tees off on the 18th hole at Sage Valley on Thursday.

First Tee member Sam Wimbrow, 17, tees off on the 18th hole at Sage Valley on Thursday.

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GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – The Junior Invitational is unique in its limited, elite field and has built itself around a desire to provide the very best experience in junior golf. Sage Valley Golf Club is a manicured course in a golf mecca, and one that every player will traverse this week with his own personal caddie. Their bellies full of fried chicken and sweet tea, players should leave this week with an idea of what it's like to be among the top caliber of Tour players.

Among that glitz at Sage Valley is a significant nod to growing the game, which is where the First Tee comes in.

The Junior Invitational is now in its third year of existence, and in that time, the number of First Tee participants who were granted spots in the competitor-am (played Wednesday and Thursday of tournament week) has grown from 20 local juniors to 72 national players.

Russ Krueger, a tournament organizer, says this portion of the tournament happened by accident in 2011, but it has taken a firm hold. Krueger, a Sage Valley member since 2002, was filling spots in the competitor-am, and had many members who wanted to write a check for a spot in the event, but couldn’t fit it into their calendar. When they asked Krueger to fill the spot for them, Krueger, a board member for Augusta’s First Tee chapter, found First Tee players.

Krueger, who spent Wednesday morning greeting players at the first tee, plays in the event each year. In 2011, he drew Patrick Rodgers, now a sophomore at Stanford, and watched as the First Tee participant in that group tried to match Rodgers shot for shot. Krueger chuckles when he says he later found out that the First Tee player had created a different scenario in his head: He and Rodgers were playing Augusta, not Sage Valley, and were competing for a green jacket.

“For a lot of them, it can be a transformative event in their life,” Krueger said.

Krueger pitched the idea to the First Tee in December that chapters all over the country could get involved, and the organization went for it. This year, the 72 First Tee players on property are made up of 20 players from the Augusta chapter, 20 from the Aiken, S.C., chapter and 32 players representing 29 other chapters from across the nation. Sage Valley’s membership, which hovers around 250 members, helped fund those players’ lodging, caddie fees and a shopping spree in the Nike merchandise tent on property. First Tee players were invited to the pre-tournament banquet, at which Jack Nicklaus was the keynote speaker.

In addition, $400,000 was donated to the First Tee, part of which goes to the national program, and part of which stays in Augusta for the local chapter. If all goes as planned, 108 First Tee players will travel to Augusta next year.

“It’s another way to expose (First Tee players) to people and experiences,” said Joe Louis Barrow Jr., CEO of the First Tee.

First Tee players had to write an essay in order to enter, and had to a carry no more than a 7 handicap. Landon Patterson, a 15-year-old member of the First Tee chapter out of Brunswick County, N.C., drew a spot in defending champion Zachary Olsen’s group on Thursday. Patterson shot 80 from the middle tees (about 6,700 yards), and was struck by Olsen’s putting ability.

“It meant a lot to me to be able to come out and watch all these great players,” he said.

In addition to the early-week activities, the national First Tee participants will volunteer as standard-bearers and help keep scoreboards updated around the course during Round 1. That duty shifts to local First Tee players for the weekend rounds. It drives home an important lesson that no one gets a free lunch: Players give something back to the tournament.

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