Dalke, Horsfield trail Humphrey by one at Sage Valley

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GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – For Oklahoma boy Brad Dalke, Sage Valley Golf Club is feeling about as close to home as anywhere in the Deep South could.

Dalke now has logged seven competitive rounds here in three years. The Junior Invitational gets a perennial star on his calendar for its depth of field and general extravagance. In terms of good omens, his opening 2-under 70 on Thursday included three birdies (one, at No. 12, from a chip-in), a near eagle at No. 15 and only one bogey. It’s his best round since a second-round 67 two years ago, and left him tied for second. In each of his previous tries, Dalke finished 16th, but this year could be different.

“Being here, this is my third year,” Dalke said. “I’ve played on these holes, these pins.”

Pre-tournament, a bulked-up Dalke, 16, identified short game as an area that has always held him back at Sage Valley. On Thursday he had 28 putts and hit 11 greens. This is a course where he has to battle to avoid wasted shots. His average score over the past two years was 73.6.

“I think experience just helped me knowing where to miss,” Dalke said of a day where he very rarely left himself on the wrong side of a pin. It’s a crucial way to play this course, where an approach shot can land within 10 feet of the hole, only to roll back down the front of the green.

As Dalke fielded questions about his round, his mom Kay was headed to spend time with the host family putting her up this week. Brad’s supporters are vast here. One Sage Valley member even passed on a rare coin he used to mark his ball Thursday. The small gold piece of currency came from Hobart, Tasmania – the Dalkes live in Hobart, Okla.

Dalke will play in the final group on Friday with first-round leader Theo Humphrey and last year’s runner-up Sam Horsfield, who also opened with 70 on Thursday. If Dalke was the picture of steadiness, then Humphrey and Horsfield epitomized perseverance.

Humphrey, of Greenwich, Conn., stood on the tee box of the par-3 16th at 5 under, the leader by three shots. A bogey there brought him one shot closer to the field. At No. 17, Humphrey pulled his approach shot long and left into pine needles and a cluster of bushes. With water lining the right side of the green, he dropped a pitch shot in the bunker before blasting out and making a 10-footer for bogey.

“There’s no such thing as a good bogey,” Humphrey, 18, said later. Still, that damage control – plus a two-putt par at No. 18, a long par 4 – left him at 3-under 69 and with a one-shot advantage.

Humphrey is a bright, emotional player who isn’t afraid to shout after his bad shots. Nos. 16 and 17 aside, Humphrey was happy with the round, especially since this is his first time playing the Junior Invitational.

Trace the inspiration for Thursday’s stoic finish to the 2013 AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions, where Humphrey was leading on the back nine but had three bogeys coming in to finish four shots back.

Three weeks later, Humphrey won the AJGA Philadelphia Junior, his first major junior title, with a final-round 65.

“I’ve played plenty of tournaments to where I’m in good shape,” he said of stacking up against this elite 54-man field. On Thursday, Humphrey proudly wore his Vanderbilt hat, displaying a commitment to play for the SEC school in the fall. His junior days are numbered, and Humphrey intends to make them count.

As for Horsfield, a 17-year-old from Davenport, Fla., by way of small-town England, mental toughness was the key to a 2-under 70 that very nearly spiraled out of control. Playing in one of the final groups, Horsfield opened the day with six pars before finishing the front nine with a bogey and two birdies. He chipped in on No. 10, bogeyed 11 and began to feel his game slipping.

A swirling wind and a misbehaving driver tested Horsfield mid-round but he steeled himself. He had spent much of the previous day’s practice round adjusting to Sage Valley after gaining 20 yards form last year’s visit. Many of his landing points had changed, and so did his strategy. Horsfield’s mental game has grown stronger, too.

“A lot of things have changed over the last year,” Horsfield said. “I’ve matured as a golfer.”

After briefly dropping out of the race, Horsfield climbed back into it with birdies at No. 17 and 18. A year ago, those holes cost him dearly in the final round, as he fought to win the traditional gold jacket at Sage Valley. He came in second, and thus entered this year a favorite.

In fact, Horsfield seems to feel quite at home here, too.

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