GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Call it redemption or call it an exorcism, by any name the opening round of the Sage Valley Junior Invitational became a day for year-long wounds to finally heal.
Still reeling from the sour tastes incurred at the 2018 event, players such as Tom McKibbin, Cole Ponich and Travis Vick enjoyed stellar rounds that put them at the top of this year’s leader board and put bad memories to rest.
For McKibbin, the Northern Ireland resident who is coming off a big victory back in Birmingham, England, last week, Thursday’s 8-under 64 put him in the lead and temporarily eased the pain of last year’s tie for 37th place in which he shot 18-over.
“I was terrible,” McKibbin said of his 2018 performance. “Last year I was a bit shocked by the place – how good it was. Now, this year I know how to play the course a bit better.”
McKibbin, a class of 2021 member committed to play at the University of Florida, ignited his round with a chip-in for eagle at the par-5 eighth. That sent him to 4-under for the round and he would not make a bogey the rest of the day, following up with birdies at 11, 12, 15 and 18.
McKibbin’s was the low round on a day when Sage Valley seemed ripe for the taking as 19 players broke par. Little wind in the morning and receptive greens provided the field with plenty of opportunities to go low.
Ponich, who also tied for 37th in 2018, fared 15 shots better in the first round this time. He shot 66 and is alone in second place.
“It was a rough start last year,” said Ponich, who will play for Brigham Young University in the fall. “Last year I learned a lot. Since I was out of the tournament last year, I used it as a learning experience and this year I wanted to be really aggressive with it being my last year.”
After a birdie at the first, Ponich reeled off three straight birdies starting at No. 4 and continuing with a 30-footer drained on 5 and a 15-foot slider at 6. Birdies on four of the first six holes of the closing nine took his round to 8-under before he closed with bogeys at 17 and 18.
“Last year was a lot tougher – I’ve gained a lot of distance since then.”
For Vick, the turnaround may be most striking. Having finished tied for 50th at 23-over in 2018, Vick felt the need for redemption this year as much as anyone and his opening-round 68 has him tied for third with Italy’s Andrea Romano, Nicholas Dunlap and Ricky Castillo.
“This is not what I expected at all,” said Vick, a University of Texas commit. “I expected even par would have been a good score.
“I came into this week just wanting redemption. I played terrible last year. I’ve never played well out here and just being able to put up a good score today and being able to play well the rest of the way would be huge for me.”
Defending champion Akshay Bhatia, the No. 1 ranked player in Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, struggled with a 79 in his bid to become the first back-to-back winner in Sage Valley history.