Sage Valley bites back at Junior Invitational, Nicholas Dunlap holds two-shot lead

Photo: Sage Valley Junior Invitational

Sage Valley bites back at Junior Invitational, Nicholas Dunlap holds two-shot lead

Junior

Sage Valley bites back at Junior Invitational, Nicholas Dunlap holds two-shot lead

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GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Whereas Thursday’s opening round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley served as a day of redemption for players who fared poorly last year, Friday’s second round will be remembered as redemption for the golf course.

With firm greens, tough pin positions and wind that howled 20-30 mph all day, Sage Valley showed the field of 54 elite junior players it had some sharp teeth after all. While 19 players managed to break par Thursday, only five managed the feat on Friday.

“That’s probably the best 3-under-par I’ve ever shot,” said Nicholas Dunlap, whose 69 gave him a 2-stroke advantage over first-round leader Tom McKibbin, Karl Vilips and Ricky Castillo heading into Saturday’s final round. “It played almost impossible out there – it feels like about an 8-under.”

“From the first hole, it was blowing,” said Vilips, the Australian who recorded his fourth tournament ace in Thursday’s first round. “Putting was tough, especially with some of the pin (positions) they had.

LEADERBOARD: Sage Valley Junior Invitational

“They have to make it hard. It’s not the longest course – the wind is its defense. Yesterday, you saw a 64, a 66 and a few 68s – I just don’t think that should be happening and in these conditions I don’t think it will.”

Dunlap notched a birdie at the opening hole Friday and followed with another birdie at No. 6. He made his move on the difficult back nine with a tap-in birdie at the par-5 10th before sinking a 12-footer for another birdie at 11. His birdie at 14 pulled him into a tie with McKibbin, who would relinquish the lead at the 17th when he found the water and made triple bogey.

Vilips carded seven birdies on the day to shoot 69 and felt he could have gone even lower despite the conditions.

“I know 69 sounds really good, but it could have been better if you look at it from my standpoint,” Vilips said. “I missed 5-footers for par on 14 and 16 which is a little disappointing.”

Castillo, one of five University of Florida commits in the field, has been perhaps the steadiest player this week. He suffered just one bogey during Friday’s round of 70 and finished with eight straight pars on the course’s toughest stretch.

“Today, I knew it was going to be tough,” said Castillo, currently ranked No. 2 in the world according to Golfweek/Sagarin. “I was just thinking, ‘give yourself a decent chance, that anything around par would be great.’”

Ricky Castillo plays at the 2019 Sage Valley Junior Invitational.

Castillo’s lone bogey came with a 3-putt at the fourth which according to him, “should have been a birdie.” He bounced back with a birdie at the fifth then got up-and-down for birdie at the par-5 eighth.

Those birdies left him in good shape if only he could navigate the final holes that gave everyone else in the field so many problems.

“The last eight holes are pretty tough when it’s all windy, and a lot of them were into the wind,” Castillo said. “I was just thinking anything around 2-over the last eight holes would have been really good, so to get it around in even is really good.”

At 68-69—137, Dunlap will play in the final group Saturday with Vilips (70-69—139) and Castillo (69-60—139).

McKibbin (64-75—139) will play in the penultimate group with Maxwell Moldovan (69-71—140) and Andrea Romano (68-74—142).

Defending champion Akshay Bhatia, the No. 1-ranked junior in the world, rebounded from Thursday’s disappointing 79, with an even-par 72 Friday and stands tied for 28th place.

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