GRANITEVILLE — The organizers of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club pride themselves on, among other things, the strength of the field of 54 junior golfers they’re able to bring in from around the world.
While that’s true for the third year of the 54-hole event, set to begin today at 9 a.m., this time the course has been altered to fight back against the world’s best juniors.
“Over the last year, they changed 17 and 18 pretty significantly,” said Elaine Barnhill, tournament coordinator. “They brought water into play on 17 and lengthened both holes, and the kids who have played in the past who are back and played those two holes again have said that they are a lot harder than they were in the last couple years.”
One such competitor is defending champion Zachary Olsen. The 18-year-old from Cordova, Tenn., set to play in college at Oklahoma State, said the changes were noticeable, to say the least. He said bringing the water into play on the 17th hole has created more of a dogleg and a need for a more exact tee shot.
“I think it’s very similar, minus 17 and 18,” Olsen said of the course set-up. “Eighteen, it’s just longer, so aesthetically there’s not really much difference. But 17, yeah, 17s completely different. ... I think you’re more penalized when you don’t hit a good drive because, as before, you could kind of run it up or something. There with the water, you’ve got to be really conscious of what you’re doing.”
Olsen won the 2012 tournament with an overall score of 7-under, after Nicholas Reach – now a sophomore at the University of Georgia – won with a 20-under in 2011.
Tom Wyatt, the president of Sage Valley Golf Club, said with the updates to the course’s final two holes, he’d be surprised if this year’s winner was able to reach either of those numbers.
“You know, 7-under won last year, but I have a hard time believing they’re going to get to that this year, but of course, I could be wrong,” Wyatt said. “It’s definitely going to be a much harder finish for them.”
If any junior golfers are going to tame the new set-up, it would be the group that Wyatt and his associates have invited. With the help of the Golfweek rankings, as well as Nike for the international players, some of the world’s top young golf talent is in Graniteville today.
In addition to Olsen, ranked No. 35 by Golfweek, five of the top 10 golfers in that poll are in the field, including No. 1 Robby Shelton of Wilmer, Ala.
Shelton finished in a four-way tie for second a year ago at 4-under, along with North Augusta grad and University of South Carolina freshman golfer Matt NeSmith. Joining them as runners-up were Wyndham Clark and Taylor Moore, with Clark having moved on to play golf at Oklahoma State and Moore on the roster at Arkansas.
This year’s field also includes winners of other major events and the top international junior players.
“Top to bottom, it’s so good. It’s a really good mix of players,” Wyatt said of what he called “our best field” of the three so far. “It’s kind of hard to single out five or six names.”
Because of the overall strength of the competition, Wyatt said repeating as champion will be a tall task for Olsen. Still, he didn’t count the Tennessee native out.
“It’s going to be tough for him, I think, but Zach’s a great player,” Wyatt said. “Real strong player, so I can totally see him winning it again.”
For Olsen’s part, he said simply being back at Sage Valley – a “spectacular place” – gave him a positive enough feeling, regardless of his status from last year’s event. While he said that having experience being successful on the course was valuable, simply having played Sage Valley should make a difference.
“I think just playing. The shots you hit last year, you can’t play them again,” he said. “Playing the course, any course, the more you play it, the more you remember breaks, you remember just little things. So I think just playing, reps on the golf course, is the most important thing.”
Olsen and Shelton are set to tee off at 10:20 a.m. today with England’s Patrick Kelly. Tee times are set at 10-minute intervals until the last group at 11:50 a.m. Augusta’s Grayson Sigg tees off at 9:30 a.m. with Alejandro Tosti of Argentina and Thomas Lim of Moorpark, Calif.
Barnhill said a full-weekend pass is $5, cheaper than last year to encourage a larger crowd for one of the most prestigious events in junior golf. Children 12-and-under are free if accompanied by an adult.
“We just want people to come out and enjoy themselves,” she said.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.