GRANITEVILLE — The Junior Invitational golf tournament will return to Sage Valley Golf Club this weekend for the third consecutive year. The tournament features the best junior golfers in the world and is considered the most prestigious event of its kind.
Each of the past two years, an esteemed speaker has addressed the players competing, adding to the allure of the event. In the inaugural tournament in 2011, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem spoke to the field following play. Last year, former President George W. Bush delivered a speech at a dinner before the start of the tournament.
This year followed that same format, and the speaker was none other than golf legend Jack Nicklaus. The 18-time major tournament champion is an iconic figure across the globe and especially so in the CSRA, in large part because of his six victories in the Masters Tournament.
Following dinner and several other speeches about The First Tee program – which is the recipient of the money generated by the Junior Invitational – Nicklaus took center stage. Rather than deliver a prepared speech, he took questions from the night's emcee John Patrick as well as some thoughtful queries from players participating in this year's Junior Invitational and kids participating in The First tee program in Aiken and Augusta. Through the questions, Nicklaus addressed a wide variety of subjects, from the value of college to designing golf courses. He even answered some about the player who many see as his heir apparent as golf's greatest player – Tiger Woods.
“Tiger is a very unique golfer. He's unbelievably talented and unbelievably dedicated,” Nicklaus said when asked if the 37-year-old Woods can win five more majors and surpass the “Golden Bear's” record. “I still believe he's young enough to break my record. Whether he will or not, I don't know. … If I said anything else, it would be headlines in the papers.”
Nicklaus also addressed the controversy about Woods drop at this year's Masters, that nearly caused the world's No. 1 ranked golfer to be disqualified.
“You had the best minds in golf determining what Tiger's fate was,” Nicklaus said of the rules committee at Augusta National as well as input from the USGA, R&A and PGA among others. “They felt in the best interest of golf, he should continue to play. Some said Tiger should withdraw, but if Tiger withdrew, he'd be putting himself above the rules of golf.”
Nicklaus said he was neutral on the issue of a possible ban on belly putters, deferring to the governing bodies, but admitted he tried using one of the anchored devices without success.
“The belly putter is the most awkward, ugly-looking tool I've ever seen.”
While often mixing in jokes and directly addressing the youngsters who asked him questions, Nicklaus captivated a large audience. He was most passionate discussing the subjects of junior golf and life away from the game.
“I looked at my life, that golf is a game and I treated it as such. I never wanted golf to dominate my life,” Nicklaus said, reinforcing his beliefs in a balanced life and the importance of family, being especially effusive in praising his wife Barbara who accompanied him to the dinner. “I learned how to manage myself.”
On the issue of junior golf and growing the game, Nicklaus was adamant in his support for The First Tee. He said he'd addressed congress on two occasions on behalf of the organization, related success stories of alums of the program and was surprised when he received a Founders' Award for his service.
“We need to start kids at a young age, get them into the game of golf and keep them into the game of golf,” Nicklaus said of his mission, where organizations like The First Tee help make golf more accessible. “I want (kids) to enjoy it and have fun.”
Nicklaus is focused on the kids from The First Tee, hoping to give them the opportunity to grow into becoming golf enthusiasts, like the patrons that will be welcome at Sage Valley from Friday through Sunday. He isn't worried about the involvement of the field of players competing in the Junior Invitational. He referred to them as future professionals and hinted there might be a green jacket winner or two playing this weekend. Gates open at 7:30 a.m. each day for the chance to see the youngsters who hope to become the next Golden Bear.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.