GRANITEVILLE — The third-annual Junior Invitational teed off Friday at Sage Valley Golf Club, and the prestigious tournament featuring the best junior golfers in the world got off to a good start. The future college and pro players were tested with windy conditions and adjustments that made the picturesque course more challenging. It was reflected in the scores, which weren’t as low as the first-round figures posted the past two years.
In the inaugural Junior Invitational, eventual champion Nicholas Reach stormed ahead of the field with a first-round 10-under 62. Last year, former Pelion star Cody Proveaux was the leader after the first day with a 6-under 66. The leader after Friday’s first round is Sam Horsfield, who carded a 4-under 66. The 16-year-old from Great Britain, via Orlando where he’s lived with his family for the past 11 years, had a solid round that included six birdies and two bogies. He had three birdies apiece on the front and back nine and became the first foreign-born junior to hold the outright lead after seven competitive rounds in the tournament.
“I made a lot of putts. A lot of putts,” said Horsfield, who has a one-stroke advantage on Rico Hoey and is two shots ahead of Jaime Lopez Rivarola. Four more players are tied for fourth place at 1-under 71. “There’s still two days to go. I hope I stay (in the lead), but I’m just going to play my game.”
Horsfield, who has previously won the Orlando Amateur and made it to the round of 32 in last year’s USGA Junior Amateurs before losing to the eventual champion, said he knows his lead is tenuous. The challenges posed by the course and the weather – which forecasts a 30 percent chance of rain today – are significant. Having to battle those factors while competing against a field that includes an elite international field golfers makes it a true testament of skill and execution.
“These are the 54 best juniors from around the world,” said Horsfield, who rated the Sage Valley event as the No. 1 junior tournament. “I’m just going to keep playing and see what happens.”
While Horsfield was realistic about the challenges ahead, Hoey was thrilled just to be in the position to contend after the first round. The colorful 17-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga, Ca., with flashy earrings said his first round left him shocked.
“I’m not used to this kind of course or environment. … It was a great round,” said Hoey, who had five birdies and two bogeys on the day, with three of the red numbers coming on the back nine, the first time this week he’s played that set of holes on the course after several opportunities during practice rounds. “I didn’t know where to go, and my caddie said, ‘Hit it right there.’ So I did.”
Hoey, who won the 2012 California Junior, was one of several players to comment on Sage valley’s challenging greens.
“These greens are wow,” Hoey said. “They’re fast and tricky to read.”
Augusta’s Greyson Sigg, playing the Junior Invitational for the second year, also commented on the speed of the greens. He said his experience playing tournament rounds at Sage Valley gave him an advantage en route to a 1-under 71.
“It helps a lot. I know what goes on, and it calmed my nerves and I was able to enjoy it a lot more,” said Sigg, who had four bogeys, three birdies and an eagle to force a tie with Kristoffer Ventura, Corey Pereira and Matthew Fitzpatrick – who was 5-under through 16 holes but bogied and triple-bogied Nos. 17 and 18. “I saw some kids miss on the greens. Out here, you have to know where to hit it on the green, or you’ll be in trouble.”
One player who found a way to avoid the challenges posed by the greens – for one hole at least – was Benjamin Griffin (74). The Chapel Hill, N.C., native recorded the first hole-in-one during Junior Invitational play when he aced the par-3 16th hole from 225 yards out.
Carson Young, one of three players tied at even-par 72, had a good score on a back-nine hole. The 18-year-old from Pendleton eagled No. 15 when he hit a hybrid iron within 10 feet of the cup before sinking the putt.
“It feels good to shoot a good score. I’ll take even-par,” said Young, who played in the second group of the day and had to deal with some of the worst conditions, although he’s familiar with the area, taking lessons from Jackie Seawell at Houndlsake. “It’s awesome to have the biggest junior tournament in the world in South Carolina.”
Young has the distinction of competing in the Junior Invitational with one of his Pendleton High teammates, Austin Langdale. The Townsville resident also carded an even-par 72 returning to Sage Valley for the second year in a row. Like Young, he said he’s content with his score following the first round.
“I wanted to get a little under, but I didn’t take myself out of it,” said Langdale, who was well aware of unusual circumstances that has two teens from a small area qualifying for the same major tournament. “It’s unique to have two players from a (Class) AA high school in the same field, and we’re both going to Clemson. We’ve been real close (with their play) all season. It’s cool.”
Langdale admitted there’s a little rivalry to see who can do better this weekend between the teammates who are even staying in the same cottage at Sage Valley.
“There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition.”
Both Pendleton players will be looking to make a move today in the 54-hole event. They’ll be in some of the final groups to tee off, with Young starting at 11:20 a.m. and Langdale 10 minutes later. The final group will include Horsfield, Hoey and Lopez Rivarola, and they’ll tee off at 11:50 a.m. In spite of the magnitude, Hoey has a good plan for the weekend.
“I’m going to go have some fun and go with it,” Hoey said of his approach. “I’m going to trust my game and see what happens.”
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.
What: Junior Invitational
Where: Sage Valley Golf Club, Graniteville
When: Today and Sunday
• Children 12-and-under accompanied by an adult are free
• Badges may be purchased at the gate upon arrival
• 7:30 a.m. Gates, Electrolux Pavilion and Golf Shop opens