GRANITEVILLE — Coming into this year's Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club, much of the discussion was how changes were made to the 17th and 18th holes to make them more difficult and keep the scoring down at the third installment of the tournament featuring the 54 best junior golfers in the world.
That proved to be the case for most of the players in the 54-hole championship, considered to be the best junior golf tournament in the world. Making par on the way home was good enough for most players.
But with the tournament at stake Sunday, Carson Young knew he had to be bolder. He finished with a flourish and took his only lead of the three-round event at the only time it mattered, on the 18th hole of the final day.
“I'm so excited,” said Young, who was 2-under Sunday to finish 4-under for the tournament (72-70-70–212), good enough for the title as well as the trophy and gold blazer given to the champion. “To finish like I did, I'm speechless. This is the biggest tournament I've played in.”
Playing in the second to last group, the senior from Pendleton High School made it to the par-3 16th hole at 2-under.
That left Young two strokes behind Robby Shelton, the top-ranked junior in the world who was in the final group. Shelton seemed to have vise-grip on the lead and it seemed that if Young or anybody else was going to move to the top of the leaderboard, it would have to be the result of posting red numbers.
Young was playing with Sam Burns and Austin Langdale, his high school teammate and future teammate at Clemson. Coming to No. 16, the trio was asked by an official on the course if they wanted to know the leader's score. Burns and Langdale declined, but Young asked for the status update.
“Nobody wanted to know but me,” Young recalled. “I just wanted to finish par-par and force a tie.”
He did a little better than that. After Young made a 25-foot birdie putt on 16, he made a clutch par on No. 17 and only needed one putt to birdie the 18th hole and vault to the top of the leaderboard. Rather than share the top spot, he was all alone as Shelton faltered on the challenging two holes home.
After making six consecutive pars on the back nine, Shelton made a critical mistake on No. 17. His approach shot landed just short of the green and in what turned out to be casual water. Shelton didn't realize that until he was hitting the ball, or attempting to. His shot was miss-hit and he made a critical bogey.
After a solid drive placed him on the left side of the 18th fairway, Shelton was made aware of Young's birdie and knew he had to match with one of his own to force a playoff. The aggressive tact didn't work as his approach shot went through the green and into the pine straw in front of the gallery.
“I put a good swing on it, but I chose the wrong club on 18,” said Shelton, who played his way back into the tournament after a first-round 74. “I should've hit an 8-(iron), not a seven.”
An incredibly difficult attempt to chip in off the unstable surface failed and the newly sharpened teeth on the back end of picturesque Sage Valley took a bite out of another elite junior. Shelton ended up making bogey on No. 18, leaving Young the champion.
“I don't know what to say,” said Young upon emerging from the scorer's tent and finding out he won the premier junior event held in his home state in his only chance to play in it. “This is the start of a great tournament. I won in my first and last year playing it.”
While Young isn't eligible to qualify for the Junior Invitational anymore because he'll be playing in college this time next year, it was announced that the tournament will continue for several years to come. At the ceremony where Young was presented with his gold blazer, Mark Chambers – the senior vice president sales for Electrolux, the tournament's top sponsor – announced support for the event through 2017. He and Weldon Wyatt, founder and owner of Sage Valley, signed a contract to continue hosting the junior major. If the next four years are as successful as the first three have been, it's fair to say the Junior Invitational will be a fixture for a long time and a chance to get an early look at the PGA Tour golfers of the future.
With the win, Young joins Nicholas Reach and Zachary Olsen (78-75-80–233) as Junior Invitational champions. He nearly played his way out of contention at the start of the third round, which teed off an hour earlier and on two sets of tees in an effort to beat bad weather in the forecast.
Young made bogey on the first two holes and three of the first five. He was just hoping to keep pace with Langdale, who got off to a very good start. Langdale birdied three of his first five holes and moved to the top of the leaderboard. But Young's friend since he was 5 years old couldn't keep up the pace and finished the day with five birdies and five bogies for an even-par 72.
“Overall, it was a solid tournament, I just made some sloppy mistakes,” said Langdale (72-70-72–214), who finished tied for second at 2-under with Shelton (74-68-72–214), Augusta's Greyson Sigg (71-72-71–214) and Sam Horsfield (68-71-75–214) – who led after each of the first two rounds and has been invited to return to Sage Valley next year, along with Kyle Sterbinsky. “It was a heck of an experience,” Langdale said of his second and final year in the tournament. “I can't say I didn't play well, but I'm happy for Carson. The way he finished was amazing. He's a heck of a player and person. I can't be more happy for him and it's pretty good for our high school.”
Young and Langdale will be in action in Aiken again this week when they play for Pendleton in the Southern Cross at Palmetto Golf Club. Young will enter that event on a high note because of the way he rallied Sunday. Following his rough start, he got back into contention with back-to-back birdies on Nos. 7 and 8. He stayed on Shelton and Langdale's heels with a string of seven consecutive pars before making his move on the final three holes.
“I was just fighting all day. The putts weren't dropping until the last few holes,” said Young, who benefitted from the rain that fell Saturday night and Sunday morning. “I'm an aggressive putter, so the slower greens helped me.”
Young also said he was aided by his position on the leaderboard. He said he prefers to play the role of hunter, rather than leader and that style helped him win the Carolinas Amateur, what he said was his biggest win before this week.
“I loved where I was,” said Young, who said winning such a prestigious event was even more significant because he got to do it in his home state, in front of family and friends – including Strom Thurmond state champion golfer McKenzie Talbert. “I wanted to come in and win it, so it's a big bonus. … It's real special.”
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.
1 Carson Young 72-70-70–212
T2 Robby Shelton 74-68-72–214
T2 Austin Langdale 72-70-72–214
T2 Sam Horsfield 68-71-75–214
T2 Greyson Sigg 71-72-71–214
6 Corey Pereira 71-71-74–216
7 Sam Burns 74-68-75–217
8 Matthew Fitzpatrick 71-71-76–218
9 Kristoffer Ventura 71-70-78–219
10 Kyle Sterbinsky 72-76-72–220