GRANITEVILLE — The first 15 holes of the course at Sage Valley Golf Club aren't easy. Far from it.
It just seems that way compared to the final three. Viburnum, Tea Olive and Weeping Willow – the names of Nos. 16, 17 and 18 – have fangs. On Thursday, the first day of the 2014 Junior Invitational, the final three holes at Sage Valley took a bite out of most of players – leaving them with higher scores at the end of their round than it appeared they would card after completing 15 holes.
Of the top 12 players on the leaderboard, only three were able to finish the final three holes without a bogey or worse. Only one of them, Sam Horsfield, recorded a birdie on any of the final three holes. Horsfield, the leader after each of the first two rounds in the 2013 Junior Invitational, birdied the 16th and 17th hole followed by a par to leave him at 2-under 70 and a stroke off the lead.
Theo Humphrey posted enough red numbers on the first 15 holes, that he was able to endure back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 to finish at 3-under. His 69 leaves him alone atop the leaderboard heading into today's second round.
“Par is a good score on 17 or 18,” said Humphrey, who was at 5-under through 15 holes. Humphrey was pleased when he made a tough 8-foot comeback putt on 18 to save par at the end of his round – a shot that proved to be the difference in his overall lead. “To bogey the last three holes would not be good. (Making par on 18) was big, especially as good as I played the first 15.”
The 18-year-old from Connecticut was very good on his first 15 holes. He had three birdies on the front nine and birdied three of the first six holes on the back side before finding trouble on No. 16.
“I'm very happy with my round, but it's just the first day. I need two more rounds like this,” the Vanderbilt commitment said when he left the course, predicting his lead would hold up the rest of the round because of the challenging finishing holes. “The last three or four holes are real tough; there's not a lot of birdies there.”
There certainly weren't in the first round. Not one of the top 20 players on the leaderboard birdied the 18th hole, which plays at 452 yards and has a very large but challenging green. No. 17 is also a long hole, common for most of the holes on the 7,437-yard course. Its 499 yards are made more daunting by a narrow fairway and green bordered by water and woods, leaving no room to miss and making it the most difficult hole at Sage Valley. Like so many par 3s on elite courses, the 224-yard 16th hole is a challenge.
“You have to miss in the right spot,” said Brad Dalke, who's tied with Horsfield at 2-under, a shot behind Humphrey. The foursome of Cameron Champ, Scottie Scheffler, David Snyder and Austen Truslow were all two strokes off the lead at 1-under. “I played really solid golf the whole day. I played smart golf out there.”
The 16-year-old Dalke was steady too. He had three birdies and just one bogey, saying his knowledge of the course helped him find safe spots to play, even if the shot missed. This is the third consecutive year Dalke's playing the Junior Invitational.
“Being here a third year, the experience helped,” said the Oklahoma commitment, whose 70 was his second-best tournament round at Sage Valley, with only a 67 in the second round of 2012 surpassing it. “I know where not to miss.”
Champ, another third-time participant, said that his familiarity with the course didn't play much of a factor. He said knowing the course is helpful, but the swirling winds are an equalizer. When they kick up, as they started to Thursday afternoon, it makes the challenging course even more difficult because the trees can push the wind in different directions, making it very hard to read.
“It's the same for everyone,” said Champ, who added that the talent of the field of the top 54 juniors in the world also evens things out. “We have the same skill level and can adjust.”
Champ got hot in the middle of his round. The 18-year-old Texas A&M commitment had an eagle and three birdies on a seven-hole stretch and got to 3-under. But the player known for his massive drives, including one his caddie Michael Phelps said went 390 yards on his eagle at No. 10, struggled on the last two holes.
Champ went bogey-bogey to finish, blaming his distance control for the problems. He overshot the green on No. 17 and fell short of it on the 18th hole. In spite of that, Champ's 71 was still the best tournament round he's ever carded at Sage Valley.
“It was my best one for sure. I've never shot under. I'm feeling confident,” said Champ. “I didn't finish well. My two worst iron shots of the day (were on 17 and 18). But it was a good round. You want to keep yourself within a few shots of the lead.”
Champ accomplished that in spite of his late troubles. He wasn't alone. Andy Zhang and Ireland's Robin Dawson both saw impressive scores through 15 fall apart on the last three holes.
Zhang was 4-under before finishing bogey-bogey-double bogey. Dawson was 3-under before going double bogey-bogey on the final two holes to also end up at even par, along with Canada's Matt Williams, Italy's Renato Paratore and Keenan Huskey.
Huskey, a 17-year-old Greenville native, bogeyed Nos. 17 and 18 for his 72. In spite the tough finish to his four-birdie, four-bogey day, Huskey came away from his first tournament round at Sage Valley smiling. Like the rest of the field, he couldn't say enough positive things about the course and the experience of playing in the Junior Invitational.
“This is the first time I've been here and it's extremely nice,” said Huskey, who has been a fixture in other top junior tournaments in the area at Palmetto Golf Club and Woodside Plantation. “It's one of the nicest tournaments I've been to, and the golf course is in great shape.”
While Huskey will attend the University of South Carolina in the fall, this experience has been an eye opener. He was flattered when asked for his autograph by a young patron at Sage Valley.
“It's so different. I signed an autograph; that's the first time I've done that. It's pretty cool.”
One of many cool experiences at the Junior Invitational.
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.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: 2014 Junior Invitational
WHERE: Sage Valley Golf Club
• Tournament Patron Badges are $5
• Children 12 and under with an adult are free
• Badges may be purchased at the gate upon arrival
• Tournament VIP Badges, which include breakfast, lunch and access to the VIP tent are $150 for the weekend
• Gates, Electrolux Pavilion & Golf Shop opens, 7:30 a.m.
• First tournament tee time, 9 a.m.
• Last tournament tee time, 11:50 a.m.
1 Theo Humphrey, United States 69 -3
T2 Sam Horsfield, United States 70 -2
T2 Brad Dalke, United States 70 -2
T4 Cameron Champ, United States 71 -1
T4 David Snyder, United States 71 -1
T4 Austen Truslow, United States 71 -1
T4 Scottie Scheffler, United States 71 -1
T8 Matt Williams, Canada 72 E
T8 Robin Dawson, Ireland 72 E
T8 Keenan Huskey, United States 72 E
T8 Renato Paratore, Italy 72 E
T8 Andy Zhang, United States 72 E
1 Theo Humphrey, United States 69
T2 Sam Horsfield, United States 70
T2 Brad Dalke, United States 70
T4 Cameron Champ, United States 71
T4 David Snyder, United States 71
T4 Austen Truslow, United States 71
T4 Scottie Scheffler, United States 71
T8 Matt Williams, Canada 72
T8 Robin Dawson, Ireland 72
T8 Keenan Huskey, United States 72
T8 Renato Paratore, Italy 72
T8 Andy Zhang, United States 72
T13 Kyle Sterbinsky, United States 73
T13 Cameron Young, United States 73
T13 Nick Hardy, United States 73
T13 Alejandro Tosti, Argentina 73
T13 Marco Penge, United Kingdom 73
T13 Benjamin Baxter, United States 73
T13 Zachary Bauchou, United States 73
T13 Davis Riley, United States 73
T21 Paul McBride, Ireland 74
T21 Kristian Caparros, United States 74
T21 Jorge Garcia, United States 74
T24 Aaron Terrazas, Mexico 75
T24 William Gordon, United States 75
T24 Michael Hirmer, Germany 75
T24 Jonah Texeira, United States 75
T28 Josh Fickes, United States 76
T28 Derek Castillo, United States 76
T28 Austin Connelly, United States 76
T28 Benjamin Griffin, United States 76
T28 Trevor Phillips, United States 76
T28 Doug Ghim, United States 76
T28 YouXin (Robin) Wang, United States 76
T35 Wilson Furr, United States 77
T35 Ashton Turner, United Kingdom 77
T35 Connor Smith, United States 77
T35 Sam Burns, United States 77
T35 Sean Crocker, United States 77
T35 Dylan Meyer, United States 77
T41 Keegan de Lange, South Africa 78
T41 Will Blalock, United States 78
T41 Collin Morikawa, United States 78
T41 Dominic Foos, Germany 78
T41 William Register, United States 78
T46 Marcus Byrd, United States 79
T46 Ye Chun (Carl) Yuan, United States 79
T46 Luis Gagne, United States 79
T46 Thadd Obecny II, United States 79
T46 Jonathan Hardee, United States 79
T46 Jan Szmidt, Poland 79
52 Won Jun Lee, United States 83
53 Wo Cheng Ye, China 84
54 Corey Shaun, United States 85
Staff photo by Noah Feit Cameron Champ drops his driver after a tee shot during the first round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club. Champ shot 1-under 71 in the first round.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Theo Humphrey, left, is congratulated by caddie Jody Webb after saving par on the 18th hole during the first round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club. Humphrey shot an 3-under 69 and is the tournament leader after the first round.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Keenan Huskey, of Greenville, chips onto the 18th green during the first round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club. Huskey shot an even-par 72 in the first round.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Cameron Champ prepares to hit a tee shot during the first round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club as caddie Michael Phelps looks on. Champ shot 1-under 71 in the first round.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Theo Humphrey reads a putt during the first round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club. Humphrey shot 3-under 69 and is the leader after the first round.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Andy Zhang, of China, blasts out of a fairway bunker during the first round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club. Zhang shot an even-par 72 in the first round.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Andy Zhang, of China, tries to blast out of a bunker during the first round of the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club. Zhang shot an even-par 72 in the first round.×