GRANITEVILLE — In four installments of the Junior Invitational, Sage Valley Golf Club has succeeded in creating a Masters Tournament-like environment for the teenage crowd.
The only thing missing has been Augusta-caliber drama, but it’s trending in the right direction.
Scottie Scheffler, the nation’s No. 1 ranked junior, made a clutch par on the last hole to edge out his close friend Cameron Champ by a stroke Saturday.
The winning margin the previous three tournaments were eight, three and two, so a two-man duel on the back nine was a welcome departure from the lack of sweat required to win the gold jacket.
“It was pretty fun,” Scheffler said after surviving when Champ bogeyed the last two holes.
After dinner the night before, Champ promised his Junior Ryder Cup teammate an Augusta National-style charge to catch his friend who started the day four shots in front of him.
“Just messing around with him, I said I was going to shoot the course record tomorrow,” Champ said.
He very nearly delivered with 4-under-par 32 on the front that included consecutive birdies at Nos. 6, 7 and 8.
“That was the start I needed to give myself a chance on the back nine,” Champ said. “I was definitely proud of that.”
A 200-yard, 7-iron for a tap-in eagle on the 15th hole vaulted him to 6-under for the day and into the lead.
“He told me if I heard some roars in front of him I’d know that he was coming,” Scheffler said on his after-dinner conversation with his roommate this week. “He was definitely right. I knew he got to 6 (under) and I ended up birdieing to tie him on 15. I knew what he was doing coming down the stretch.”
In the group behind, Scheffler had to get up-and-down for birdie on 15 to tie and set up the finishing duel.
Final-round drama has been the one missing ingredient in an otherwise phenomenal event. Gathering and pampering 54 of the best junior golfers from around the world has earned the Junior Invitational a reputation for excellence, but larger crowds that typical arrive on the weekend have been treated to more bad weather than a good show the previous three years.
It took two “veterans” to make it interesting. Champ has played at Sage Valley in three consecutive years and kept working his way to the top of the board each time. Scheffler joined him two years ago and missed last year because of a high school engagement.
“The experience helped a lot because I knew what I was getting into,” Scheffler said.
Both players played the treacherous 17th hole in identical fashion, missing 10-footers for bogey heading to the last. Champ’s length that had been such an advantage might have cost him. Both players ended up blocking drives to the right, but Champ’s traveled so far that he reached the pine straw and was forced to lay up with branches in his way.
Scheffler was far enough back to have an open 205-yard shot to the back pin, hitting it to 15 feet to set up a winning two-putt.
“It definitely helped a lot that I knew where he was at because my mindset might have been different the last two holes,” Scheffler said.
All in all, the Junior Invitational capped what has become an April standard in local golf. When the Wyatts started the event in 2011, they promised to introduce the Augusta area to the next generation of golf superstars.
The first one delivered a player (Emiliano Grillo, of Argentina) who before the year was over had earned a European Tour card. Last year produced the first Junior Invitational participant (Matthew Fitzpatrick) to go on to qualify for the Masters with a U.S. Amateur victory. This year validated the top rank of the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion.
Keeping track of these gifted young golfers is just part of the fun. Now with the addition of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National on the eve of Masters Week, a three-week stretch spanning the Savannah River gives a glimpse into the future of the game. It won’t be long before some kid completes the trifecta of the DCP, Junior Invitational and Masters. Throw in the collegiate event hosted by former two-time NCAA champion Augusta State the weekend before the Masters, some player will eventually complete a career April Grand Slam around here.
“I will definitely miss it,” Scheffler said of aging out of the Junior Invitational. “This is a fun place. It’s probably the best (junior event) I’ve been to.”
Thanks to Scheffler and Champ for delivering the best show so far.