Inaugural Junior Invitational draws raves

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GRANITEVILLE --- In its debut, the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley exceeded the expectations of club co-owner Weldon Wyatt and tournament chairman Paul Simon.

Nicholas Reach cruised to an eight-shot victory in the inaugural Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. The event was considered a big success and very few changes are expected for next year.   Corey Perrine/Staff
Corey Perrine/Staff
Nicholas Reach cruised to an eight-shot victory in the inaugural Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. The event was considered a big success and very few changes are expected for next year.

The event, which drew 54 players from 18 countries, ended a three-day run Friday with Georgia signee Nicholas Reach routing the field. Reach, an 18-year-old from Moscow, Pa., shot 20-under for the week and won by eight.

Off the course, organizers couldn't have been more pleased with the way the tournament came together, thanks to 31 subcommittees that worked on it.

"It was a great three days," Wyatt said. "You always meet afterward and critique it, but I see very little (to improve). We wanted to make it special for the kids and put the bar so high. We just want to continue."

Said Simon: "I'm extremely pleased. The players were happy and the parents were happy. I talked to both groups and they're all very pleased with what went on."

The idea of the tournament was hatched three years ago, and work started on it just under two years ago.

"We could have had it last year but we said 'no, let's not rush it,' " Simon said. "We could have done it on a lower scale, but we got more sponsors and the PGA filmed it. All that wouldn't have happened."

"It was an amazing experience," said 18-year-old South African Brandon Stone, who will play for Texas this fall. "You can't put money to it. It's an honor to be here. This is basically the major of junior golf. If you're playing here, you have made it in junior golf. This is the Masters of the juniors."

STONE SAID THE golf course "is worthy of being called a major. Mr. Wyatt has such an amazing gem here."

Indeed, the draw of seeing the exclusive Sage Valley course, where local golfers must be with a member to play the Tom Fazio-designed layout, drove up ticket sales to the point where more had to be printed.

"What we didn't know is if anybody would show up," said Russ Krueger, a subcommittee chairman. "We printed more than 2,500 tickets and we thought there is no way in the world that we could ever run out of tickets. It's a junior golf tournament. It's in its first year. Who's going to come? Thursday morning we realized we desperately needed to print some more tickets. So we printed another 1,500 more. The attendance was extraordinary."

Krueger estimated that about 4,000 fans came out on a overcast and cool Friday for the final round. In all, he believes "7,500 to 8,000" tickets were sold for the week.

"That so far exceeded anything I could possibly imagine," Krueger said. "That would be a lot for a Champions Tour event or an LPGA event."

"The thing that surprised me more than anything was the number of people who want to come out here," Wyatt said. "It's kind of unusual to see so many people at an event. I've been to a lot of junior tournaments and I've never seen anything like this."

Krueger said that "anybody who didn't know about Sage Valley is certainly going to know about it now."

"It makes me feel good," said Wyatt, who didn't want to heap too much praise on Sage Valley because "it's like bragging on your children. But Sage Valley is kind of unique."

The tournament even drew PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who placed the "Sage Valley Gold" jacket on Reach after he won.

Finchem normally attends select PGA Tour events and the Nationwide's Tour Championship, but amateur and junior events are not on his schedule. Finchem made an exception because this was Wyatt's tournament, and it supported The First Tee program, a development nonprofit that teaches life skills using golf as a platform.

"Tim and I have been friends for many years," Wyatt said. "I serve on the national First Tee board. Tim has always been heavily involved in The First Tee. He's been supportive of this tournament and First Tee has been very supportive."

EARLIER IN THE week, golfers from The First Tee chapters in Aiken, Augusta and Columbia played Sage Valley as guests, along with sponsors.

"One of the volunteers was taking one young man (a First Tee golfer) up to the driving range in a cart," said Sage Valley general manager Dave Christensen. "He said, 'stop, stop stop.' The volunteer stopped the cart. The young man said 'I've never seen a real live caddie.' He got out of the cart and ran over and touched him."

Electrolux -- which has a three-year contract to be the presenting sponsor -- was pleased with the tournament, as were the other sponsors, Wyatt said.

"Electrolux said they are wanting to even expand their role," Wyatt said. "They say they've seen the benefits of this big-time. Everyone I've talked to him -- they were about like me -- they were awed by what went on."

More sponsorship could help Wyatt make at least one change he wants for 2012: electronic scoreboards on the course.

Another change could be the number of participants, who qualify based on various categories.

"I don't think we ever have a set number," Wyatt said. "Nothing we have here is in concrete. I don't ever foresee this having 75 or 80 players. Fifty-four was a good number for us because it gives you the time element to get them around."

"If there are 60 players we need to have here, that's fine," Christensen said. "We just don't want to have a field of 120 players. We want to be recognized as gathering the top players in the world."

According to participant Ben Warnquest, of Rockville, Md., that has already happened.

"I played the U.S. Junior and I thought this was the best junior I ever played in, then I came here," he said.


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