Augusta-area buddies favorites in upcoming Junior Invitational

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Upon elimination from the U.S. Junior Amateur last summer, Matt NeSmith and Cody Proveaux hopped aboard a ferry for an hourlong trip to a movie theater across the bay in Seattle.

Longtime friends Cody Proveaux (left) and Matt NeSmith are two of the top-ranked juniors in America. They are favorites at this weekend's Junior Invitational.  JIM BLAYLOCK/STAFF
JIM BLAYLOCK/STAFF
Longtime friends Cody Proveaux (left) and Matt NeSmith are two of the top-ranked juniors in America. They are favorites at this weekend's Junior Invitational.

After they watched the final Harry Potter film, Proveaux realized the age of innocence for him and his longtime friend was coming to a close.

“That was like the end of our childhood,” he said.

NeSmith and Proveaux, both 18, are mere weeks away from graduating high school and becoming full-fledged amateurs. In four months, they will both be college golfers – NeSmith at South Carolina, Proveaux at Clemson. But for now, the close friends still have some unfinished business close to home.

When the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley begins Friday, NeSmith and Proveaux will be two of the favorites to win the prestigious second-annual event. The duo, separated by 30 minutes, are the two highest-ranked juniors in South Carolina, two of the top four in America.

“I can’t wait,” NeSmith said. “It’s such a great event. It’s got the best players in the world.

“It just reminds me of Augusta. I feel like I’m playing in the Masters.”

It’s feasible NeSmith and Proveaux could soon be playing in the Masters Tournament. Fresh off a win at the Azalea Amateur earlier this month, NeSmith of North Augusta is the No. 2-ranked junior, according to the American Junior Golf Association.

Proveaux of Leesville, S.C., is the reigning Rolex Junior Player of the Year and is ranked fourth. NeSmith and Proveaux are two of the nation’s three Byron Nelson International Junior Golf Award winners, and they will be honored during the PGA Tour’s Byron Nelson Classic in May.

“It’s really cool,” NeSmith said of the award. “It means I’ve come a long way.”

NeSmith began playing golf around the age of 6. His family enjoyed the game, and his cousin, Wesley Carter, played for the College of Charleston. NeSmith’s father, Darren, helped him with the fundamentals, and he started a steady ascent.

NeSmith began playing in South Carolina Junior Golf Association 12-and-under tournaments throughout the state. In the events, he kept seeing a talented, talkative kid. Proveaux and NeSmith, a pair of gregarious youngsters, soon hit it off, talking about girls, movies and other topics of the day.

“He’s pretty outgoing,” NeSmith said. “If you’re not outgoing, Cody will make you outgoing.”

Like NeSmith, Proveaux began playing golf because of his father, but it wasn’t his first sport. Proveaux was a power-hitting shortstop and pitcher for his baseball team. He preferred hitting balls over the fence to hitting them into the fairway. But Proveaux kept going to the golf course with his dad, Charles, and he began playing in tournaments at age 9. He became so smitten with golf, the sport affected his baseball swing. Proveaux no longer smashed home runs – he couldn’t get the ball out of the infield. By the time he turned 12, he dropped baseball to focus on golf.

Proveaux soon became one of the top juniors in South Carolina and then in the South. In 2009, he shot 59 at Cooper’s Creek Golf Club in Leesville. That same year, he won the men’s club championship for the second year in a row.

He continued climbing in the junior ranks and was up to No. 2 last year after winning the Junior PGA Championship. Because of his stellar play, he received a sponsor’s exemption to play in his first professional event in June at the PGA Tour’s FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.

NeSmith is starting to play his way into prestigious events also. Ranked in the top 20 among juniors a year ago, he began a torrid stretch last fall. He posted a pair of thirds before winning the Polo Golf Junior Classic and Jones Cup Junior Invitational; Proveaux was the first to congratulate him after each win. NeSmith credits Proveaux with his improvement – the two practice together on a regular basis at Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken.

“He pushes me more than he probably knows,” NeSmith said. “He was playing well before I started playing in AJGA events. That kind of lit a fire within me.”

Their friendly rivalry will continue this week. Then, they will travel together to various prestigious events this summer: Northeastern Amateur, Porter Cup and Western Amateur are just a sampling.

Their friendship will carry over to the college level, despite playing for hated rivals. Proveaux grew up a Clemson fan and jumped at the chance to play for the Tigers when offered a scholarship.

South Carolina started showing interest in NeSmith, a Georgia Bulldogs fan, in eighth grade. He rewarded the Gamecocks when they offered him a scholarship.

NeSmith and Proveaux savor the opportunity to face each other in college and then likely in the professional ranks.

“We’re going to have fun,” Proveaux said. “And we’re going to try to beat the crap out of each other.”

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Second annual Junior Invitational at Sage Valley

WHERE: Sage Valley Golf Club, Graniteville

WHEN: Friday-Sunday, 54 holes

WHO: 54 players from 15 countries, including 16 of the top-20 ranked players according to the American Junior Golf Association

TICKETS: $15 (daily ticket), $20 (weekly ticket), $100 (daily clubhouse badge), $250 (weekly clubhouse badge), children 15 and under free with an adult. Tickets can be purchased at Sage Valley or Savannah River Banking locations.

MORE INFORMATION: juniorinvitational.com


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