Next young golf star might be in field at Junior Invitational at Sage Valley

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GRANITEVILLE — Andy Zhang tentatively hit a few balls on the practice range Monday before getting into rhythm.

The 16-year-old left-handed golfer from Reunion, Fla. was overwhelmed by Sage Valley Golf Club. And he had only been there a short while.

“The grass is so nice,” he said. “I feel bad taking divots.”

Zhang was one of several golfers getting in an afternoon practice round in advance of the fourth annual Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, a 54-hole tournament which begins Thursday.

Zhang and the rest of the 53 players in the field are looking to become the fourth different Junior Invitational champion at the end of the week, joining Nicholas Reach (2011), Zachary Olsen (2012) and Carson Young (2013). The juniors are also looking to gain valuable experience, seeking to become the next Matthew Fitzpatrick, who finished eighth in last year’s event and went on to win the U.S. Amateur.

He qualified for the Masters Tour­nament, where he missed the cut by a shot. Last week, Fitzpatrick tied for 23rd place at the RBC Heritage.

Then there’s 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who played in the final group of the Masters only to finish in a tie for second place behind champion Bubba Watson. Also, Harris English, Russell Henley and Patrick Reed – all in the 25-and-under crowd – have all won on the PGA Tour in the 2013-14 season.

Connor Smith, a two-time winner of the E-Z-GO Vaughn Taylor Invitational, said he’s motivated by seeing young players doing well on the professional ranks.

“It gives me inspiration,” said 18-year-old Smith of Birmingham, Ala. “Seeing them do it makes me feel like if they can do, I can do it. I just have to keep working hard.”

Luis Gagne, a 16-year-old from Orlando, agrees with Smith.

“It gives me motivation,” Gagne said. “I’m right there.”

Zhang said playing in the Junior Invitational is good preparation for taking the next step. He compared the tournament to a professional event, with golfers getting caddies, playing a world-class golf course and being spoiled with amenities like on-site housing. And the field is prestigious as well.

“You’ve got 54 of the greatest players in the world,” said Zhang, who became the youngest U.S. Open participant at age 14 in 2012. “Getting in here is such an honor.

“It’s almost like a dream. It’s almost like a tour event. For all the juniors, we call this the Masters.”

AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Fourth annual Junior Invitational at Sage Valley

WHERE: Sage Valley Golf Club, Graniteville

WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, gates open at 7:30 a.m., first tee time scheduled for 9.

BADGES: Tournament Patron Badges are $5. Children 12 and under with an adult are free. Badges can be purchased at the gate upon arrival. Tournament VIP Badges are $150.

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