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After two-year wait, the top girls join the boys at Sage Valley
17 Mar 2022
by Golfweek

see also: Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, Sage Valley Golf Club

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At Sage Valley Golf Club, a private, immaculate gem tucked into the pines in Graniteville, South Carolina, just 18 miles northeast of Augusta National Golf Club, it’s tough to ignore the many nods to the home of the Masters.

And if the Junior Invitational, which returns this week after a two-year COVID hiatus, is the Masters of junior golf, now there’s a tie to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, too. Back in March 2019, the Sage Valley Junior Invitational Sports Foundation announced plans to launch the first girls’ field in 2021. A lingering pandemic delayed the event for two years but this week, it comes to fruition. The 54-hole event takes places Thursday through Saturday.

Many aspects of the highly coveted junior event differentiate it from the rest of the competition schedule but perhaps nothing sets it apart quite like the lodging. Sage Valley houses players on property for six nights. There’s a lighted nine-hole par 3 that’s like a playground for the budding professionals who pass through here each year.

It’s a whole experience – a “mini camp with a golf tournament wrapped around it,” as Pete Davis, president of the SVJI Sports Foundation, said – but therein lay perhaps the biggest hurdle in the creation of a girls’ event. How many players could the club accommodate?

Davis said the foundation’s board has noodled the concept of a girls’ field for the past five to six years, consulting the major golf organizations about the challenges that were presented as they did so. Holding both events consecutively was the only way to be fair to both, Davis said, and in adding a field of 24 girls to the tournament, the boys’ field was also reduced to 36 players.

“With a field size of 36,” Davis said, “we are leaving some talented boys out with that size field, going from 54 to 36, but we feel like the opportunity to play them as a combined tournament outweighs the reduction in number of spaces for the boys.”

Related: Take a Look at the Field

Still, the boys’ field includes the top 10 players in the Golfweek Junior Rankings. Top-ranked Alexa Pano headlines the girls’ field, with four other top-10 ranked players also competing.

When Pano first heard about the creation of the event, she knew she wanted to be there. As the tournament drew closer, it consumed junior golf chatter.

“Even leading up to this, we all communicated so much about what everyone is bringing, what everyone is doing,” she said. “There has been so much hype and talk around this event between both sides, the girls and the guys.”

That even includes some par-3 showdowns around the periphery of the tournament proper.

“I think we’re setting up some good matches,” Pano said.

Pano plus five other players will head to the ANWA four days after Sage Valley, but for now, the attention is firmly on Sage Valley.

“Everyone who asks me about my upcoming schedule, I get so excited talking about it because what better weeks could you put back to back other than playing Sage Valley, the best junior golf tournament and then going to the Augusta Women’s Amateur, the best women’s amateur event?” said Pano, who just opened the Epson Tour season with a T-10 at the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic. “It’s an insane two weeks of golf, playing on some of the best courses in the country.”

From his point of view, Davis has watched the ANWA closely and he hopes to draw a line from that event to the new Sage Valley girls’ event.

“What it means for women’s golf and girls golf is immeasurable,” Davis said of the ANWA, “and I hope in the same way we have been looking for years to do this, I hope the Junior Invitational will become just that for junior golf.”

by Julie Williams, Golfweek

ABOUT THE Junior Invitational

The Junior Invitational's mission is to operate the most prestigious junior golf championship in the world—an invitation-only annual event for the top 54 players from around the globe, hosted by the renowned Sage Valley Golf Club.

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