GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – Since the launch of the Junior Invitational in 2011, Sage Valley has presented a stiff test to the world’s best junior golfers. The first round of the 2018 edition proved to be no different, as 54 players battled through gusty conditions.
Two separated themselves from the field on Thursday: Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Ludvig Åberg of Sweden. Each fired a 4-under 68, three strokes ahead of the only other two players to break par: Canon Claycomb and Jacob Bridgeman (1-under 71).
Bhatia incurred a two-stroke penalty on the par-5 4th, costing him the solo lead. As a force of habit, he pulled out his range finder, which is prohibited during competition rounds at the Junior Invitational. He would ultimately post a double-bogey.
“It didn’t hurt too much,” said Bhatia. “I still have a lot of golf left and I’m pleased with today. I’m grateful that I’m still in this position. It’s just one of those things where you can’t do anything about it and just move on.”
In addition to his impressive ball striking and putting, Bhatia’s refocus following the penalty demonstrated strong mental toughness. He carded six birdies on Thursday, highlighted by a tap-in putt on the closing hole. After striping his drive down the center of the 18th fairway, his approach settled two feet beyond the hole.
Playing in the final group, Åberg led the field with seven birdies. It was a tale of two nines for the Texas Tech commit. He struggled to find consistency on the front en route to a 37, consisting of two birdies, one bogey, and one double-bogey. A six-foot par putt on the 9th catapulted Åberg as he made the turn. Four straight birdies from holes 10 to 13 plus an 18-hole birdie have Åberg in a comfortable position heading into the final 36 holes.
“Holing that putt [on the ninth] was really good for my confidence,” said Åberg, the top-ranked junior in Sweden. “All this confidence is coming from my putter. If I’m feeling good with my putter, usually the rest of my game is working out well.”
In a tie for fifth at 72 are Julian Périco (Peru), Nicolas Cassidy (U.S.), and Ricky Castillo (U.S.).
Bhatia is no stranger to seeing his name atop the leaderboard. He won the 2017 Joe Chavez Invitational and the 2017 Boys Junior PGA Championship, setting a number of records in the ladder event, including the Championship’s lowest 18-hole total (61), en route to his victory at the Country Club of St. Albans (Mo.).
“I’m a stronger player than I was last year,” shared Bhatia. “This is my first year here and the course is very gettable. I read the greens so well. As long as I keep it in the fairway, which I did today, I have a really good chance.”
Like Bhatia, Åberg has recent experience leading and winning tournaments with three victories in 2017. In his first visit to Sage Valley, Åberg is trying to follow the footsteps of fellow Swedish golfer, Marcus Kinhult, the 2015 Junior Invitational Champion.
“I’ve never seen anything like this place before,” said Åberg. “This is amazing. It’s just a privilege to be here. I’m looking forward to the next 36 holes.”
The top 15 eligible finishers at the Junior Invitational will receive points towards qualifying for the 2018 United States Junior Ryder Cup Team. The 11th edition of the Junior Ryder Cup will be contested at Disneyland Paris in Marne-la-Vallée, France, September 24-25. In addition, the top two eligible finishers earn exemptions into the 2018 Boys Junior PGA Championship, which will be held at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, July 31 – August 3.
The Junior Invitational at Sage Valley is widely recognized as one of the premier junior tournaments in the world. It annually attracts many of the game’s top-ranked junior golfers, creating what is considered the toughest field in junior golf.