GRANITEVILLE, South Carolina (April 22, 2016) – Steady, sturdy or solid? Which adjective might best describe the play of Austin Eckroat of Edmond, Oklahoma, who at 9-under par 135 leads the 2016 Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club by five strokes after Friday's second round.
“I was not as good as I was (Thursday), but I’d go with steady,” said Eckroat, who followed his opening-round 65 with a 2-under par 70 Friday. “Three birdies and one bogey. Pretty boring golf today.”
Garrett Barber of Stuart, Florida, Doc Redman of Raleigh, North Carolina, and Norman Xiong of Canyon Lake, California, are tied for second place, five shots back, with two-day totals of 140. At 3-under par, Davis Shore (141) of Knoxville, Tennessee, is alone in fifth place, six shots behind Eckroat.
Off the course, the Junior Invitational’s 54-player field was paid a special visit by 14-time major champion Tiger Woods on Thursday night and into Friday. Everyone enjoyed a clinic from Woods, who bantered back and forth with his friend, Stanford teammate and PGA Tour veteran Notah Begay III.
“We got to peek into one of the greatest minds in golf,” said Barber, a 16-year-old sophomore. “He’s one of the best players I have ever seen. I was able to talk to him, but I know we all learned a lot. We played some ping pong and basketball with him. He’s fun, a lot like us.”
So did Woods have any advice for Eckroat, who was armed with a three-shot advantage?
“This morning on the [first] tee, he told me to put three numbers in the 60s up there and to keep the pedal down,” said Eckroat. “I did not quite do it [he shot a 70], but it was a pretty cool moment.”
Although the Junior Invitational’s 17-year-old leader was not impressed with his play Friday, it was nearly as stress free as his opening round.
With Woods advice still ringing in his ears, Eckroat parred the first hole before birdying the par-3 second. From there, 10 straight pars set the stage for his two final birdies, on 13 and 15.
A bogey on the 17th ended an impressive string of 33 holes which Eckroat scored par-or-better.
“I only missed two greens [Thursday] and two or three more today,” said Eckroat, who is playing beyond his years despite this being his debut in the Junior Invitational. “It’s easy to avoid bogeys doing that.”
John Axelsen of Denmark (2-under 142) is the field’s low international player. He is tied for sixth entering Saturday’s final round.
The 2016 Junior Invitational features the largest international contingent in the event’s history, as 14 different countries are represented. Last year, Marcus Kinhult of Sweden became the Junior Invitational’s first international champion.
A member of the Team USA that will compete later this summer in the 2016 Junior Golf World, Eckroat has already verbally committed to play collegiately at Oklahoma State University.
“I feel like I am a pretty good closer,” he said.
The 54-hole Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club is widely recognized as one of the premier junior tournaments in the world. The prestigious event attracts many of the game’s top-ranked junior golfers on an annual basis.