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The Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Experience

4/28 CGC Staff

Every March, 36 of the top junior boys and 24 of the top junior girls in the world are treated to a competitive experience that they will remember for years to come. The lucky invitees have worked hard to hone their craft for many years and are rewarded with a week the includes a fantastic golf course, accommodations lining the course, numerous gifts, ‘tour trucks’, special events and speakers, and the opportunity to build friendships with athletes from across the world. The invitation to Sage Valley is coveted by many and received by few. Several athletes took the time to give us insight into their experience and give us a glimpse into the week of a lifetime.

Opening the initial invitation brought excitement to all the athletes. Some knew ahead of time that they had qualified, and others who were on the bubble were anxiously waiting for one to come. Utah’s Bowen Mauss was the low junior finisher at the 2023 US Amateur, which earned him an exemption into the Junior Invitational. “I was super excited when I received my invitation because I knew how hard it was to get into the event. It is a very good field with a very limited number of players. I had also heard how good the course was from a friend that had played last year,” the future Arizona State Sun Devil says. Canadian Vanessa Borovilos, a Texas A&M signee, is one of the top juniors in North America and was expected to be invited early. She states, “Once I received the Junior Invitational invitation back in the beginning of the year, I couldn’t wait for April to come. You hear so many stories and memories from previous players and it really builds up the excitement for that one week.” Mexico’s Gerry Gomez had the honor of playing at Sage Valley for the second time and was very excited to receive the invitation for a repeat week in South Carolina.

The golfers are given accommodations in cottages that line the golf course and practice facilities, rooming with friends while making new connections for a week. BYU commit Kihei Akina was able to room with Mauss, who is from his home state. He states “I was lucky enough to be able to room with my friend that lives near me in Utah. It was cool to get to know and hang out with the guys in my cottage. There were some great memories made with them. The accommodations were unlike any other. Being able to stay right on property twenty feet from the putting green was really nice.” Borovilos was also enamored with the housing for the week, offering “These were by far the best accommodations I have ever been in. Once we got on the property and found out that we each had our own massive room with a massive bathroom, along with a kitchen full of snacks and a pool table upstairs, I was just completely blown away. It was really nothing like I have seen before. Living with other golfers was another one of the highlights of the week. I see most of these players at many events across the country and hang out with them on the course, but to be able to spend time with them off the course and truly get to know who they are as people is really special.” This allowed the athletes to create bonds with many golfers, which Mauss appreciated, “They treated us very well the whole week. They gave us as much food as we wanted, amazing gifts, and plenty of time to do whatever we wanted. Staying with seven other people from around the world was definitely one of the highlights. We were always hanging out and playing games at night.” Getting to know the international players was a highlight for others as well, as well as experiencing stiffer competition, with Arkansas commit Gomez saying “I’ve been playing the AJGA invitationals for the past two years and it’s a similar field, but at Sage Valley they included the best International players, which makes it better because is really nice getting to meet and play golf with them, and also makes the tournament harder.” Borovilos adds “The camaraderie is what this tournament is all about. I’ve met people and friends from all over the world at this event that I probably never would’ve had the chance to meet otherwise. Not only does the tournament committee do a great job of running the event, but they do a great job of making sure we meet others and giving us all opportunities to hang out with each other. From playing ping pong to laughing with some of my friends playing pool, these are memories I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.”

Photos: Sage Valley Golf club

In addition to the accommodations and camaraderie, the athletes are treated to numerous gifts and special events. According to Akina, they received “A whole lot of Nike gear, clothes, shoes, hats, a rangefinder and cover, and a massage gun. We basically got a gift every night. We were spoiled for sure.” Borovilos was appreciative, saying “The gifts just kept coming, one after another. It was crazy. My favorites were the Nike Jordan slides and the massage gun. My mind was blown every time they told us they had more for the players. Honestly, it was even better than Christmas, and that’s saying something.”

In addition to the swag, players were able to attend memorable events at night, including Nike night at which they designed their own Air Force 1s, and a dinner with Tim Tebow and Annika Sorenstam. Both Akina and Mauss enjoyed listening to Sorenstam and Tebow speak, and all enjoyed Nike night. Borovilos elaborated on the experiences “They had amazing dinners every night of the week on the back patio of one of the cottages. On one day, the opening ceremony was held at a venue that was just a short drive away from the Sage Valley, and at that venue we got to see the firework show. All in all, the food was amazing and they even had dessert every day! Best week of food there is, I didn’t want to leave.” We’re surprised she returned home....

Photo: @juniorinvitational

Photo: Sage Valley Golf Club

With all that was going on, the athletes had actual golf to play too, and there was plenty of it. They were able to practice for three and a half days before the tournament began, giving them ample time to prepare for the first round. In addition to the course and practice facilities, golfers have unlimited access to a par-3 course that can be played under the lights at night. Talk about a golfer’s paradise! Gomez played the course every day with his friends from his cottage, and Borovilos says it was one of her favorite memories from the week, “I must've played it 4 or 5 times. Playing it at night is my favorite with all the lights on, playing with friends, and listening to music. It truly completes the week and even though it is more golf, it helps you wind down after a long tournament week.” Roommates Mauss and Akina, conserving their energy for the tournament, waited until the night after the final round to play the par-3, with Akina saying “We played it until about midnight. It’s a really cool course with the lights on.” Mauss agrees, adding “It was super fun and in great condition as well. Definitely one of my favorite activities of the week. Being under the lights was super cool as well.”

Sage Valley Golf Club’s course can stretch to 7200+ yards of pure beauty, slick greens, elevation changes, and an Augusta-like feel to it. Players were provided with white uniformed caddies for the week and were treated to a challenging layout. Borovilos provides a good picture, saying “The course is pretty much as pure as it can get. I felt like I was playing Augusta because like it is there, there was not a blade of grass out of place at Sage Valley. Greens roll true and pure and if you hit a good putt, providing it’s the correct line, there is no doubt that putt is going in. There are a couple challenging holes on the course. #17 and #18 are relatively difficult because of the slopes on the greens. My favorite hole is #2. It is a downhill par three that has that same look and special hole feel as #12 at Augusta. When I think of Sage Valley, I think of that hole.” Gomez, Mauss, and Akina were on the same wavelength as Borovilos, with Gomez adding “It is the most beautiful course that I've ever played and I would say that the final stretch from hole 16 to 18 are the hardest holes in the course, and my favorite hole I would say hole 2 the par 3.” Akina states, “The course is unbelievable. It can get tough when it firms up and gets windy. Hole 2 is a par 3 downhill surrounded by water and is one of the prettiest holes there. I would say the 17th is the toughest hole there. It’s a really tight tee shot that forces you to turn the ball over and the 2nd shot is not easy either with water right and bunker left.”

Photo: Golfweek

In addition to the close proximity to August National and the caddies in white, the entire week feels like a Masters for junior golfers. Many of the golfers feel it sets itself apart from other tournaments. “I would say it's like the Masters for juniors because the course is so pure and with the caddies with the white bibs and it makes you feel like you're at Augusta National,” notes Akina. Mauss also enjoyed the quality of the field in the event. For Gomez, the entire week was special, saying “Yes, we play a similar course to Augusta, with the conditions that they set the course up. We had the four different tour trucks, the recovery room, a caddie wearing all white and a green hat, and also the gold jacket for the winner, which makes it look very special and similar to the Masters.” Borovilos appreciated the care and time that maintenance took to set up the course for the players, stating “The amount of time put into getting the course prepared and ready sets it apart from the other events. You see maintenance guys going out there every morning and every night making sure greens are rolling at the right speed, bunkers are fully raked, fairways are cut to perfection, and just the amount of time put into making the course pure is what sets it apart. Not only that, but this part made me laugh. During the practice round there, there was a truck with barrels and barrels of pine straw, and these maintenance guys were laying it out by hand. Barely any of it came from the trees, and that just goes to show you how much they care about the look and feel of the course.”

In closing, we asked each athlete to share their favorite memory from the week and to tell us the most important lesson they took away from the experience.

Kihei Akina future BYU Cougar: I think the coolest thing was living almost like a pro all week, with all the tour trucks there making sure everything is good to the recovery center with trainers stretching us out before and after every round. Doing all of that on property at one of the best golf courses in the country was really special. It wasn’t really the result I was looking for, but it was good to see that I was still in contention against the best juniors in the world without my A game.

Bowen Mauss, future Arizona State Sundevil: My favorite memory of the tournament was spending time with all the new people I met and playing a great course all week.

Gerry Gomez, future Arkansas Razorback: I would say my favorite memory from the tournament is the par 3 nights and the final day at the final hole seeing all my friends cheering at me. One important lesson I learned is to enjoy every moment of the week because not everyone has the privilege to play this tournament and this course, and it’s an experience that you will never forget.

Vanessa Borovilos, future Texas A&M Aggie: My favorite memories from this week include playing ping pong with some of the other players, as well as playing the night course and doing karaoke on the last night. All of these memories and experiences happened off the course and that just goes to show how special this place is from the camaraderie point of view. Sage Valley truly cares about making it a great experience, both on and off the course. I wouldn’t trade this week for anything.