By Jim Maggio
It stands to reason that a man who’s risen to the pinnacle of the professional golf ranks would hold his namesake junior tournament to a high standard of excellence.
Yet, as Dustin Johnson and his World Junior Golf Championship presented by Fujikura have made quick work in establishing this event’s lofty status in the scholastic ranks, even Johnson’s event co-chair, Allen Terrell, has to take a step back and marvel at the momentum it has gained.
Terrell even gets a bit wide-eyed with his assessment.
“It’s just turned into a beast, really.”
As the World Junior enters year five of attracting many of the globe’s elite young golfers to TPC Myrtle Beach, Terrell points to the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley as the standard bearer they’re trying to emulate in terms of being the junior circuit’s go-to event. And while Sage Valley dangles its prestigious “Golden Jacket” as an enticement, at a venue residing in the shadows of hallowed Augusta National, the World Junior has cultivated its own unique appeal to join the conversation.
The benefits for World Junior players go far beyond the tour-like treatment players receive and experience – from swag-filled, name-plated lockers to the traditional, hand-operated scoreboard overlooking the 18th green, to the tour-caliber equipment adjustments now offered to players onsite by new presenting sponsor Fujikura.
The most impactful benefits really start with the presence of Dustin Johnson himself.
When Johnson visits his event each year, it’s a rare opportunity for competitors to experience the laid-back side of his off-course personality they don’t get to see during his televised PGA TOUR events.
“He drops in, and he doesn’t even think it’s a big deal. DJ just likes to be one of the boys,” Terrell explains. “He goes out there, jumps off a cart, starts shaking hands and asking them questions. ‘How do you practice?’ ‘What are you good at?’ And it’s just really cool to see how the kids are around him. They’re not nervous around DJ, because he doesn’t portray that kind of personality. He doesn’t have an ego when he’s around these kids. He’s very chill.”
Chill enough to stripe long irons with ease on the practice range – left-handed, no less – with the clubs of 2019 World Junior Boys’ Champ Akshay Bhatia. Gracious enough to bring his 2016 U.S. Open trophy to the 2017 World Junior welcome dinner, so players and family members could join him for a one-of-a-kind photo op. And passionate enough about being there for the kids to put important family plans on hold, to come to the Grand Strand to mix and mingle with this year’s players.
“He wasn’t going to miss it. It wasn’t even a consideration,” says Terrell, noting that the weekend’s wedding festivities for Johnson’s brother-in-law would just have to wait. “He was going to be here regardless. And that’s after playing four events in a row. If any year were a convenient excuse for him not to come, it would have been this year.
“But this is his event.”
TPC MYRTLE BEACH: THE ULTIMATE TEST
As the World Junior’s host venue since its inception, TPC Myrtle Beach is groomed to perfection in preparation of a stern test. Wall-to-wall overseeding ensures a lush, green playing surface throughout the course, at a time of year when many Southern courses allow their Bermudagrass to go dormant in the rough. And the conditions match those played for years by many of the college game’s elite when TPC Myrtle Beach hosted the General Hackler Championship for two stints (2003-2011, 2013-2014).
“We honestly set it up like we set up the Hackler, no different,” notes Terrell. “The weather, the timing and the dates are only two weeks different than when we hosted the Hackler here. The yardage is the same on the boys’ side. The flag locations have the same difficulty.”
Adds Tournament Director Scott Tomasello, “It’s not quite U.S. Open-style, but we want TPC Myrtle Beach to be set up difficult but fair at the same time. Longer rough, difficult Sunday pins, things like that, to really set the tone for what could be one of these players’ last few events at the junior level.”
Jerry Haas knows this competitive tone quite well. Since 1997, the former PGA TOUR player has been the head coach of a Wake Forest University men’s golf team that has competed in multiple Hackler Championships and, most recently, the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Southeast Regional Championship at TPC Myrtle Beach. So when Haas attends the World Junior both to scout potential recruits and keep tabs on those committed to the Demon Deacons, he knows he has as good an “apples-to-apples” comparison model as he could ever hope for in his assessment of players striving to play golf at the next level.
“When you’re going there to recruit, not only will it be a first-rate, quality field of great players, it will also be an event where you can’t ‘fake it,’ so to speak,” explains Haas. “You’ve got to shoot good scores, and knowing the course like I do and the way other coaches do, you can kind of equate, ‘Oh man, that’s where my kids drove it in college,’ or ‘This kid is really good on fast greens.’ This is what college golf is all about: having fast greens and a little bit more.”
In Haas’ eyes, the weather variances in late February also offer a strong parallel to the college season. “You’d better bring your ‘A’ game here in February because it could be 55 degrees, it could be 72 degrees, it could be a little cooler,” he reasons. “It’s going to be very much like college golf.”
SPRINGBOARD TO THE NEXT LEVEL
In five short years the World Junior has already produced champions who’ve excelled at the next level, and championship performances for the ages.
Bhatia and 2019 Girls’ Champion Alexa Pano each won last year with record-setting scores, with Pano’s victory making her a two-time World Junior winner and a player Terrell predicts will be on the LPGA Tour in the very near future. Bhatia would go on to compete for a victorious Team USA in the 2019 Walker Cup, and forgo college competition to turn pro in 2020.
The 2017 Boys’ Champion, Trent Phillips, has become a star at the University of Georgia, for whom he won his first collegiate tournament in November at the Ka’anapali Classic in Hawaii. And one of Haas’ incoming Demon Deacons, high school senior Michael Brennan of Leesburg, Va., returns to TPC Myrtle Beach in hopes of adding a second World Junior trophy to his mantel to go alongside the 2018 hardware he earned in spectacular fashion.
With 230 yards to the pin on the par-5 18th, Brennan striped a 4-iron to just 20 feet, then calmly sank the eagle putt to defeat playing partner Bhatia by two strokes.
“That was probably one of the coolest of experiences that I’ve had in my junior golf career. It was really big,” remembers Brennan. “Not just going head-to-head with Akshay, but the entire field was really solid and I was just coming out of a basketball season. I was kind of unsure about where my game was, and I still was able to put it together well enough to win.”
Brennan is excited for his final go-round at the World Junior. “You go to some junior events and the vibe is kind of different, and I think this is one of those events,” he says. “Everyone knows that it’s a really cool spot to be playing in. The weather has been beautiful the last couple of years, so everyone’s in pretty high spirits, and all the volunteers, club staff and tournament directors treat you well.
“All the kids see that, and they really enjoy that. It’s just one of the most fun events that I play year in, year out.”
For Terrell, seeing such players blossom at this event is the ultimate fulfillment. “For me, I love to see some of the kids come through the ranks. Michael is a good example,” he says. “We gave him a chance to participate at a younger age. Same with Akshay; he played all four years he was eligible to play, even as a freshman. Jensen Castle played three years, and she’s gone on now to the University of Kentucky.
“This year, I’m excited to see some of the kids who have played the past few years. It’s good to see some of the kids develop their junior golf careers. I’m excited to see where it will take them.”
For Johnson, Terrell and Tomasello, their quest to achieve Sage Valley status is on the fast track. Competitors recognize this, too, and many of them are playing both events. Of Sage Valley’s committed 54 players for their March 2020 event, 15 are competing in this year’s World Junior while 21 have played the World Junior since last year.
“We don’t want to be Sage Valley, per se,” says Tomasello, “but we want to be the event that a junior golfer refuses to miss if they’re invited to be a part of it.”
“If you ask Dustin, he expects this to become the top (junior) event in the country,” adds Terrell. “I think we’re one of the top junior tournaments in the United States. You know Sage Valley sets a high bar. But that’s kind of our mission. When people talk about the best junior event, we need to be answer one or two out of their mouths.”