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Sage Valley welcomes back world's best for Junior Invitational

Junior Invitational champions (copy)

Amalie Leth-Nissen, left, and Caleb Surratt each won their respective championships in a playoff at last year's Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. The Junior Invitational is back for its 12th edition, and second with a girls' championship, with play beginning Thursday.

The Junior Invitational at Sage Valley is back for its 12th edition, and the race for the gold jacket begins in earnest Thursday.

Make that jackets - for the second year, both boys' and girls' champions will be crowned at Sage Valley Golf Club.

The 36 boys and 24 girls in the fields will have their hands full trying to duplicate last year's drama, but the Junior Invitational never lacks star power and quality golf - it's Golfweek's top-ranked event in junior golf for a reason.

Both titles required extra holes last year, and both took different routes to get to a playoff.

Caleb Surratt, now a member of the University of Tennessee men's golf team, led all week before Luke Potter, now on Arizona State's roster, caught him on the 54th green. Surratt won it on the first playoff hole.

Amalie Leth-Nissen, now a member of the Ladies European Tour, overcame a seven-shot deficit to track down Bailey Shoemaker, tying her with a birdie on the 18th green. She birdied it again a few minutes later in the playoff to cap an improbable comeback.  

"Once again, the Junior Invitational has drawn a field of the best girl and boy golfers in the world," said Pete Davis, chairman of the Sage Valley Junior Invitational Sports Foundation, which operates the event. "Last year, both the girls' and boys' champions were crowned in extra holes. We look forward to another great competition this year."

Shoemaker, who made history by hitting the first tee shot of the inaugural girls' championship, is back for another shot at the gold jacket, and she has to be the sentimental favorite after last year's final-round 78 and playoff loss. She's ranked second in the Golfweek/Sagarin Girls' Junior Rankings, and this year's tournament boasts nine of the top 10 eligible players on that list.

Top-ranked Gianna Clemente leads that list, but the headliner is fifth-ranked Anna Davis after her teenaged-underdog-turned-champion run at last year's Augusta National Women's Amateur -  Just two weeks earlier she held the clubhouse lead before finishing a shot out of the playoff at the Junior Invitational. She's ranked 10th in the women's World Amateur Golf Ranking, making her the highest-ranked player in either field this week.

Four other players in this year's field were in the top 10 last year - Clemente was fourth, Avani Prashanth tied for seventh, Jaclyn LaHa was ninth and Kiara Romero was 10th.

The boys' championship features the entire top 10 of the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, with Oklahoma State signee Preston Stout leading the way at No. 1. Seventh-ranked Nicholas Gross, an Alabama commit, finished fourth here a year ago.

Right behind him last year in a tie for fifth were Harley Smith and Aaron Pounds, and in a tie for ninth were Jean-Philippe Parr and Eric Lee. All are back in the field this year.

South Africa's Aldrich Potgieter is the highest-ranked player in the men's World Amateur Golf Ranking at No. 37, and he has the biggest win of them all. Last summer he won the 127th Amateur Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, becoming the youngest player to win it since Matteo Manassero did so as a 16-year-old in 2009. 

The tournament is scheduled for three rounds, starting Thursday and wrapping up Saturday. Admission is free and open to the public for all three rounds.

Junior Invitational at Sage Valley past champions

2011: Nicholas Reach (196, -20)

2012: Zachary Olsen (209, -7)

2013: Carson Young (212, -4)

2014: Scottie Scheffler (211, -5)

2015: Marcus Kinhult (209, -7)

2016: Austin Eckroat (210, -6)

2017: Joaquin Niemann (204, -12)

2018: Akshay Bhatia (214, -2)

2019: Tom McKibbin (210, -6)

2020: Jackson Van Paris (207, -9)

2021: No tournament due to COVID-19

2022: Caleb Surratt (202, -14); Amalie Leth-Nissen (211, -5)

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