Northern Ireland’s Tom McKibbin, 16, of Newtownabbey captured wins both on and off the course in the 9th Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club.
McKibbin shot a 1-under 71 in his final round, recovering nicely from yesterday’s 3-over 75 in brutally windy conditions that took a toll on the field. His first round 64 ultimately set him up for success, allowing him to finish 6-under at 210 for the tournament and giving him a one-stroke edge over Maxwell Moldovan of Uniontown, Ohio.
McKibbin’s first appearance in the Junior Invitational was certainly one for the books. Not only did he secure the tournament’s Golden Jacket, but he was also awarded Sage Valley’s Paul S. Simon Character Award for his work with the Northern Irish Children’s Hospice at the opening ceremony earlier in the week. He also participated in a clinic with fellow Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy.
“Just to be here is special, and to get the Paul Simon Award before the tournament started was a great honor,” McKibbin said. “And obviously to win today was unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Heading into the final round, 36-hole leader Nicholas Dunlap of Greer, South Carolina, sat at 7-under. McKibbin and Moldovan started the morning at 5-under and 4-under, respectively. Both players went toe-to-toe on the front nine shooting even par, and the back nine became the difference-maker as Dunlap and others fell back in the field.
Following a bogey on Hole No. 12, McKibbin called his birdie on Hole No. 13 to tie Moldovan at 6-under his biggest moment. McKibbin would regain the outright lead with an impressive birdie on Hole No. 15, thanks in part to a powerful drive that cut off the dogleg, carried the bunker and left him 50 yards ahead of his competitor. He was able to get up and down for birdie on the par five to capture a lead he would not relinquish.
Both McKibbin and Moldovan made bogies on the formidable Hole 17, where McKibbin had made a triple bogey on the previous day. He became the second player in three years to make a triple bogey on Hole No. 17 on Friday, fall out the lead and come back to win the tournament.
After both made par on the final hole, Moldovan settled for second at one shot behind McKibbin with a combined 5-under 211. The 17-year-old is onto the next event as he heads to the U.S. Open Qualifier at Beechmont Country Club May 7, but his experience at Sage Valley Golf Club was one to remember.
“I can’t even explain how incredible it was,” Moldovan said. “The course is second-to-none from what I’ve played. The people here, the overall atmosphere… it’s incredible.”
Ricky Castillo (69-70-73–212) of Yorba Linda, California, finished in third at 4-under in the tournament. England’s Joseph Pagdin (69-75-69–213), Australia’s Karl Vilips (70-69-74–213) and South Carolina’s Nicholas Dunlap (68-69-76–213) finished tied for fourth.
Second round leader Dunlap went into the back nine of the final round tied for the lead with McKibbin, but four bogeys and one birdie on the back nine dropped him to 3-under.
“Yesterday I played really solid. I hit 10 fairways, and today I hit five,” said Dunlap. “But to play good or bad, it’s just great to be here.”
As for what’s next for him, fifteen-year-old Dunlap’s answer helps put into perspective that these elite-level competitors have a lot of golf – and a lot of life – left.
“I go back to school Monday,” he said.
Eligibility for the 54-hole stroke-play Junior Invitational is rigorous, with 17 automatic qualifiers produced from the 2018 Junior Invitational Champion, 2018 Boys Junior PGA Champion, and furthest advancing junior in the 2018 U.S. Amateur, among others. Remaining slots are filled based upon year-to-date rankings. Click here for more information about player eligibility.