Consider it the luck of the Irish: Northern Ireland’s Tom McKibbin of Newtownabbey has already had quite the run at the 9th Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club.
In addition to securing the lead with an impressive 8-under par in the first round, McKibbin was honored by the tournament for his outstanding character and charitable work during Tuesday night’s opening ceremony. To top it off, he will be in the company of fellow Northern Irish golf prodigy Rory McIlroy at a private clinic this evening.
McKibbin carded seven birdies and one eagle to shoot 64 in his second appearance at the Junior Invitational for a two-shot lead after the first day of play in the prestigious junior golf event.
“I started off pretty quick,” said McKibbin. “I birdied the first and the fourth, but I dropped one at the sixth. Birdied at the seventh and eagled at the eighth. I stayed strong, hit it close and took chances when I could.”
Cole Ponich of Farmington, Utah, sits in second behind McKibbin. Both Ponich and McKibbin finished T37 in last year’s event.
Ponich burst out of the gate with four birdies on the front nine. He reached 8-under through 16 before bogeying Holes No. 17 and 18 to finish two strokes behind the lead at 6-under. The highlight of his day was a 60-foot putt on Hole No. 13.
“I played in this event last year and had a really rough start,” said Ponich. “I worked as hard as I ever have in my life this past year to qualify to get back here. My game plan was to be more aggressive when the course allowed it and then be conservative when needed.”
The shot of the day came from Australia’s Karl Vilips of Perth, who aced the long par three No. 12. Defending champion Akshay Bhatia opened with a 79.
The Junior Invitational is a three-day event featuring the top junior boys in the world. During the event, the players experience not only top-level tournament play but also the opportunity to meet and learn from some of the greats in the game like McIlroy.
“It’s unbelievable just to be here and participate in this event,” added McKibbin. “To play well at this course feels really special.”
Earlier in the week, McKibbin was chosen among his 53 peers to receive the 2019 Paul S. Simon Character Award for his work with the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice (NIHC). Named after the Junior Invitational’s executive committee chair emeritus, the award honors a young man who has achieved great things both on and off the golf course.
McKibbin is in his third year of serving as an Official Ambassador to the NICH, which provides care for over 300 infants, children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening illnesses at no cost to families.
“He was actually really shocked,” said Tom’s mother, Sara McKibbin, of her son receiving the award. “He didn’t know anyone here would know about the work he does. He’s raised quite a lot for them.”
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.
Golf fans can follow the competition at JuniorInvitational.com and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For locals, there is no charge to attend, and badges can be picked up daily throughout the tournament at the Sage Valley Golf Club entrance.
COURTESY SAGE VALLEY GOLF CLUB