The Ritz Carlton Golf Club in Sarasota played host this past week to the inaugural IMG Academy East/West Team Challenge. The event saw the top golfers at the IMG Academy golf program competing against each other in Greensomes and singles match-play format. Players were chosen based on their College Format Series stroke average and were placed on either the East or West team based on what country they call home. Captains for the East Team were IMG Academy Leadbetter golf program Academy instructors Scott Davies and Stuart Clayton while captains for the West Team were Academy instructors Jay Denton and Kevin Collins.
The golfers that participated not only represented the best of the IMG Academy golf program; they also represented some of the best junior golfers in the world. The field included players such as James Yoon, who will play at the University of California-Berkeley next year; Jeffrey Meltzer, who has won on both the IMG Junior Golf Tour and Florida Junior Tour since September; Rigel Fernandes, who has won twice in three tries this year on the Future Collegians World Tour; and Vanessa and Michelle Yan, who competed in the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships as 11-year-olds in 2011.
The event represented a significant opportunity for the top players at the Academy to compete against each other, a factor that made the tournament a hit with everyone involved. Coaches and players alike shared in the positive sentiments.
âIt's fantastic, not only for the players, but also for the Academy,â Clayton said of the event's overall success. âThe fact that they have to qualify through the college format series to get in gives them a sense of purpose for their stroke-play scores during the year. Then at the event it was great to see the guys and the girls have a sense of teamship, bond together, and then really compete. The standard of golf was fantastic.â
The players and coaches also enjoyed the uniqueness of the format. With Greensomes in the morning and singles match-play in the afternoon, strong play required a little more strategy then the players are accustomed to seeing in competitive junior golf.
âI think playing Greensomes was great because you get to communicate with your partner and you get to understand the strategy,â said Meltzer, who played for the West Team. âYou have to plan it out and its very strategic, especially playing match play.â
Both teams seemed to strategize effectively in the morning as the East and West split the six Greensome matches. Obviously, strategy is only a small piece of scoring in golf. Execution is the key, and in the morning it was Lisa Unterganschnigg executing a 30-foot putt from the fringe on the final hole of the match to secure a 2-up victory over Yoon and Vitoria Teixera.
The teams went into the afternoon singles matches tied 3-3 and from there the East Team took control. The East overcame a big comeback point by Yoon, who fought back from 1-down with four to play to win his match 2-up. Big victories by Keagan Cummings (2&1 over Diego Schiffino), Qiwen Wong (3&2 over Juan Veloza), Hadas Libman (3&2 over Silvia Garces), Brett Beazant (3&2 over Gabriel Ormachea), and Fernandes (4&3 over Meltzer) propelled the East to 8 points in the afternoon and an 11-7 tournament victory. It was an afternoon that saw a lot of scoring, meaning a lot of rounds that finished under-par.
âThe course was set up for them to make some birdies and they didn't disappoint,â said Clayton. âThere were a lot of birdies and even a couple eagles out there.â
Playing a little shorter than usual, the course did allow for many scoring chances, but was by no means playing easy. The mounded greens and slick putting surface required close attention to the breaks and contours.
âIt was nice watching the kids have to putt on some fast greens, which we don't always get to,â Denton attested. âTo see them handle the adversity of playing on a faster surface was great.â
Said Fernandes, âIt's a course where you really have to think about where you want to land the ball and what kind of yardages you want to give yourself. It was a good test for us.â
The course was in great condition, in addition to providing scoring opportunities for the players. The Ritz was no doubt a great venue for the event and even for these outstanding junior golfers, it was a one of the nicest courses on which they played this year.
âEvery time I go there I enjoy it,â Meltzer added. âIt's a great course, in great condition. It's probably the best course we play all year.â
The IMG Academy golf program will make the East/West Team Challenge an annual event, which will provide a target for students to focus and compete every week in the Academy's College Format Series. It will also serve as a marquee event that both attracts new talent to the Academy and allows up-and-coming players to compete alongside their more established counter-parts. It will be a factor in the development of IMG Academy' golfers for years to come.