Holywood's Tom McKibbin proved he's a quick learner when he made it back-to-back wins by closing with a one-under 71 to claim the prestigious Junior Invitational at Sage Valley and join an illustrious list of champions.
Just a year after finishing a shellshocked 37th on 18-over par at the elite event held on the manicured Sage Valley Course in Graniteville, South Carolina — just 20 miles from Augusta National — the 16-year-old Irish Boys international from Newtownabbey came from two strokes behind overnight leader Nicholas Dunlap to win by one stroke from Maxwell Moldovan on six-under par 210.
“Just to be here is special, and to get the Paul Simon Award before the tournament started was a great honour,” McKibbin said. “And obviously to win today was unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for anything better."
His win was his fifth major victory in the US and his second in a row worldwide, coming just a week after he spectacularly chipped in to win a three-way playoff for the Peter McEvoy Trophy at Copt Heath.
He followed in the footsteps of Lee Westwood, Justin Rose and Ireland's Gavin Moynihan and Mark Power in Birmingham. But this win elevates him to another level as he joins the likes of Sweden's Marcus Kinhult and Chile's Joaquin Niemann — two precocious tour stars — on the roll of honour
Mentored by the likes of Nick Faldo and Holywood clubmate Rory McIlroy — the specially invited Nike player for the Friday clinic and Q&A again this year — McKibbin won the World Kids Championship at Pinehurst in 2015, the Doral Publix Junior Golf Classic and Munster and Ulster Under 16 titles in 2017 before claiming the Junior Honda Classic and the inaugural Faldo Major Champions Invitational last year.
After opening with an impressive, eight-under 64 to lead by two strokes at the Augusta National-like venue, McKibbin shot a second round 75 in the winds gusting to 30mph to slip two strokes behind new leader Nicholas Dunlap after 36 holes
He was tied for second with Karl Vilips and Ricky Castillo on five-under but as Dunlap slipped to a 76, McKibbin opened with a Faldo-esque nine straight pars.
As Dunlap and others faded on the back nine, McKibbin followed a birdie four at the 10th with a bogey at the 12th but then made what he felt was a key birdie at the 13th to tie with Moldovan and another at the par-five 15th to move clear.
Both McKibbin and Moldovan made bogeys at the tough 17th, where McKibbin had made a triple bogey in round two, before both players closed with pars.
The new champion is no stranger to the limelight, playing in the Northern Ireland Open at Galgorm Castle at 13 before going on to shoot rounds of 71 and 78 in the European Tour's Shotclock Masters in Vienna last summer.
Bar the Lytham Trophy, the Amateur Championship and the European Amateur, he'll be playing mainly in Boys events this year with the Irish Amateur Open and the East of Ireland both clashing with his studies for his GCSE's at Belfast Royal Academy.
The South of Ireland overlaps with the Boys Interprovincial Matches in Athlone.
McKibbin is an ambassador for the NI Children’s Hospice and received the Paul S Simon Character Award during the opening ceremony at Sage Valley in recognition of his work for the charity.
Junior Invitational, Sage Valley
2019: Tom McKibbin
2018: Akshay Bhatia
2017: Joaquin Niemann
2016: Austin Eckroat
2015: Marcus Kinhult
2014: Scottie Scheffler
2013: Carson Young
2012: Zachary Olsen
2011: Nicholas Reach