Imagine a Ryder Cup at which Tiger Woods showed up without a putter and Sergio Garcia lent him one.
That premise is a little far fetched, but at the 30th Wyndham Cup at Old Town Club, the showdown between the best the American Junior Golf Association has to offer is a little less cutthroat than a Ryder Cup. There’s still an East vs. West competition, but it’s definitely more fun and highly entertaining.
Lucy Li, who is on the West team, needed a putter, so Michael Thorbjornsen, who plays on the East team, lent her one this week. Since Thorbjornsen had two putters with him, he didn’t hesitate to lend Li one. It didn’t matter to Thorbjornsen that Li was on the other team.
Li, who at 11 years old in 2014 qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open in Pinehurst, never saw her clubs this week because of an airline mistake. She had to improvise, and borrowed everything she used over the three days of play.
“This event is so cool because of the team aspect that is all over the place,” said Li, now 16, graduated from high school and deciding between going to college or possibly turning pro. “I think just getting to bond with your teammates and getting to know everybody on both teams is great. We are all making friends for life in this event and it’s one of my favorite tournaments of the year.”
The East came out on top 27.5-22.5 after Wednesday’s final round, which was all match play. There were 40 golfers in all, with 10 boys and 10 girls on each team bringing together the best juniors in the world, according to the AJGA rankings.
The 20 matches that were held on Wednesday had a little bit of everything, including Li making a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to win her match. With clubs borrowed from Charles Frost, the head pro at Old Town, as well as a fairway wood from Mark Brazil, the tournament director of the Wyndham Championship, and a driver from Kevin Rinker, who works for the AJGA, Li went 4-0 in her matches over the three days.
“That’s a lot better than I’ve done with those clubs,” joked Frost, who like Li plays with TaylorMade. “I changed the lofts on the clubs for her and got her the right shafts, so I’m glad it worked out.”
The Wyndham Cup has a long history of golfers who honed their games in the match-play format as teenagers before they moved on to college and then either the LPGA Tour or PGA Tour.
Among the alumni from this tournament include Woods, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Grace Park, Paula Creamer, Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson.
Thorbornsen, who has committed to play at Stanford, said he loves the team concept and thrived in the Ryder Cup style format.
“It’s just so much fun to compete as a team, talk junk if you want to, and really play some good golf without worrying about your individual score,” said Thorbornsen, who is from Wellesley, Mass.
Thorbornsen, who at age 17 made the cut at the U.S. Open last month at Pebble Beach, said being on the same team with top golfers such as Karl Vilips of Australia is a big deal. Vilips, the top-ranked golfer in the AJGA, won last year’s Wyndham Invitational at Sedgefield Country Club.
“You play against them most of the year and you develop friendships with a lot of them,” Thorbornsen said. “And then they put us all together on the same team, and those friendships just get stronger.”
Thorbornsen and Vilips teamed up in Tuesday’s second round to help the East build its lead heading into Wednesday’s final round.
“In college and on the PGA Tour, if we are lucky enough to get that far, we’ll be friends because of events like this,” said Thorbornsen. “It’s one of the best weeks in junior golf.”
Erica Shepherd, who has played in three Wyndham Cups and is from Greenwood, Ind., says the team concept changed her perspective about the game. She was on the winning East team.
“When I first played in this I hadn’t done much match play, but it opened my eyes and made golf that much better,” said Shepherd, who has signed to play at Duke this fall. “I played in this three years ago for the first time and then later won the U.S. Junior Amateur, and it’s because of the Wyndham Cup experience.”
Shepherd said her three years of playing the Wyndham Cup have been highlights of her junior career.
“There’s nothing like this,” she said.