Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest, North Carolina, opened his week at the 41st Rolex Tournament of Champions by receiving his 2018 Rolex Junior Player of the Year award; he ended the week by winning the event and his second AJGA Invitational of the year. Amanda Sambach of Davidson, North Carolina, came from behind to win by one stroke in the Girls Division at PGA National Resort & Spa for her first AJGA Invitational victory.
Both the Boys and Girls Divisions featured 72 of the top juniors in the world, with 144 golfers competing over the course of four days. The Rolex Tournament of Champions assembled the Rolex Junior-All Americans with past champions to create The Greatest Week in Junior Golf.
Bhatia entered the week already with three national junior golf victories on the year, including wins at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club, the Polo Golf Junior Classic and the Boys Junior PGA Championship. The top player in the Rolex AJGA Rankings took the lead in the second round and never looked back, closing out the tournament with a third-round 4-under-par 68 on the Fazio Course and a final-round 3-under-par 68 on the Champion Course. Bhatia totaled 20 birdies and two eagles over the course of the tournament and bested the Boys Division by five strokes at 16-under-par 270.
“I’m really excited to get this win. Last year I didn’t play that great and it’s been a truly special week,” Bhatia said. “Having all my family and friends here to support me and rooting me on win this event. This is a Thanksgiving that I’ll never forget.”
Sambach earned her third AJGA victory and first Invitational win after coming from behind to win the Girls Division with a final-round 2-under-par 70. The University of Virginia verbal commit took the lead with a birdie on the par-5 No. 17 before closing out the win with a par on the final hole. After the first two rounds of play Sambach was 1-over-par for the tournament, but she finished strong with consecutive rounds of 2-under-par 70 on the Champion and Fazio Courses to claim the title at 3-under-par 285.
“I had no idea that I was in the lead coming down 18 and I don’t think it will hit me that I’ve won for a while,” Sambach said. “I’m super shocked and so excited about this win. This is my first time at this tournament and it means so much to me to come out and win my first Invitational.”
Between the Boys and Girls Divisions, 14 of the top-10 juniors from the Rolex AJGA Rankings competed. The field featured players from 16 countries and 26 states. Of the 144 players in the field, 60 were either current or former Rolex Junior All-Americans and 83 juniors committed to play college golf at the school of their choice. There were 84 AJGA Champions in the field, with an even split between boys and girls at 42. More than 58 percent of the field won an AJGA event.
For the second time, the Rolex Tournament of Champions was held at PGA National Resort & Spa, home to The Honda Classic on the PGA TOUR. The event took place on both the Fazio and Champion courses, with the famous Bear Trap bearing down on the field. Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas are the only AJGA alumni to play in the Rolex Tournament of Champions and win The Honda Classic, with Fowler accomplishing the feat in 2017 and Thomas achieving it this year. Russell Henley and Mark Wilson make up fellow AJGA alumni who have won The Honda Classic.
The Rolex Tournament of Champions was recognized as the 2016 Invitational of the Year for the incredible overall experience it offered to participants, families, AJGA staff and volunteers. The event also received the Media Award because of its footprint and successful Media Day prior to the tournament at Reynolds Lake Oconee – Great Waters Course.
The event kicked off Sunday, November 18, with the Rolex Junior All-America Banquet, which celebrated the top junior golfers of the year and recognized the Rolex Junior Players of the Year, Bhatia and Yealimi Noh.
A First Team Rolex Junior All-American just a year ago, Bhatia wasted no time in making his mark in 2018. In April the high school junior won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club and followed that performance up with a T2 showing at the Scott Robertson Memorial just a month later. After finishing T13 at the Western Junior Championship, Bhatia went on a run that saw him finish no worse than T2 in his last four events. That streak of top-two finishes included wins at the Polo Golf Junior Classic and the Boys Junior PGA Championship, along with a second-place finish at the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. Bhatia capped his year with a spot on the victorious United States team at the Junior Ryder Cup and by taking home a silver medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Mixed Team Stroke Play with partner Lucy Li.
Noh dominated both the junior and amateur golf circuits in 2018. The senior opened her year with a T6 finish at the ANNIKA Invitational USA presented by Rolex and a second-place finish at the Buick Shanshan Feng Girls Invitational. After finishing T11 at the ANA Junior Inspiration Noh took off, winning three of her next four junior events. During that four-month stretch between April and July, Noh won the Hana Financial Group Se Ri Pak Junior Championship, the Girls Junior PGA Championship and the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, with the last two coming in consecutive weeks. The following week, Noh won the Canadian Women’s Amateur just one month after the California Junior Girls State Championship. Her top play garnered two LPGA exemptions and a pair of low amateur honors in the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open (earned through her win in the Canadian Am) and KEB Hana Bank Championship (earned through the AJGA’s Se Ri Pak event). She also joined Bhatia on the victorious United States team at the Junior Ryder Cup.