For a majority of the time Flint Hills National Golf Club was in line to host this week’s 70th U.S. Junior Amateur, Wells Padgett didn’t expect to be part of it.
Not by virtue of his skill. As one of the state’s top amateur talents, the Wichita native already qualified for and reached the match-play portion of the U.S. Junior after his sophomore and junior years at Maize South High.
The restrictor was Padgett’s birth certificate. Until last year, the maximum age for competitors in the U.S. Junior and U.S. Girls’ Junior was 17.
But during the 2016 championship in Ooltewah, Tenn., the U.S. Golf Association announced it was raising the age limit to 18 along with other eligibility changes for both junior events beginning this year.
“They told us during the tournament, and we were already looking forward to (this) year’s tournament even though we were still playing in that one,” said Padgett, who turned 18 in September. “I knew it was at Flint Hills and that was going to be really bad to miss out on.”
It didn’t guarantee Padgett a spot. But after the Auburn signee won an 18-hole sectional qualifier June 21 in Lawrence, he will make his third and final U.S. Junior appearance when the six-day competition begins Monday on the Tom Fazio-designed course south of Andover.
With the provision for 18-year-olds, Padgett will be the ninth oldest of 156 golfers who will try to navigate through two rounds of stroke-play qualifying and a 64-player, single-elimination, match-play competition.
The champion will be crowned Saturday in a 36-hole final, part of which will be televised on Fox Sports 1.
Padgett provides a local connection to a championship field that includes golfers from 38 states and 17 countries. He is one of two Kansans who qualified along with Joe Bultman, a 17-year-old from Shawnee.
“I just know I’m going to have a lot of people out there supporting me like friends and family,” said Padgett, who will start on No. 1 tee at 7:44 a.m. Monday. “I’m not going to treat it any differently, but I just have a lot of higher expectations for myself.”
Padgett was one of seven U.S. Junior competitors who made the 36-hole cut in last week’s Trans-Mississippi Championship at Hutchinson’s Prairie Dunes. It was the latest achievement for a golfer who gained notoriety on the state level at age 13 by becoming the youngest competitor to advance to match play in the century-old Kansas Amateur.
Like many of the teenagers he will compete against this week, Padgett has added layers of success. He won the 2015 Trusted Choice Big “I” national championship at Prairie Dunes. In 2016, after winning the Class 5A individual title at Maize South, he collected a victory on the American Junior Golf Association circuit at the Gary Woodland Championship in Lawrence.
Padgett qualified for the 2015 U.S. Junior Amateur in Bluffton, S.C., and tied for eighth in the stroke-play portion of the championship before losing to Phoenix’s Jake Chanen in the first round of match play.
At last year’s championship, Padgett played his way back into the match-play bracket and despite making five birdies and an eagle, lost to Davis Shore of Knoxville, Tenn., on the final hole in their opening-round match.
“The last couple years, I’ve just been saying I want to make the cut and get into match play and see what I can do,” Padgett said. “This year, I know that the course suits me well and I just think I have a really good chance of winning.”
Padgett primarily plays at Reflection Ridge, the original site of Wichita’s annual Web.com Tour event. He carded a 60 on that par-72 course in a non-competitive round earlier this month.
Before this weekend’s U.S. Junior practice rounds, Padgett said he had played Flint Hills three times. It was enough of a sample to boost his confidence as he prepares with the role as local favorite.
“Playing three when everybody else has played zero is still a pretty big advantage,” Padgett said. “I know the whole course.
“There’s pretty wide fairways, so you can kind of miss with drivers a little bit. My short game and putting are really my strength, and I just feel at any golf course that helps you a lot.”
70TH U.S. JUNIOR AMATEUR
When: Monday through Saturday
Where: Flint Hills National Golf Club, Andover
TV coverage: Fox Sports 1. 2:30-4:30 p.m. Thursday (third-round matches); 2-4 p.m. Friday (semifinal matches); 1-3 p.m. Saturday (championship match).
Field: 156 boys ages 18 and under, determined through special exemptions and 57 sectional qualifiers in 40 states played from June 12-28. The USGA accepted 3,774 entries for the championship.
Format: Stroke-play qualifying, Monday and Tuesday. Top 64 advance to single-elimination match play beginning Wednesday. Thirty-six hole championship match is Saturday.
Defending champion: Min Woo Lee, Perth, Australia
Winner receives: U.S. Junior Amateur trophy, an exemption into all future U.S. Junior Amateurs while eligible, exemption from qualifying in next two U.S. Amateurs, three-year exemption from U.S. Open local qualifying while an amateur.
Championship facts: The U.S. Junior Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the U.S. Golf Association. The U.S. Junior was first played in 1948 and was conducted one other time in Kansas, in 1960 at Milburn Golf & Country Club in Overland Park.
This will be the 22nd USGA championship played in Kansas and the third at Flint Hills National. The club hosted the 2001 U.S. Women’s Amateur, won by Meredith Duncan, and the 2007 U.S. Senior Amateur, won by Stan Lee.