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At this week’s U.S. Junior, there’s a lot at stake — but not the kind of prizes you can put a price on
BANDON, Ore. — On Friday morning, 3,000 miles west of Trump Bedminster and a world removed from this week’s LIV Golf hubbub, Blades Brown walked the fairways of Bandon Dunes.
Blades is 15.
Someday he hopes to play golf for a living. But for now, he’s plenty happy playing for the love.
“It’s by far my favorite thing to do,” Blades said.
Over the last few days, he’d enjoyed his fill. A Nashville native, Blades had come to Bandon to compete in the U.S. Junior Amateur, an honor he’d earned by grinding through a three-man playoff to snag the final spot in a local qualifier in his home state.
Like a lot of good young players, Blades has been around a bit. But he had never been to Bandon. Last weekend, when he showed up for a sneak-peek, the wind was in a huff and mist was blowing off the ocean, atmospheric touches that added to the unfamiliar wildness of the place.
“It’s amazing,” Blades said. “There’s nothing like this in Tennessee.”
He adapted quickly, firing a pair of 71s to make the stroke-play cut before being knocked out in the match-play round of 64.
That was on Wednesday. But Blades had stuck around.
Now, two days later, he was back out on the course, tromping along as a spectator, rooting on his buddy, Caleb Surratt, in the quarterfinals. The breeze was up, and the sun was out. Blades’ father, Parke, strolled beside him.
“This is a such a pure event,” Parke said. “We’re just trying to soak up as much of it as we can.”
You could understand the urge. These are strange times in the game, with a battle raging between rival tours and a sense that everyone and everything are for sale.
Not that junior golf is all innocence and rainbows. At its elite levels, it’s more professionalized than ever. In the U.S. Junior, the fields keep getting stronger, the swing speeds faster. The kids wear sponsored logos, and pound balls on the range with portable launch monitors to track their stats.
But they’re not playing for money. And there’s no forgetting that they’re still kids.
As part of its tournament prep, the USGA had set up a sprawling welcome tent — a “player experience” center, replete with a range of age-appropriate offerings: ping-pong, putting matts, VR headsets, snacks galore.
“They treated us like kings,” Blades said.
With a name like Blades, you might think his parents were trying to tell the world that they were out to raise a golfer. In fact, Blades is his mother’s maiden name. As in, Rhonda Blades, the former WNBA point guard. Blades excels at basketball, too. But when he was 10, the golf bug bit him, and there’s been no looking back.
For all his seasoning on the junior circuit, the US Junior was the first USGA event Blades had ever entered, and he’d found himself loving all the little details — not just the ping pong and the VR headsets but the fact that they roped off the practice putting greens.
“Almost like a Tour event,” Blades said.
But also, not. A real Tour event is taking place this week, the Rocket Mortgage Classic, in Detroit, where the winner will take home $1.15 million. Nice work if you can get it, but still not as lucrative as the $4 million LIV is paying for first place this week.
In the U.S. Junior, there’s a lot at stake as well, including exemptions into the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open, but not the kind of prizes you can put a price on. If you cared to borrow from the Bandon motto, you could say that it is golf as it was meant to be.
Out on the course, the quarterfinals wore on. Blades’ pal, Caleb Surratt, won his match, and continued his fine play into the afternoon, beating the defending champion, Nicholas Dunlap, in the semi-finals.
By then, though, Blades and his dad were no longer on the grounds. The Tennessee state amateur is coming up next week, and it was finally time to go. They had to catch a flight. They were on their way east as the sun set over Bandon. The maintenance crew was out, doing some evening touch-ups, and a light breeze was blowing that felt like a breath of fresh air.