On the course and on the tee sheet, the signs are evident that the fourth edition of the High School Invitational girls golf tournament has taken a leap in strength.
To begin with, the two-division format is gone. Though some team inevitably has to finish 15th this weekend at The Sanctuary at Cat Island, organizers believe the gap isn't nearly so pronounced as in previous years.
Indeed, the field that tees off Saturday afternoon includes reigning state Class 4-A champion Lexington and seven other teams that finished among last year's top five in their respective divisions. Factor in a dozen invitees who will play as individuals, and the lineup will feature 15 of the top 20 in the state girls rankings.
"These kids are incredible," said tournament director Karen Vijuk, who also chairs the host Junior Golf Foundation.
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"Not all of the best teams are coming, because some already had other plans, but we have a lot of the top ones entered."
Bluffton, fifth at last year's Class 4-A finals, and Hilton Head Island will field teams. Hilton Head Christian's Jamie Hubbard will compete as an individual.
State No. 1 Ashley Czarnecki, who won the South Carolina Junior Girls title in June, will tee it up with her Mauldin High teammates. The roster also includes Kate Harper (Wando High), winner of last month's Beth Daniel Junior Azalea, and two Lexington golfers ranked among the state top 10 -- No. 2 Gracyn Burgess and No. 10 Hailey Cleary.
In addition, two entrants recently qualified for the Drive, Chip & Putt national finals next spring at Augusta National -- Sophia Burnett (Bluffton) and Carly Lyvers (Greenville St. Joseph's).
Vijuk said the improved field reflects a new selection process that focuses on top state finishers and who they have coming back the following year.
"We now have a numerical basis for the selection process," she said. "And we now have a very competitive field."
Whereas previous editions saw a handful of scores over 100, she added, "I can't imagine there will be anybody that does that this year."
As a reflection of the improved depth, too, the Sanctuary layout will be lengthened from last year's 5,129 yards to somewhere around 5,300.
"We only lengthened a few, but it does make a difference," Vijuk said.
Competition begins Saturday with a 12:30 p.m. shotgun start, with Sunday's final round set for an 8:30 a.m. shotgun. Spectators are welcomed.
Team scores will count the top three of four golfers each day. Awards will be given to the top five teams, and the five lowest individuals (plus ties) will comprise the all-tournament team.