CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | There are few golf courses as natural and free-flowing as the Country Club of Charleston, a wonderfully simple Seth Raynor design from 1925 that still maddens players each year at the Azalea Invitational despite its lack of length and absence of water hazards.
And so it represents quite the stunning contrast for Luke Sample, a 17-year-old high school senior who lives in the upper west side of Manhattan surrounded mainly by concrete, skyscrapers and more than 8 million neighbors. Progressing as a top junior golfer – the New York City native is headed to Duke University next fall and is a top-25 recruit nationally – has been a challenge as he practices a large chunk of his golf at an indoor facility in midtown Manhattan with instructor Christopher Stoudt. The two have worked together for the past nine years, an 8-iron away from the blinking lights of Times Square.
“Golf in New York is difficult, but I love city living,” Sample said after finishing in a tie for fifth at the Azalea. “I don’t have any regrets about it and I’ve made it work for years. If I can, I’ll get out and play some golf in Westchester, but it’s been a lot of indoor golf to get here.
“It’s not a typical situation when you can’t go to a golf course everyday like most kids would, but I just focus on the things I can control. It’s been a lot of speed work, ripping balls into screens as fast as I can.”
To this point, the lack of course time hasn’t seemed to hurt him. Sample broke through last year when he became the youngest winner of the Met Open, an event of mainly professionals that boasts a 105-year history, the third-oldest tournament in the country. He was the first amateur to win it in 15 years and sped past Jason Gore, the all-time Korn Ferry Tour leader in wins, and another Korn Ferry Tour member Ben Polland for the title. He can call himself a champion along past winners Henry Picard, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Claude Harmon, Doug Ford and, in more recent times, PGA Tour players such as Johnson Wagner and Andrew Svoboda.
“If you would have seen me in that practice round, you would never have thought that I could finish in the top five. It took some time to knock the rust off.”
That was far from all he accomplished in 2020. Sample also won the Met Junior Championship (the only player to win both the Met Open and Junior Championship in the same season), the AJGA Junior at Penn State and the KJ Choi Foundation Junior Championship, all in addition to a runner-up at the Met Amateur and a top-10 at the prestigious AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions.
“The Met Open was definitely my biggest accomplishment so far,” Sample said. “That event has so much history to it. A lot of tour players, a lot of other legends have been there.”
At the Azalea, Sample arrived not having played a round of golf in 23 days. While his practice rounds left him worried he may post a few high numbers, he shot 3-under 68 in the second round, which helped get him into the penultimate threesome for Sunday’s final round.
“If you would have seen me in that practice round, you would never have thought that I could finish in the top five,” Sample joked. “It took some time to knock the rust off.”
Short-game errors around the undulating putting surfaces led to a couple of early double bogeys that sunk his chances, but one couldn’t help notice that Sample has all of the makings of a top college player and perhaps a tour pro if that’s the route he chooses eventually. He’s worked tirelessly to increase his power off the tee, crossing the 190 mph ball speed threshold. Even the untrained eye can tell he is a gifted ballstriker.
One can only imagine what he can accomplish with a golf course and training facilities to his disposal five months from now when he heads to Durham, North Carolina, to start his college career.