WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — On the eve of the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic first round, the opening tournament for the Symetra Tour season, excitement could not be greater as the only thing that separates the 132-player field from competitive golf is one more sleep.
Between a Pro-Am party that featured catering by Texas Cattle Co. out of Lakeland, and three Pro-Am outings, the Country Club of Winter Haven has been an outstanding host before the action even gets underway.
“It feels extra festive out here because it is the first event so there’s an extra level of enthusiasm,” said Victoria Morgan (Pasadena, California). “Everyone is so ready to get the season started. Last year, I came onto the Symetra Tour scene later, when a flow had already been established. It has been fun to see how we kick things off.”
The 10th annual Florida’s Natural Charity Classic will mark the first-ever professional event on the official qualifying tour of the LPGA for 23 rookies. It has been a long off-season of hard work and dedication to get to this point.
For many, the feeling of this moment is just starting to take shape.
“I’m a little nervous, but I would say more excited,” said Linnea Ström (Hovas, Sweden), a rookie and former Arizona State University standout. “I’m happy my brother will be caddying for me at my first event. He knows me very well and can help me a lot on the course. I can’t wait to get out there.”
Meanwhile, for those who have experienced the start to a new year, they are more eager than anything to get the ball rolling.
“Its been a very long off-season and a lot of prep has taken place,” said Madison Pressel (Boca Raton, Florida), a previous winner on the Symetra Tour. “I’m so excited to finally compete again. I can’t wait to get the season started.”
Conditions for the weekend could not get any better, as forecasts call for clear skies and temperatures in the upper 70s to low 80s. That will further enhance the greens, an aspect to the course players say they enjoy, between the speed and break.
Playing to par of 72 will require strategy with five par 3s (Nos. 2, 6, 12, 15 and 17), five par 5s (Nos. 4, 9, 11, 13 and 18) and eight par 4s. Winds should be minimal due to the temperature increase, so a solid number of scores in the red is a real possibility.
“The course set-up is tough. You feel like most of the holes play into the wind,” said Pressel. “The par 3s are playing quite far. I’m excited to get to play. The course is in great shape and the greens are rolling well.”
POPSON PLAYING IN HER BACKYARD
She grew up 15 minutes from the Country Club of Winter Haven and attended high school just 11 miles down the road, but last year was the first time Erica Popson (Davenport, Florida) had ever played the course.
A tied for fifth result was not bad by any stretch of the imagination. This time around, after spending the winter in Tennessee, Popson made her way down a couple weeks early to visit family and friends, as well as play a few rounds leading up to Florida’s Natural Charity Classic.
“Monday, I hung out with my best friend from high school. Just to be able to see my friends and have them come and see what I do for a living is pretty neat,” said Popson, a former National Golf Coaches Association (NGCA) First-Team All-American at the University of Tennessee. “I think playing at home also builds a little bit more of an expectation, so that’s kind of hard to battle. It’s just about being able to stay comfortable and not think this week is more important than any other week.”
Popson was part of the first four-year graduating class at Ridge Community High School when she earned a diploma in 2009. An eight-time winner at UT, Popson has maintained the path of professional golf, even though it has been winding at times.
She recently started working with Vision54, a breakthrough program co-founded by Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson that aims to enhance performance on the course and complement an individual’s technique. Popson says she has fallen short of personal expectations and this new journey is preparing her for a solid year.
“Really trying to change my outlook a little bit. I’m the best in the country about beating myself up,” Popson said. “I’m really trying to be my best friend out on the golf course and see where that leads me, just change the negative into a positive. No better place to do it than at home.”
MACLAREN USING MOMENTUM FROM FIRST LET WIN
On March 4, Meghan MacLaren (Rushden, England) raised the Women’s New South Wales Open trophy and took a drink to celebrate her first Ladies European Tour (LET) title following a 10-under par performance at Coffs Harbour Golf Club in Australia.
“This was way beyond what I expected, especially when you think it might not happen because I had been struggling a little bit in the few weeks before,” said MacLaren, a former Conference USA Golfer of the Year at Florida International University. “To have it all come together and to feel so calm, made it pretty special. Sometimes you just have these weeks where it doesn’t feel like anything can go wrong.”
Now on American soil, MacLaren is slightly ahead of the game. While some have competed in mini tour events in Florida or Arizona throughout the winter, for others, Florida’s Natural Charity Classic will be their first taste of competitive golf in 2018.
MacLaren hopes to use the win as momentum at the Country Club of Winter Haven.
“We had a similar thing in college. We would go into our first events of the year having actually practiced for a good few months,” MacLaren said. “We’d be playing with girls from schools up north who literally hadn’t seen grass for I don’t know how long. There’s nothing that prepares you for tournaments apart from tournaments.”
With changes in the LPGA Qualifying Tournament and addition of Q-Series, MacLaren is one of several European players that will spend extensive time on the Symetra Tour this year, with the objective of earning a LPGA card.
She will still play in as many LET events as possible, but organize her schedule to compete significantly on the Symetra Tour.
“A lot of players want to be on the LPGA because there’s some of the best players in the world out there,” said MacLaren. “If you want to be the best player you can be, you’ve got to test yourself against the best. You can see the players that have performed on the LPGA that have come through Symetra, so it’s obvious it works.”
PREGNANCY NOT STOPPING ROHANNA
Walking along the fairway in today’s Pro-Am event, Rachel Rohanna (Waynesburg, Pennsylvania) could feel the kicks from her baby girl.
“She’s getting more and more active, which makes me really happy and excited with each passing day,” said Rohanna. “She’s making it a little harder to golf each day, but soon we will get to meet her. There’s nothing better than knowing she’s growing and healthy.”
At 28 weeks pregnant and with a due date of June 5, Florida’s Natural Charity Classic will be the fourth tournament for Rohanna since she learned the news.
From the Symetra Tour Championship to Stage I and II of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament, as well as a Sun Coast event, there’s really only one thing that she’s worried about.
“The hardest thing is going to the bathroom a lot,” Rohanna said laughingly. “The swinging part is fine.”
Every pregnancy is different, but Rohanna says so far everything has been fine. However, on the course, there’s some glaring differences in her game she is working toward managing.
“Distance for sure, definitely lost some. It’s more the inconsistency of it,” said Rohanna. “Some days it’s two or three yards, some days it’s 10 yards. With those irons, being used to hitting a 7-iron 165 (yards) and now pulling it out at 150/155 is a huge difference for me.”
- First round action begins tomorrow at 8:15 a.m. with morning starting times until 10:05. The afternoon wave gets underway at 12:55 p.m. and the last group is off at 2:45.
- Alexandra Austin (Burke, Virginia) will make her Symetra Tour debut tomorrow, one of 23 rookies to do so. Austin claims a spot in the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic field after Huize Lian (Dalian, China) withdrew today.
- On March 10, Karolin Lampert (Sandhausen, Germany) finished solo second in the Investec South African Women’s Open on the LET thanks to a 7-under par overall performance. Lampert is a 2018 Symetra Tour rookie making her debut this week at the Country Club of Winter Haven in the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic.
2018 Rookie Maddie McCrary