BEAUMONT, Calif. — Following a two-week hiatus, the Symetra Tour season resumes this week as the road to the LPGA Tour continues with the 3rd annual IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa from April 6-8.
A total of 144 players will take the challenge that is Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon, with 20 states and 29 countries represented in the field. That includes 24 competitors who call California home.
In addition, the competition features a large group of individuals with collegiate ties to the Golden State. Just 65 miles from the course one can find California State University, Fullerton; venture 80 miles and you would reach the University of Southern California (USC) campus.
“It’s always fun to play ‘close to home’ where there may be some people that come out to watch,” said Martina Edberg (Jonkoping, Sweden), a former standout for the Cal State Fullerton Titans. “It means a lot to me to compete professionally close to where I attended college. I’m expecting to see a few old teammates and friends.”
A little further away is the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) at 92 miles, while Stanford University is the outlier, located 433 miles from the Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon. Any way you break it down, an abundance of talent has found its way to the Symetra Tour from schools on the West Coast.
“Playing in California definitely reminds me of how much pride I carry with me having played in college and finished four years,” said Lauren Kim (Los Altos, California), a former All-American and All-Pac 12 performer at Stanford. “We took pride in the entirety of what it meant to be a team, on and off the course. That experience and work ethic will stick with me in anything I do.”
For the time being, tournament bragging rights belong to UCLA. It was former Bruins standout and 2017 Symetra Tour graduate Erynne Lee (Silverdale, Washington) who staked that claim with her victory at the 2016 IOA Championship.
As graduates from rival schools hope to end that reign this week, others look to make the UCLA grip on the IOA Championship a little stronger.
“Bruins have won this tournament in the past and I would love to see another Bruin take it home again,” said Louise Ridderström (Stocksund, Sweden), a UCLA graduate. “It means a lot to come back and play in this area because it is where I learned so much that got me here today.”
Even though the players are divided in allegiance, once they get to the professional ranks there is more of a friendly rivalry, if anything. Still, don’t think that reduces the desire to best a former opponent of another school.
“A lot of my friends on Tour are actually from the Pac-12, so I think it's safe to say that if there is rivalry, it's friendly. When it comes to football though, that’s a different story,” Kim said laughingly. “It's always fun to beat the Bruins and Trojans, but it's not something I think about on the course. I feel added motivation because I'm from California. There’s a constant battle over who has it better between Northern California and Southern California.”
If the friendly competition between schools or regions of California isn’t enough, there’s the simple fact that this tournament means more for some than battle lines being drawn and bragging rights won. It’s a sense of hometown pride.
Gabriella Then (Rancho Cucamonga, California) grew up less than 40 miles from Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon. On a typical day throughout her junior golf career, one could most likely find Then practicing at the host course of the IOA Championship.
“I have been dreaming of playing professional golf since I was about 9 years old, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to play so close to home,” said Then, a former All-American at USC. “I look at the spots where I used to practice, remember the memories playing with friends on the course, and I can't believe I get to come back and play professionally at the same course where I competed when I was 12 years old.”
Whatever the path for each competitor to get to this point, or whatever the choice of college, don’t think any of them will be holding back when the first round gets underway at 7:20 a.m. on Friday.
USC WELL-REPRESENTED AT IOA CHAMPIONSHIP
One of the schools with a plethora of talent at the 3rd annual IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa is women’s golf powerhouse USC, as seven former Trojans are in the field this week.
The list of players include: Karen Chung (Livingston, N.J.), Veronica Felibert (Caracas, Venezuela), Lily He (Chengdu, China), Kyung Kim (Chandler, Arizona), Victoria Morgan (Pasadena, California), Annie Park (Levittown, N.Y.) and Gabriella Then.
“I think it says a lot about USC and the success of the program,” Then said. “We played on the same side for years so it's hard to even think about any extra competitive elements. I think you always want them to do well. After all, we are Trojans.”
Having such an abundance of former student-athletes making the leap to the professional realm not only speaks to the work ethic of the individuals, but the recruiting ability of USC women’s golf head coach Andrea Gaston.
In her 22nd year at the helm of the program, Gaston has directed three NCAA Championship teams, five NCAA individual champions, four NCAA Players of the Year, five Pac-12 Golfers of the Year, and has been tabbed Women’s Golf Coaches Association (WGCA) and Pac-12 Coach of the Year three times apiece. She was also inducted into the WGCA Hall of Fame in 2010.
“It's all because of Coach Gaston,” said Then. “It's pretty cool to see so many of us out here.”
Meanwhile, for the latest member of the Trojans family to join the Symetra Tour, playing alongside so many who donned the Cardinal and Gold brings back some memories.
“It reminds me of my first semester at USC when we were all on the team,” said He, a Symetra Tour rookie who turned pro after just two semesters. “It's always nice to be able to compete close to home. I’m still on my journey to reach my dream and I'm just trying to enjoy the ride.”
With more of an individualized approach to the game as a professional, being surrounded by former teammates still has its advantages.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m extra competitive with teammates; however, having them out here definitely motivates me,” Morgan said. “It was cool to see (former Trojans teammate) Tiffany Chan make it to the LPGA last year (through the LPGA Qualifying Tournament). It’s inspiring to see her doing well because it confirms that I can do the same.”
ANGELLA THEN TO MAKE DEBUT IN HER BACKYARD
Joining her sister at the IOA Championship this week is Angella Then (Rancho Cucamonga, California), one of 27 rookies in the field.
It is an even greater occasion as this will be Then’s professional debut, essentially in her backyard, just down the road from her hometown of Rancho Cucamonga where she and Gabriella were raised.
“I always get those first tee butterflies, but I feel comfortable at this course because I have so many memories,” said 19-year-old Then, one of six teenagers competing in the IOA Championship. “This just marks the beginning of my exciting golf journey that I can't wait to experience. I still have to keep a good work ethic and be humble.”
A graduate of Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, Then played on the boy’s varsity golf team. However, instead of heading to college on a scholarship, she decided to pursue her dreams. In the near future, Then said she hopes to obtain an Associate’s degree.
Outside of playing competitively, Then is getting ready to apply for her LPGA Teaching Certification with the objective of starting Level I this summer. She is also currently an Assistant Professional and Junior Golf Academy Director at Hacienda Golf Club.
“I can relate to my juniors and see how far I have come. They give me perspective and inspiration,” Then said. “We all know that professional golf is a great career, but the first couple of years is the hardest part. Seeing golf through a child's eyes simplifies a lot of outside factors that I shouldn't worry about. They have taught me to see the more than 15 years that I have put into my dream is almost reality.”
Her agenda is stacked with goals and built on ambition, but she would not want it any other way. As a whirlwind week is just getting started for Then, amid all the happenings of life, she never strays from what her big sister taught her.
“I have learned almost my entire game from her,” said Then. “Growing up, I really looked up to her for guidance and support. What I learned the most from her is having a strong mental game wins at the end of the day.”
EXTRA SPECIAL FOR MORGAN TO COMPETE CLOSE TO HOME
After making the cut, but finishing tied for 58th at Florida’s Natural Charity Classic to open the 2018 Symetra Tour season last month, Victoria Morgan took a long look in the mirror.
“I was very disappointed with how I played,” said Morgan. “When making the cut is the high point of the week, you basically feel like you’re just trying to keep your head above water the whole time.”
So, she went back to the drawing board.
“I definitely came away from that event knowing I had work to do. I’ve made some significant changes in response,” Morgan said. “I’ve put a lot of hours into the changes, my hands are pretty raw from all the reps. My game plan for the IOA Championship is to commit to these swing changes.”
Now, being able to come back and play near her hometown of Pasadena, Morgan is cherishing the opportunity for reasons beyond the course. While in Winter Haven, Fla., she learned her grandmother had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
“Getting to be home in California and spending time with her for the next month means everything to me,” said Morgan. “I’ve been able to see her every day during a really tough time for her. I am so lucky to be playing at home.”
WHAT DOES KIM HAVE IN STORE FOR AN ENCORE
Coming off her first win as a professional at Florida’s Natural Charity Classic where she turned in a remarkable final round 9-under par 63, Lauren Kim can now say she is searching for back-to-back victories.
With the proverbial monkey off her back, Kim is looking forward to making her next start at the IOA Championship.
“It's definitely a relief and puts my mind more at ease about my confidence,” said Kim. “The work isn't nearly done though, and I still have goals I need to accomplish. Anything can happen in the next twenty events. I'm trying not to get ahead of myself.”
Realizing it is a long season allows Kim to play more free. It also has provided an avenue to sharpen her game, especially coming off a performance like she had where so much went right.
“I'm trying as much as I can to not put pressure on myself,” Kim said. “I don't want to exhaust myself every week chasing after that round in Florida. I think I'll try to replicate how I felt, my attitude and my style of play, but I won't think much about the outcome.”
It remains to be seen what Kim will do for an encore, but she will have her dad there to watch and caddy. After previously firing himself, Kim jokingly said he was granted his caddy position back.
For a Northern California native, she is very much looking forward to the lone Symetra Tour tournament in the Golden State, even if it is in Southern California.
“What you experience in Los Angeles will be completely different than San Francisco,” said Kim. “In all seriousness though, the weather, food and views are amazing along pretty much the entire coast. No matter where I travel to, my heart will always be in California.”
ENGLEMANN COMPETING ON AJGA EXEMPTION
The partnership between the Symetra Tour and American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) just keeps on giving.
In February, Sadie Englemann (Austin, Texas) won the inaugural Buick Shanshan Feng Girls Invitational, earning her exemption into the IOA Championship.
“I can imagine when I step on the first tee there will be nerves, but also much excitement knowing that I am getting a chance to play in a Symetra Tour event,” said Englemann, a member of the 2020 graduating class at Westlake High School (TX). “I feel like I am pretty well-prepared for this moment because of how many tournaments I have competed in.”
For the 15-year-old from the Lone Star State, this will be the first-ever professional golf tournament she competes in. It’s a stage, though, Englemann won’t shy away from.
“The Buick Shanshan Feng prepared me by having a very strong tournament field and teaching me how to be patient on a tough course,” said Englemann, who is No. 12 in the Rolex AJGA Rankings. “Also, from U.S. Open qualifiers, to LPGA qualifiers, and even playing the ANA Junior Inspiration, it has all prepared me to play courses that are set up with professional conditions. I expect it to have a different atmosphere than a junior tournament, but I am excited to experience something new.”
Venturing outside of Texas for her first taste of a professional golf event, Englemann will have her dad Mike on the bag. She has never competed against the individuals she is set to face in the IOA Championship, but Englemann is one step closer because of the AJGA.
“I have always played against players older than me, but I have never really been exposed to playing girls in college and above,” Englemann said. “I do think it will be challenging, but that is the fun part. I look forward to learning from the girls I compete against by watching how they handle themselves and play the game.”
Furthermore, over the weekend Englemann committed to play college golf at Stanford, becoming the newest member of the prestigious Cardinal women’s golf program. This week is really just the start of what promises to be a blossoming career.