DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As the calendar flips to the spring months, the dawn of a new Symetra Tour campaign is upon us with the season-opening Florida’s Natural Charity Classic (March 16-18) signaling the end to a very long off-season.
There’s just something about a clean slate—entering the friendly confines of the course, fresh morning dew tickling the fairways, renewed sounds of mowers, birds chirping and crowds cheering.
Plenty of storylines have formed as the anticipation builds surrounding the Race for the Card script that will unfold across 21 events in 16 states over the next eight months.
THREE NEW EVENTS ON SCHEDULE
While it will be the 38th year of competition for the official qualifying tour of the LPGA Tour, it will be the first for three tournaments on the 2018 schedule. The IOA Invitational, Valley Forge Invitational and Prasco Charity Championship are all newcomers to the Symetra Tour scene.
The inaugural IOA Invitational will be played from May 4-6 in Milton, Ga., at Atlanta National Golf Club, which hosted the 2017 Symetra Classic. It’s a new event, but a familiar setting.
Meanwhile, the Valley Forge Invitational will be contested over Memorial Day Weekend and feature a Saturday finish. Raven’s Claw Golf Club in Pottstown, Pa., is the host, welcoming the Tour from May 24-26.
Last but not least, the Prasco Charity Championship from June 29-July 1 at TPC River’s Bend in Maineville, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, will make history. TPC River’s Bend is a member course of the TPC Network operated by the PGA TOUR. Playing an event at a course owned and operated by the PGA TOUR will be a first in the history of women’s professional golf.
Also, a noteworthy item is that the Symetra Classic returns to the Charlotte, N.C., area, where it was played from 2012-2016. This time around it will be contested at a new venue — River Run Country Club in Davidson.
As for the schedule in its entirety, Florida is the state featuring the most events with three. Indiana, Michigan and New York are the only other states with multiple tournaments, as each will host two.
MEMBERSHIP FEATURES NUMEROUS NATIONALITIES
Entering the season, a total of 488 players hold Symetra Tour membership with an impressive 46 countries represented.
Outside of the United States, which has 233 members, six countries feature a double digit number of players including Canada (21), England (12), Mexico (12), Republic of Korea (14), Sweden (25) and Thailand (13). In addition, 16 countries have one lone representative.
“Our membership is reflective of the growth of golf on a global scale,” said Mike Nichols, the Chief Business Officer for the Symetra Tour. “The ability to attract this influx of players from around the world can be credited to a more established professional culture, including higher purses and better venues.”
Furthermore, one of those countries with a single competitor on Tour is the Netherlands. It just so happens that, as of March 5, Anne Van Dam (Arnhem, Netherlands) is also the highest ranked player on the Symetra Tour at No. 113 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings.
“I'm really looking forward to starting the season in America and playing more over there this year to hopefully get my LPGA card,” Van Dam said.
A new season means plenty of turnover and a fresh set of rookies looking to make a splash on the professional golf scene.
With another 10 players graduating to the LPGA Tour last year, and a handful of other high finishers on the season-ending Race for the Card money list earning some form of LPGA status through the qualifying tournament, only a few players remain from the so-called “top-tier.”
Some of those top returners to the Symetra Tour in 2018 include Elizabeth Szokol (Winnetka, Illinois), Ruixin Liu (Dalian, China) and Laura Wearn (Charlotte, N.C.). Szokol and Liu were both rookies in 2017, finishing the year No. 16 and No. 17, respectively, on the Race for the Card money list.
Thanks to six top-10 finishes, including a season-best tied for second result at the Four Winds Invitational, Szokol racked up $45,058, only $17,965 back of the final graduate, Katelyn Dambaugh (North Charleston, S.C.). Essentially, Szokol was a win away from finding her seat at the 2017 Symetra Tour graduates table.
As for Liu, she recorded four top-10 finishes and earned $37,329. Like Szokol, Liu also had a season-best tied for second finish, only at the Island Resort Championship.
Finally, Wearn has been a steady player on the Symetra Tour since her rookie campaign in 2014. Last year, she concluded the season at No. 21 on the final Race for the Card money list with $34,229. Wearn came through with two top-10 finishes, one of which was a season-best performance of solo second place at the Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic.
Other top returners inside the top-25 at the end of last season to keep an eye on: Liv Cheng (Auckland, New Zealand) and Allison Emrey (Charlotte, N.C.).
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Once again in 2018, the Symetra Tour will award 10 full-time LPGA cards to the players that finish the season in the top-10 on the Race for the Card money list.
In addition to the top returners—Szokol, Liu, Wearn, Cheng and Emrey—these five players create a formidable group that has a healthy chance at making a run in 2018 for a 2019 LPGA card.
Here are some of the top players to watch this season:
Anne Van Dam (Arnhem, Netherlands)
At No. 113 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Van Dam is easily the highest ranked player on the Symetra Tour. This season will be her rookie campaign on the official qualifying tour of the LPGA.
Before trying her luck in the United States, Van Dam played primarily on the Ladies European Tour (LET), making 52 starts since 2013. She recorded one win (2016 Xiamen International Open) and seven top-10 finishes, as well as a career-low round of 65 on two occasions.
Meghan MacLaren (Rushden, England)
Another European making the jump to the Symetra Tour, MacLaren is coming off her first LET victory when she claimed the Women’s New South Wales Open on March 4. MacLaren used a performance of 10-under par overall to win at Coffs Harbour Golf Club in Australia.
She now has three top-10 finishes as a LET member, and previously won two titles on the LET Access Series. Look for MacLaren to find herself right in the mix when she makes her Symetra Tour debut in the 10th annual Florida’s Natural Charity Classic from March 16-18 at the Country Club of Winter Haven.
August Kim (St. Augustine, Florida)
A rookie on the Symetra Tour last season, Kim was No. 26 on the Race for the Card money list, earning $31,676 across 13 starts. She captured two top-10 finishes on the year, going solo second at The Donald Ross Centennial Classic and tied for fourth in the Garden City Charity Classic.
Before turning pro, Kim played collegiately at Purdue University. Her junior year, she won the 2016 Big Ten Championship individual title, shooting 9-under par overall to set a tournament record for 54 holes. In addition, Kim was a two-time First-Team All-Big Ten selection and was named a Women’s Golf Coaches Association (WGCA) First-Team All-American as a senior.
Linnea Ström (Gothenburgh, Sweden)
After finishing in a tie for 72nd at 5-over par and missing the cut at Stage III of the 2017 LPGA Qualifying Tournament, Ström decided to forego her final year-and-a-half of eligibility at Arizona State University and turn pro. The former Sun Devil has already shown flashes of brilliance, claiming medalist honors by six shots at Stage I last August with an overall score of 17-under.
She was named a WGCA First-Team All-American as a freshman and sophomore. Furthermore, Ström won the Pac-12 Championship individual title as a freshman, then led ASU to the program’s eighth NCAA Division I National Championship her sophomore year. She has the credentials, but now it will be about the transition to the professional lifestyle.
Youngin Chun (Gainesville, Florida)
She’ll be the youngest competitor on the Symetra Tour in 2018 at 17 years old, but Chun is used to having that title wherever she plays. A four-time Rolex Junior All-American, Chun climbed as high as fourth in the Rolex American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) rankings. She also won five AJGA titles in three years.
Her father is Eric Chun, a commentator for JTBC’s Golf Channel. He has 10 years of experience covering the LPGA in Korea, and spent 17 years as a television host. With such a rich golf background and extensive knowledge of the game, Chun is poised to showcase her abilities.
WAITING FOR MAGUIRE’S DEBUT
Perhaps one of the most highly anticipated storylines is really a simple question. When will the No. 1 player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Rankings join the Tour?
Leona Maguire (Cavan, Ireland) is set to graduate from Duke University in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. At Stage II of the 2017 LPGA Qualifying Tournament, Maguire finished tied for ninth to secure Symetra Tour status for 2018. However, she elected to skip Stage III in order to preserve her amateur status and and make a run at the ultimate prize with her Blue Devils teammates.
“My goal is to win a National Championship with my team,” said Maguire, a two-time WGCA National Player of the Year.
The earliest Maguire would turn pro and start competing on the Symetra Tour is sometime after the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship, which takes place at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., from May 18-23. Until then, her sole focus is bringing some hardware back to Durham, N.C.
Stage III is out and Q-Series is in, as the revamping of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament is one of the biggest changes for 2018.
Instead of a five-round gauntlet, like how the Final Stage was setup, Q-Series will have a much different look. It will feature two, four-day tournaments held on two separate golf courses in the same market. Over the eight rounds of competition, scores will be cumulative.
Meanwhile, Stage I and Stage II are not going anywhere. Last year, a record 361 players started at Stage I. This year, Stage I will once again be held in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at Mission Hills Country Club. The tournament is set for August 20-26. As for Stage II, Plantation Golf and Country Club in Venice, Fla., will host again, this time from October 13-18.
Where Stage II fed into the Final Stage, who qualifies for Q-Series is a contrasting path. The major goal of the Q-Series is to identify the most LPGA-ready talent. Players that finish No. 101-150 on the LPGA Tour official money list, and No. 11-30 on the Symetra Tour’s Race for the Card money list will qualify. Also in are players in the top-75 from the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings.
From there, five players according to the Golfweek collegiate rankings will advance directly to Q-Series, bypassing Stage I and II. To round out the field will be the top finishers from Stage II. A minimum of 45 LPGA cards will be up for grabs.
More information on Q-Series will be announced soon, including location and dates.
For a second consecutive year, the Symetra Tour and AJGA are partnering to provide select AJGA Invitational champions with exemptions into Symetra Tour events.
On Jan. 15, Angelina Ye (Bradenton, Florida) captured the Annika Invitational USA presented by Rolex, carding a 2-under par overall for the tournament. The victory earned Ye an exemption spot into the season-opening Florida’s Natural Charity Classic.
The next AJGA event to provide exemption into a Symetra Tour event was the inaugural Buick Shanshan Feng Girls Invitational. On Feb. 11, Sadie Englemann (Austin, Texas) came out the winner, firing a three-round total of 5-under par. Her reward is a spot in the field for the IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Beaumont, Calif., from April 6-8.
One final event remains on the AJGA schedule for this 2018 partnership and that is the KPMG Stacy Lewis Junior All-Star Invitational from June 18-21 in Johnson, Ark., at Blessings Golf Club. The champion receives an invitation to compete at the Murphy USA El Dorado Shootout in El Dorado, Ark., from Sept. 14-16 at Mystic Creek Golf Club.