WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — The highly anticipated end to the off-season is here, as the Country Club of Winter Haven serves as the starting point on the “Road to the LPGA” in 2018, hosting the 10th annual Florida’s Natural Charity Classic to open the Symetra Tour season.
A field of 132 players is set and they will compete for a purse size of $125,000 from Friday, March 16 to Sunday, March 18. Of the individuals comprising the field, a total of 27 countries will be represented. In addition, 20 total states boast at least one competitor.
First and second round action at the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic gets underway at 8:15 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Following 36 holes of play, the field will be cut to the top 60 players and ties. Then on Sunday, the final round tees off at 8:30 a.m., with a trophy presentation to follow on No. 18 green.
The tournament also marks the first of 21 events in the season-long Race for the Card, where the top-10 players on the money list at the end of the year will earn a LPGA Tour card for 2019.
OLIVIA JORDAN-HIGGINS TO DEFEND TITLE
One of the 27 countries represented is Jersey and its lone individual in the field just so happens to be the reigning Florida’s Natural Charity Classic champion, Olivia Jordan-Higgins (St. Helier, Jersey).
Back in 2018 to defend her title, Jordan-Higgins has some fond memories when talking about the Country Club of Winter Haven.
“I felt in control of my game all week,” she said. “The second day it was pretty windy and I just remember feeling like it wasn't affecting me, or my shots. Winning the first event of the year was something I had always dreamed about and it’s a memory I will remember forever.”
Even with a target on her back, Jordan-Higgins isn’t wavering when it comes to trusting her game.
“It’s obviously hard to defend a title, but there’s no more pressure than normal. The only pressure would be coming from myself,” said Jordan-Higgins. “Obviously, I would love to win again. I like knowing that I’ve played well here and that I feel comfortable on this golf course. The season is long and this is just the beginning.”
A rookie on the Symetra Tour in 2011, Jordan-Higgins is a veteran to the official qualifying tour of the LPGA. She has two wins in addition to her 2017 Florida’s Natural Charity Classic victory, and a total of 14 career top-10 finishes.
However, something about the Country Club of Winter Haven makes her feel right at home.
“My favorite part is the greens. They’re pretty fast, but they roll so true,” Jordan-Higgins said. “I like this course because it requires you to think your way around. You need to be on the correct side of the fairways in order to give yourself the best shot.”
Having only played in eight tournaments last season, she still finished No. 39 on the Race for the Card money list. Now on the cusp of a fresh start, Jordan-Higgins looks to improve in both categories this year.
Thanks to a productive off-season, which included spending Thanksgiving in New York and visiting family back home in Jersey, she is feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle what lies ahead.
“At the end of the season, I always like to get away from golf and have a break. It helps clear the mind and makes you feel fresh when you start practicing again,” said Jordan-Higgins. “I spent a couple of months at home. I was able to be there for Christmas and then my first niece was born in February. It was special for me to meet her before the long season ahead.”
NEWELL, SIMS PART OF LOCAL TALENT IN FIELD
When play gets underway on Friday for the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic, 12 total players that call the Sunshine State home will be part of the competition, a group that also features three from Tampa, including AJ Newell and Sierra Sims.
While many of their counterparts will be flying then driving to get to Winter Haven, it’s essentially a home match for these individuals, nearly in their backyard.
“I certainly love the travel that comes with playing golf as a professional, but it generally means no family or friends can come watch you play,” said Newell. “Having this event so close to home means my parents will be able to come watch, and that means the world to me. Golf has given me a very tight knit family.”
Newell was homeschooled in high school before attending the University of Tennessee. Born and raised in Tampa, her parents still live in the same house she grew up in.
Reflecting on 24 years of memories from across the state, Newell points out just how much golf has given her.
“To think back to all the clinics, lessons, practices, and tournaments that my parents sat through to get me to this point really amazes me,” said Newell, a former Women’s Golf Coaches Association (WGCA) All-American Honorable Mention performer. “I remember all the tough practices and swing changes my dad and I worked through together, the workouts my sister motivated me to get through, and the pep talks my mom would give me when I was away from home. Playing so close to home makes me proud to be able to compete in front of them.”
Sims, on the other hand, attended Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, but her family moved to Tampa when she started at Wake Forest University in 2013. No matter the path, Sims still finds comfort in the Tampa area, where she now lives and trains.
“Growing up, we moved around a lot. Since I've been in college, I've called Tampa my home,” said Sims. “I will be able to sleep in my own bed during the practice round days and on a day where I have a late tee time. It will also mean that my family will be able to come watch me play and cheer me on.”
Representing their home state is important to both players, as well as each individual from Florida playing in the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic. There’s a sense of pride that comes with the territory of a tournament being contested where you’re from.
Just as the path to how they got where they are today is unique, so is how they will approach the first event of the 2018 Symetra Tour season.
“My game plan for Florida's Natural is to go out there and have a great time competing,” Sims said. “My plan is to leave everything out on the course and walk away on Sunday saying I gave it my all, while staying true to my game.”
On the other hand, Newell looks to simply ease into the flow.
“My first and main goal for this entire year, and especially Florida’s Natural, is to stay positive. I want to make it a priority to stay positive and be my own best friend,” said Newell. “For Florida’s Natural, my goal is to get back into competing as smoothly as possible. You can't truly know what you need to work on until you play under the pressure of a tournament.”
ANGELINA YE TO DEBUT AS PART OF AJGA EXEMPTION
For a second consecutive year, the Symetra Tour and American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) are partnering together to give three AJGA Invitational winners exemption into select Symetra Tour events, the first being the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic.
In January, Angelina Ye (Bradenton, Florida) won the Annika Invitational USA presented by Rolex, her second AJGA win and first invitational victory. Ye’s performance sealed a spot in the 132-player field for this week’s Florida’s Natural Charity Classic at the Country Club of Winter Haven.
“It's definitely a very special opportunity for me, my first Symetra Tour event,” said Ye, who is No. 6 in the Rolex AJGA Rankings. “I'm really grateful to the AJGA for the platform they have provided in junior golf. I'm doing everything I can to make sure that I am going to be ready to play my best.”
Ye was born in Shanghai, China, and moved to the United States in January of 2016. A member of the IMG Academy class of 2019, Ye brings a pinch of local flavor to the Symetra Tour’s season-opening event.
Thanks to the proximity of Winter Haven to Bradenton, she will have a very flexible schedule for the week. Her plan is to play a practice round on Tuesday, return home to go to class on Wednesday, then venture back to the course on Thursday to finalize a gameplan for the tournament. Talk about diligence and determination.
“Over the weekend my mom will bring my brother over and come watch me play,” Ye said. “I'll try to approach it like any other tournament—focus less on the results and more on enjoying the game. I find I usually play the best when I'm in that mindset.”
Though the 16-year-old will be the youngest player in the field, she’s not backing down. Already verbally committed to play college golf at Stanford University, Ye is ready for the current opportunity at hand.
“It isn't the first professional event that I have competed in,” said Ye, a two-time Rolex Junior All-American. “Being the youngest player in the field doesn't really faze me. If anything, I think it's a little comforting knowing the rest of the field has more experience than I do. There are a few players in the field who I have competed with recently, so it won't be completely foreign.”
Even though it’s not her first rodeo, the amateur expects to soak up plenty of information throughout her Florida’s Natural Charity Classic experience.
“I think every tournament is an opportunity to learn about my own game and improve it, regardless of the results,” Ye said. “Playing with the professionals, I'll definitely be on the lookout for things they are doing that I can improve on, or incorporate into my own game.”
CHUN THE YOUNGEST OF 22 ROOKIES READY FOR DEBUT
A new year not only means a clean slate, but the ushering in of a fresh group of rookies to the Symetra Tour and 2018 is no exception.
A group of 22 first-year Symetra Tour professionals will make their debut this week at the 10th annual Florida’s Natural Charity Classic, including the youngest non-amateur in the field, 17-year-old Youngin Chun (Gainesville, Florida).
“I am very happy and nervous for the season to start,” said Chun, a four-time Rolex Junior All-American. “I want to play just as how I practiced. I think I will be very nervous for my name to be called out at the first tee box.”
Once as high as fourth in the Rolex AJGA Rankings, Chun won five AJGA titles in three years, among other impressive accomplishments as an amateur.
By last summer, the enormous amount of success shifted her attention to becoming a professional and gaining Symetra Tour membership. In June, Chun petitioned LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan to compete in the 2017 LPGA Qualifying Tournament through Stage II. After reviewing Chun’s petition, Whan granted her eligibility.
She made it through Stage I and finished tied for 18th at Stage II to earn the status she desired. Now Chun finds herself in Winter Haven, the week of her first event as a pro.
“I have played a lot of games, but I cannot really expect anything since it’s my first time,” Chun said. “I will try my best to enjoy regardless of my scores. I want to show all my capability and play to the fullest.”
A Florida native, Chun is thankful to be playing close to home.
“If it were to be in a different state, I would have to get used to weather, grass,” said Chun. “I’m really glad the first tournament is near where I live.”
While most people her age are more concerned with where they are going for Spring Break, it has always been all about golf for Chun. Typically, the youngest competitor wherever she goes is a title she’s used to, but it will have to be put on hold this week.
“I don’t have ‘breaks.’ I always practice when people go on vacations,” Chun said. “In this tournament, I’m not the youngest player, but the youngest pro. I hope I would be pressure-free.”
- Players that finished Nos. 21-45 and ties at LPGA Qualifying Tournament Stage III in December earned conditional status on the LPGA Tour. A total of 13 players that finished in that range are in the field for this week’s Florida’s Natural Charity Classic.
- At No. 113 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Anne Van Dam (Arnhem, Netherlands) is the highest ranked player not only in Winter Haven this week, but on the Symetra Tour this season, in this her rookie year.
- Two sponsor exemptions round out the 132-player field: Mary Hillow (Charleston, S.C.) and amateur Ina Kim-Schaad (New York, N.Y.).