LPGA Women Take Center Stage Starting with Symetra Tour – “Huff’s Stuff” Arizona Golf Blog by Bill Huffman
If you like women’s golf, the next month in the Valley of the Sun is going to shine when it comes to the ladies’ game.
First up is the VisitMesa.com Gateway Classic at Longbow Golf Club. They like to say that the road to the LPGA starts on the Symetra Tour, and for over 100 young women who’ve got game that is certainly true. Young up-and-comers like Tiffany Joh, Mallory Blackwelder and Tucson’s Sara Brown will be competing on what is the LPGA equivalent of the men’s Web.Com Tour. And the winner of the $100,000 event at Mesa’s Longbow Golf Club on Feb. 22-24 will get an exemption – the ultimate opportunity – at competing in the upcoming RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup.
The Founders Cup, which takes place March 14-17 at Wildfire Golf Club in northeast Phoenix, is the showcase of the best women players on the planet. And we literally mean everywhere on Earth. The LPGA tournament, which is dominated by international stars, the largest foreign contingent being from Korea, sports a $1.5 million purse and is being held in the Valley for a third consecutive year at the course associated with the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa.
In between the Symetra and the LPGA tournaments, fans of the female game also will have a chance to see some rising stars at a collegiate invitational known as the Clover Cup, which is being hosted by the University of Notre Dame in conjunction with Visit Mesa and also being held at Longbow on March 7-10. The 54-hole tournament, which tees off with a college am-am, features 16 schools including the Irish, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Oklahoma, Northwestern, Texas and SMU, to name a few. Just as cool, the nation’s No. 1 women’s college player who just happens to be a freshman at Notre Dame, Scottsdale’s Lindsey Weaver – “Little Ms. 59” – will be in the field.
Such a flurry of female golf talent is unprecedented around these parts. And it comes none too soon, as along with juniors, the National Golf Foundation recently reported that the chief reason we’ve lost 5 million golfers in the last five years is that women and juniors are disappearing in record numbers –and that’s disturbing.
For those not familiar with the Symetra Tour, it once was called the Futures Tour, but changed its name two years ago when it added the new sponsor. What’s special about the Symetra is that the top 10 money winners each year get to earn playing cards for the upcoming season of the LPGA. Last year, Scottsdale’s Esther Choe was the leading money winner, meaning Choe will be a rookie playing in three weeks at the Founders Cup.
Of those playing the Symetra event at Longbow, Brown probably is the most well-known. Her claim to fame came on the Golf Channel’s “Big Break Sandal Resort,” where her bubbly personality made her a Big Break favorite. In fact, she had such a big smile that the Golf Channel invited her back for its series from the Dominican Republic. She was a rookie on the LPGA in 2011, did not keep her card – something that is extremely tough for LPGA rookies to do these days with such a limited schedule – and won an event on the Symetra Tour last year. Unfortunately, Brown finished in 12th place on the Symetra’s money list, and is back on the fledging tour after having married her long-time swing coach, Derek Radley, who is now the assistant women’s golf coach at the University of Arizona.
Blackwelder, the daughter of former LPGA player Myra Blackwelder (1980-97). has played one season on the LPGA (2010) and is back on the Symetra after overcoming an elbow injury. She also might be best remembered for her role on the Golf Channel’s “Big Break Ireland,” and she, too, now calls Arizona home.
There are others in the VisitMesa.Com Gateway field that fans of women’s golf will recognize, including Birdie Kim, the winner of the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open when it was played at famed Cherry Hills outside of Denver. Joh was a four-time All-American at UCLA who captured two U.S. Women’s Public Links Championships (2006, 2008). And Blair O’Neal, a former Arizona State player who almost won the Golf Channel’s “Big Break Prince Edward Island” series in 2010, although O’Neal might be better known for her several appearances on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit calendar.
As you might have noticed, two of these upcoming tournaments we’ve mentioned take place at Longbow, which has long been associated with women’s and junior golf. After all, one of Longbow’s biggest events every year is the AJGA Heather Farr Classic, which takes place at the East Mesa club on March 28-31.
But it goes even deeper than that, as Longbow also will host the WAC Conference Championship for women in April and the Women’s National Junior College Championship in May. And in the past, Longbow has been the host for the Women’s NCAA Division II Championship.
Asked why Longbow hosts so many women’s and kids’ events – it’s also a First Tee facility — the course’s owner, Bob McNichols, said it had a lot to do with the fact that “the people who play our golf course on a regular basis love to see these types of events, and they even volunteer to help us out with all of them.”
McNichols also noted that his Longbow “regulars” actually draw comparisons to their own games from the women’s game.
“The average guy, he probably can’t relate to the Phil Mickelsons and Tiger Woods and (Rory) McIlorys, who are driving it out there 350 yards. But he probably can relate to the women, who are watchable, approachable and are smooth and long with their swings.
“Like the other day, when Martha Blackwelder was out here for a practice round with her caddie. Now she has a great swing to watch.”
I’ve heard this before, and I can relate. Not just because my golf swing is only about 100 mph, but because the women are so much nicer and, as McNichols suggested, approachable when you play with them in pro-ams. That’s not to say that the guys are just ugly, surly, 800-pound gorillas. But if you’ve ever played in both types of pro-ams – with Tour guys or LPGA gals – you, too, probably know what we’re talking about.
I can still remember the late Karsten Solheim explaining to me why PING supported four different LPGA tournaments once upon a time – one in Phoenix, one in Tucson, one in Portland and the Solheim Cup. As the PING founder put it, the women didn’t get the prize money that the men did. And then he added with his affable, straightforward approach to common sense, “And the women are just a lot more fun to play golf with than the men.”
Exactly, and if you would like to find out for yourselves, play in the Symetra pro-am Feb. 21 or the Clover Cup college-am March 7 or the Founders Cup pro-am on March 13. It’s a guaranteed good time.
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