Class is in at the LPGA Tour Stage I Qualifying Tournament in California where Sunshine Ladies Tour campaigners Nicole Garcia, Carrie Park and Nobuhle Dlamini have joined Ekurhuleni amateur Lora Assad and 344 other hopefuls looking to play their way onto the 2017 LPGA Tour.
First round action that gets underway at the Mission Hills Golf Club in Rancho Mirage today.
The field from 45 countries chasing passage to Stage II is nearly double the international subscription of 2015 and features 93 amateurs and 22 players that will be the sole representatives of their countries, including Dlamini from Swaziland.
The format is 72 holes of stroke-play competition, with a cut to the top 130 and ties advancing to the final round.
The top 60 and ties after four rounds will advance to Stage II of LPGA Qualifying Tournament at the Plantation Golf and Country Club from 17-23 October in Florida and all the players who complete 54 holes receive Symetra Tour status for 2017.
“We’ll play one round each at the Arnold Palmer, Dinah Shore, and Gary Player courses and the final round at the Dinah Shore Course on Sunday,” said Garcia. “Each course has its own quirks, but for us the biggest challenge will be coping with the very high temperatures and humidity.
“The Dinah Shore hosts the ANA Inspiration and you can see why it’s a Major championship course. The greens are superb and fast, and the fairways are generous. The Gary Player course is shorter and tougher, just what you would expect from Gary Player and the Arnold Palmer is similar to Dinah Shore.
“The greens at the other courses are quite big, but the greens at the Gary Player greens are substantially smaller. The greens at Gary Player and Arnold Palmer are also not rolling quite as good as Dinah Shore, but they are definitely score-able.
“All the courses have some long holes where we have five-iron distance in, but it is fair, because there are some shorter holes to score on, too. The fairways are all pretty wide, so it’s going to be an iron and putting show this week. We had a look at some of the competition and there is a lot of talent. But that’s why we’ve come all this way. We are all up for the challenge.”
Twenty-two players advanced from Stage I through to the Final Stage in 2015 and Assad and the Sunshine Ladies Tour trio will be looking to follow in the footsteps of three-time champion Bertine Strauss, who won the Stage I last year.
Garcia, Park and Dlamini have been honing their games on IGT Tour back home since the end of the 2016 Sunshine Ladies Tour season.
They have put up some impressive results on South Africa’s premier development golf circuit, especially Park, who notched seven top 10 finishes, including runner-up spots in the ERPM Challenge in April and the Ebotse Challenge three weeks ago.
“We all worked on various aspects to strengthen our chances,” said Park.
“I concentrated a lot on gaining more distance and consistency, Nicole and Nobby worked on their driving and we all sharpened our short games. Whether we’ve done enough to make it to Stage II remains to be seen, but I’d say we all feel pretty confident with the clubs in our hands.”
Like Garcia, Dlamini holds a card on the Ladies European Tour, but she hopes to take her game to the United States.
“Like Carrie said, we’ve worked incredibly hard on the IGT Tour the last few months,” Dlamini said. “We are all driving the ball really well and putting well, so I’m really hopeful that we can all cross this first hurdle. It’s really great to have each other here to turn to for support.
“Hopefully we all make it to Stage II, but if not, I hope we can at least all get Symetra Tour status. Paula (Reto) went that route after university to get onto the LPGA Tour and Stacy (Bregman) is already competing on the Symetra Tour. It would be great to have a group of us out here to support each other.”
Assad is currently completing her senior year at Texas State University.
A finalist in the 2014 Sanlam SA Women’s Amateur Championship, Assad represented South Africa in the 2015 Astor Trophy and has won several titles on the amateur circuit at home.
Last year she was named First Team All-Sun Belt Conference after claiming a career first win for the Texas Bobcats in the Delta Gamma Challenge.