Symetra Tour preview: Players to watch

Ginger Howard during the first round of LPGA Q-School.

The Symetra Tour kicks off March 23 with the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic, played at Lake Region Yacht and Country Club in Winter Haven, Fla. Keep an eye on these 10 players this week, and during the rest of the year.

1.) Jackie Barenborg: Call her the closest thing to a local in this field. Barenborg, 25, hails from Vero Beach, Fla., but she spent four years at Florida Southern College in nearby Lakeland, where she was a member of the 2007 NCAA Division II Championship-winning team. The Winter Haven track seems to fit Barenborg’s game. She was runner-up at Futures Qualifying School here in 2010, and her best finish on the developmental tour was a runner-up at the 2011 season opener.

2.) Mallory Blackwelder: The recent Big Break Ireland contestant (she finished third) has been something of a world traveler since turning professional in 2009. She spent the 2010 season playing the Ladies European Tour, and is returning full-time to the Symetra Tour this year.

3.) Ginger Howard: She hasn’t even been 18 for two weeks (she celebrated the big birthday March 15), but Howard will start her Symetra season this week in Winter Haven. After winning the second stage of LPGA Qualifying School last fall, Howard missed earning partial LPGA status at final stage by one stroke. She plans to play the full Symetra Tour season this year, and already has won six times on the SunCoast Tour.

4.) Taylor Collins: Another former Division II player to keep an eye on. Collins, 22, was a member of the Nova Southeastern team that won the Division II national championship in 2009 and ’10. She’s newly professional and making her first Symetra Tour start this week. Collins’ Nova teammate, Sandra Changkija, earned full LPGA status last fall with a T-7 at the Q-School.

5.) Birdie Kim: The 2005 U.S. Women’s Open winner (remember her? She’s the one who holed out from a fairway bunker at the final hole at Cherry Hills) is making her first Symetra Tour start since 2003. Kim ended 2011 at LPGA Q-School after making only two cuts in 11 starts on the LPGA tour in 2011.

6.) Tzu-Chi Lin: The defending champion. Lin set a 54-hole scoring record for this tournament last year with her 10-under 206. She also finished No. 10 on the season-ending money list, earning her LPGA card.

7.) Laura Martin: The recent Indiana graduate was the early-week story at last year’s event, going 6 under through 36 holes before closing in 76 to finish T-10. It was the best finish in 11 Symetra starts for Martin, a quick player who compiled 16 top-10 finishes while at Indiana.

8.) Megan McChrystal: She spent the majority of her senior year at LSU atop the individual college rankings. McChrystal helped guide the Tigers to a third-place finish at the national championship last spring, and was a mentor to teammate Austin Ernst, who won the individual NCAA title. McChrystal played six Symetra events last year, and her best finish was T-12 at the Tour Championship.

9.) Anya Alvarez: A strong player fresh off the Washington roster, Alvarez qualified for last year’s U.S. Women’s Open in first attempt, making the cut and finishing T-64.

10.) Natalie Sheary: Big wins for Sheary include the 2010 Connecticut Women’s Open, 2009 ACC Championship and 2007 Eastern Amateur. She won 2010 Futures Tour Qualifying during her senior year at Wake Forest, and made 11 cuts in 12 Symetra starts last year.

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