Florida players enjoying LPGA's Orlando stop

Vicky Hurst during Round 1 of the LPGA Tour Championship.

ORLANDO, Fla. – For the volunteer holding back the small army of Vicky Hurst fans early Thursday morning at Grand Cypress Golf Club, such a crowd of first-round followers on an unusually brisk Florida morning seemed to come as something of a shock.

“Which one is she?” the volunteer asked, careful not to let a single fan through his outstretched arms as he turned to squint down the par-4 16th.

No spectator in this group had a problem with that identification, as one of the bundled fans pointed out the young, all-black-clad Hurst as she stepped to the tee.

For Hurst, a Central Florida home-girl in the truest sense of the word, the LPGA tour’s return to Florida with the Tour Championship is an especially good thing. Born and raised in nearby Melbourne, Hurst drew one of the largest followings of the morning from her home course, Suntree Country Club, even in cool, windy conditions. Wearing homemade “Go Vicky Hurst!” pins, the assembled crowd peppered an otherwise low-key morning with encouraging shouts of “That’s our Vick!”

“They’ve all supported me since I was little, and I see them all the time at the golf course, so it was cool to see familiar faces watching the LPGA,” Hurst said after a first-round 6-over 78 that left her near the bottom of the leaderboard.

And with that, Hurst may be on to something. For the first time since 2008 – when three tournaments were staged here – the LPGA has a stop in Florida on its competition schedule. Many players see it as a step in the right direction for the LPGA, particularly those players who call the Sunshine State home. There are more than 50 of those on the LPGA, but Hurst is one of only a handful who have always claimed it.

As the Ginn Open at Reunion, the Stanford International Pro-Am at Aventura and the ADT Championship in West Palm Beach exited the schedule in 2008, the LPGA saw 2009 pass without a single Florida stop. It’s unfortunate for players who already spend a good part of the year chasing events outside the United States, plus the tour itself is stationed in Daytona Beach.

“A lot of players reside in Florida,” said Leta Lindley, a transplant who lives in West Palm Beach. “There’s a lot of great golf courses here, so it is very nice to be back in the great golfing state. Very important to all of us, I think.”

Though sparse in the morning, crowds began to pick up as the day wore on and the temperature climbed. Morgan Pressel, who grew up playing in Boca Raton, notes that events here are made to attract crowds. Pressel, who posted 1-over 73 Thursday in the early wave of tee times, is living off the hanger this week instead of out of the suitcase, and it’s safe to say many of her peers are doing the same as more than 50 LPGA players take up residence in Florida.

“I was very impressed with the crowds that were out here today,” she said.

As Pressel noted, much of those crowds are golfers themselves, as Florida’s climate makes the state a draw for linksters. To be able to play for that type of fan is a detail that can’t be overlooked.

In fact Brittany Lincicome, another of the few native Floridians in the field this week, sees golf in her home state as being along the lines of baseball and apple pie: “It just makes sense to be in Florida.” In order for this relationship to work, as Lincicome pointed out, sponsors will need to take an interest, too.

“You think of Florida, Texas, California, you think of golf, so it’s kind of been unfortunate that we haven’t been playing golf in Florida,” she said. “... Now hopefully sponsors or somebody will kind of pick up on it attracts people, people come and people love golf, and hopefully we can get some more tournaments in Florida.”

As for Lincicome, originally from St. Petersburg, she’ll spend the week in a rented house nearby that sleeps 12-15. If all goes according to plan and Lincicome continues to advance through each of the week’s two cuts, it could turn out to be one very memorable event, both for the golf and the company she’ll keep. There’s nothing like a home crowd.

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