It’s an unusually early start to the LPGA season. Especially for someone like Stacy Lewis, who only got back to hitting golf balls three weeks ago after the birth of daughter Chesnee Lynn. Lewis hasn’t competed since mid-July and carries few expectations into this week’s new Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. It will be special, and perhaps a little sleep-deprived too, as Chesnee makes her LPGA debut at the Four Seasons Orlando.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever say I’m ready,” Lewis said. “I need to go play and get my legs under me and just do it.”
While Lewis plans to take a prolonged break after the TOC, skipping four events overseas and returning to action in March at the Founders Cup, the start of a jam-packed run that she hopes puts her into the U.S. Women’s Open, several top Asian-based players are doing the opposite.
Thirty-six players qualified for the TOC by virtue of victories in the 2018 and 2017 season, but only 26 LPGA pros will tee it up alongside 50 celebrities Jan. 17-20 at Tranquilo Golf Course near Orlando. Only two of the top six players in the world – No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 5 Lexi Thompson – have committed to play.
Diamond Resorts International CEO Mike Flasky said he’s not the least bit disappointed in the field, saying he hopes more international players will make the effort to come after they hear good things about the inaugural event. In the past, many skipped the season-opening Bahamas event too.
“I don’t think we have a North American-based LPGA winner that is not playing that is not hurt,” said Flasky, who noted that Michelle Wie was the second person who committed and registered to play but withdrew due to lingering injury.
Sung Hyun Park, Inbee Park, So Yeon Ryu and Minjee Lee are among the international stars not in the field. The sponsor had the option of extending several sponsor exemptions to past LPGA winners to fill out the field but opted against it.
Flasky said they had dozens of letters from LPGA players requesting an exemption. Ultimately though they decided to keep it a pure TOC made up strictly of winners from the past two seasons.
“We believe that if you earned your way in as a champion in 2017 and 2018,” said Flasky, “splitting the LPGA purse further down the line with sponsor invites was unfair.”
Lewis didn’t like the idea of sponsor exemptions from the start and appreciates the strictness of the field qualifications.
She also understands why some international players don’t want to cross the world for one event when they can extend their offseason and get started in Australia or Thailand.
To that end, the LPGA is working to add another Florida-based event in January next season to further entice players to make the trip.
As it stands, 26 players will vie for $1.2 million in prize money at the no-cut, stroke-play event. Meanwhile 50 celebrities, including John Smoltz, Marcus Allen, Roger Clemens, Larry Fitzgerald and Toby Keith will vie for $500,000 in a modified Stableford format.
While this is the first year that Diamond Resorts has hosted an official LPGA event, the company’s tournaments have raised more than $3 million for charity since 2014.
Flasky’s intent is to put on a first-class event that’s as serious as it is fun. Country music singer Lee Brice will perform at Tuesday’s pro-am party, where LPGA players and celebrities will be drafted by the amateur teams. And on Saturday night, Cole Swindell will headline a dinner and auction to benefit UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.
At this time last year, a very pregnant Gerina Piller was participating in the PGA Champions event at Tranquilo. Piller and Lewis have compared notes of late, particularly the loss in swing speed.
Lewis wasn’t cleared by doctors to practice until eight weeks after giving birth, two weeks later than planned.
“Let’s just say delivery was pretty painful,” she said, without sharing any further details.
With her core and back particularly weak, Lewis spent the first two weeks in the gym. It wasn’t until after Christmas that she got back to golf, starting out more than a club shorter in distance. She’s down to a half club now.
Husband Gerrod will travel to Florida for the first event, then Lewis’ parents will help out as she takes on every domestic event in the spring.
“I want to make sure I get into the U.S. Women’s Open,” she said. “With it being earlier this year, I can’t really afford to take a week off.”
Chesnee is starting to smile now. She knows her parents’ voices. Lewis looks forward to getting back into competition. To feel the pressure of having to make a putt. Mostly she’s looking forward sharing it all with Chesnee.
A fresh year with new challenges and opportunities. And, as Diamond Resorts has promised, a healthy dose of fun. Gwk