Once again, the Country Club of Winter Haven serves as the starting point on the “Road to the LPGA” in 2018, hosting the 10th annual Florida’s Natural Charity Classic to open the Symetra Tour season. A field of 132 players is set and they will compete for a purse size of $125,000 from Friday, March 16 to Sunday, March 18. Of the individuals comprising the field, a total of 27 countries will be represented. In addition, 20 total states boast at least one competitor.
First and second round action at the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic gets underway at 8:15 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Following 36 holes of play, the field will be cut to the top 60 players and ties. Then on Sunday, the final round tees off at 8:30 a.m., with a trophy presentation to follow on No. 18 green.
The tournament also marks the first of 21 events in the season-long Race for the Card, where the top-10 players on the money list at the end of the year will earn a LPGA Tour card for 2019.
The Symetra Tour is the official qualifying tour of the LPGA Tour and enters its 38th competitive season in 2018. With the support of its umbrella partner Symetra, the Tour’s mission is to prepare the world’s best young women professional golfers for a successful career on the LPGA Tour. Since Symetra’s inaugural sponsorship year in 2012, the Symetra Tour has grown from 16 tournaments and $1.7M in prize money to $3M in prize money awarded over the course of 22 tournaments. With more than 600 alumnae moving on to the LPGA, former Symetra Tour players have won a total of 427 LPGA titles.
NEWELL, SIMS PART OF LOCAL TALENT IN FIELD
When play gets underway on Friday for the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic, 12 total players that call the Sunshine State home will be part of the competition, a group that also features three from Tampa, including AJ Newell and Sierra Sims.
While many of their counterparts will be flying then driving to get to Winter Haven, it’s essentially a home match for these individuals, nearly in their backyard.
“I certainly love the travel that comes with playing golf as a professional, but it generally means no family or friends can come watch you play,” said Newell. “Having this event so close to home means my parents will be able to come watch, and that means the world to me. Golf has given me a very tight knit family.”
Newell was homeschooled in high school before attending the University of Tennessee. Born and raised in Tampa, her parents still live in the same house she grew up in.
Reflecting on 24 years of memories from across the state, Newell points out just how much golf has given her.
“To think back to all the clinics, lessons, practices, and tournaments that my parents sat through to get me to this point really amazes me,” said Newell, a former Women’s Golf Coaches Association (WGCA) All-American Honorable Mention performer. “I remember all the tough practices and swing changes my dad and I worked through together, the workouts my sister motivated me to get through, and the pep talks my mom would give me when I was away from home. Playing so close to home makes me proud to be able to compete in front of them.”
Sims, on the other hand, attended Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, but her family moved to Tampa when she started at Wake Forest University in 2013. No matter the path, Sims still finds comfort in the Tampa area, where she now lives and trains.
“Growing up, we moved around a lot. Since I've been in college, I've called Tampa my home,” said Sims. “I will be able to sleep in my own bed during the practice round days and on a day where I have a late tee time. It will also mean that my family will be able to come watch me play and cheer me on.”
Representing their home state is important to both players, as well as each individual from Florida playing in the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic. There’s a sense of pride that comes with the territory of a tournament being contested where you’re from.
Just as the path to how they got where they are today is unique, so is how they will approach the first event of the 2018 Symetra Tour season.
“My game plan for Florida's Natural is to go out there and have a great time competing,” Sims said. “My plan is to leave everything out on the course and walk away on Sunday saying I gave it my all, while staying true to my game.”
On the other hand, Newell looks to simply ease into the flow.
“My first and main goal for this entire year, and especially Florida’s Natural, is to stay positive. I want to make it a priority to stay positive and be my own best friend,” said Newell. “For Florida’s Natural, my goal is to get back into competing as smoothly as possible. You can't truly know what you need to work on until you play under the pressure of a tournament.”