The best female amateurs throughout the United States find themselves in a strange position of looking for organized competition and not being able to find much of it.
Less than a month from now, that will change thanks to one of the more creative ideas to come out of the golf community during the pandemic: back-to-back U.S. women’s elite amateur golf championships taking place a few miles apart in North Port, Fla., 90 miles south of Tampa. The first three-round event is being held at Heron Creek Golf and Country Club from June 23-25, and Charlotte Harbor National Golf Club will host from June 30-July 2.
“The elite players have been starving for competition throughout this COVID thing and even their summer schedules are being wildly amended,” said PGA professional Rich Smith, the chairman at Charlotte Harbor. “We hosted a Symetra Tour event last year and some of the players from that tournament approached me and said, ‘Can you host an event under social-distancing guidelines?’ And I said, ‘Of course, I have no problem hosting a competition.’ ”
Smith credits Rick Pano, father of the No. 23-ranked amateur in the world, Alexa Pano, for spearheading the concept and inquiring if two events could be played a few days apart. The two facilities will be available for practice as the 72-player fields prepare for what is likely to be an All-American affair. Given the current travel restrictions, the field will take on a unique look of being entirely American or U.S.-based players. There are currently 13 Americans in the top 50 of the WAGR.
The field will be decided by a six-level criteria. Players in the following categories will be eligible for exemption into the championship: U.S. Women’s Open qualifiers from the past two years, U.S. Women’s Amateur Match Play qualifiers from last year, NCAA Division I champions from the last five years, NCAA Division II champions from the last two years, reigning champions from lower levels of college golf and those in the top 300 of the WAGR.
Having the events consecutively will give players the chance for six competitive rounds in a safe environment.
“We’ve been using safety guidelines and getting 300 players plus around here every day for the past couple of months, so it’s not like we can’t run something with 72 players,” said Bart Cook, the PGA director of golf at Heron Creek. “We have a 25-acre practice facility so we can fit all 72 players on our driving range and they will all be more than 6 feet apart. There are no benches or bag stands, we sanitize the golf balls when we collect them. … Throughout our whole facility we’ve worked tirelessly to eliminate touch points.”
“We’ve gone through the mental visualization of what this championship will look like and we have taken all of the necessary steps.” – Rich Smith
The countless safety guidelines Smith and Cook have implemented will be altered slightly for the tournament. For instance, each player will be given a “practice zone” along with their starting time – the concept is for players to start in one zone and rotate around the spacious practice facility to eliminate the possibility of them congregating in one area. Also, carts will be mandatory and no push carts will be permitted.
“We’ve gone through the mental visualization of what this championship will look like and we have taken all of the necessary steps,” Smith said.
The biggest separator between recreational and tournament play is scoring. Traditional rules that call for three players to exchange scorecards and then sign each other’s card at the end of the round will not apply at golf tournaments this year, and it could be a long-term policy.
The American Junior Golf Association will have players handle scoring exclusively through the Golf Genius app on their smart phones. For the tournaments next month, there will be a scorekeeper with each group who keeps score for all three competitors. Once the round is over, those scores will be given audibly to a tournament official and verified verbally by the competitor.
“We’re used to having three players sitting right next to each other at a 6-foot table,” Smith said. “Now the entire process will be touchless.
Another key aspect of the event, supported by membership and volunteer bases at both clubs, is for the golf to be as close to normal as possible. There won’t be any rakes on the golf courses, but the two events will have a volunteer raking the bunker.
“We wanted to avoid playing lift, clean and place in the bunkers,” Smith said. “One of our goals, in addition to safety, is to make it as close to real golf as possible.”
Perhaps the best aspect of the competition is who will benefit from the tournament. The courses are hosting not in an attempt to clean up financially, but to support the amateur game.
“When they approached us with this opportunity, it’s not a financial thing at all,” Cook said. “We can understand that amateur golfers are hurting right now because there is no competitiveness and no one is hosting anything. Without amateur golf, there is no golf. It’s something we wanted to do.”
The players won’t be the only ones to benefit. Since Smith and Cook don’t operate a tour, the excess proceeds from the event needed a home. They decided on the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides educational scholarships to spouses and children of fallen and disabled military members, and the Center for Disease Control Foundation, which has led efforts against COVID-19.
“We’re extremely happy to assist the young women playing and the two charities,” Smith said.
Just one last classy touch on what promises to be an important event.
For more information, please visit www.usweag.com.
Alexa Pano, the No. 23 amateur in the world, will compete in two upcoming U.S. women’s elite amateur golf championships. Photo: Joseph Weiser, Icon Sportwire via Getty Images
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