Women’s professional golf has been missing from metro Atlanta for almost a decade, but that will change this month when the Symetra Tour makes a stop at Atlanta National in the North Fulton suburb of Milton.
The Gosling’s Dark ‘n Stormy Classic will be played May 19-21 at the highly regarded Pete Dye layout, with the tournament field including a sizeable number of players who either have limited LPGA status this year or have played on the tour in the recent past.
The Symetra Tour is the LPGA’s version of the Web.com Tour, and serves as the developmental tour for players seeking to reach the highest level in women’s golf. The top 10 money winners earn LPGA Tour cards for the following year, and many of the top finishers in the finals of the LPGA Qualifying are players who competed on the Symetra Tour.
This will be the first time the Symetra Tour has visited Georgia since its inaugural year of 2012, when the tour made a stop in Vidalia. Prior to that, the Futures Tour played at several Georgia courses throughout the state, stayed only once for more than a year or two. The last stop in metro Atlanta was 2008 at Chateau Elan.
Since Symetra assumed title sponsorship, the tour has grown significantly in the number of tournaments and size of purses, with 22 events on this year’s schedule. All the tournaments have purses of at least $100,000, with a few reaching $200,000.
The Gosling’s Dark ‘n Stormy Classic was a late addition to the 2016 schedule, and will feature one of the best and most demanding courses the tour visits. Atlanta National has been considered among the most challenging courses in the state since opening in the late 1980s, with an ample number of hazards in play along with some penal bunkers, waste areas and testy greens complexes.
For the benefit of spectators, the nines will be reversed for the tournament, with Atlanta National’s par-5 ninth hole serving as the 18th for the Symetra Tour event. The long and difficult par-4 18th will be the ninth hole for the tournament and will play as a par 5, with the par-5 15th (tournament 6), playing as a par 4 to keep the course’s par at 72.
Tournament week begins with practice rounds on Monday, May 16, and a junior clinic for girls age 18-and-under at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. The pro-am is set for Wednesday, with the 54-hole tournament played Thursday to Saturday. The 144-player field will be cut to the low 60 and ties for the final round, with the field competing for a purse of $100,000.
The tournament will be the seventh on the tour’s 2016 schedule and the third and final stop on a Southern swing that includes Greenwood, S.C., May 5-8 and Charlotte May 13-15.
Of the tour’s first four events this year, two were won by players with limited LPGA Tour status for 2016. Brittany Altomare won the last of three tournaments in Florida, with Samantha Richdale previously winning in the state.
The names of the Symetra Tour players are unfamiliar to all but the most diehard women’s golf fans, but many of the LPGA’s top players starred on the Symetra and Futures Tours on their way to the top. Brooke Henderson won tournaments on both the Symetra and LPGA Tour last year.
The three most prominent Georgia golfers on the 2016 Symetra Tour are Newnan’s Jean Reynolds, Jonesboro’s Lacey Agnew and St. Simons’ Garrett Phillips, all of whom have played on the LPGA Tour.
Reynolds has played on the Symetra Tour since 2008 and played two seasons on the LPGA Tour after finishing second on the Futures Tour money list in 2009. She has placed 34th, 27th and 31st on the Symetra money list the past three seasons, and is currently 17th in earnings after consecutive finishes of sixth and 15th in Florida.
Agnew has played the Symetra Tour each of the last three years, improving each season from 70th to 58th to 33rd last year after splitting her playing time between the Symetra and LPGA Tour in 2012. Agnew lost in a playoff to current LPGA Tour player Dori Carter in the Georgia Women’s Open in 2011 after completing her college career at Florida State.
Unfortunately for Agnew, she will be unable to play at Atlanta National after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier this year. She hopes to return later this season, and will play on a medical extension in 2017.
“This is very disappointing,” Agnew said of missing the Symetra Tour’s Atlanta stop. “I hope Atlanta National stays on the schedule for next year and is not a one and done thing.”
Phillips is back on the Symetra Tour after playing on the LPGA Tour in 2015. The former UGA golfer has placed between 35th and 40th on the Symetra money list four times between 2009 and ’14, but is off to a slow start this year, making just one of three cuts in Florida.
The fourth Georgian on the Symetra Tour is former Mercer golfer Lacey Fears from Bonaire, who is a rookie this season. Fears played in all three Florida tournaments but did not make a cut.
The tournament’s two sponsor exemptions went to two of the most prominent female golfers in the state, both of whom played professionally after concluding their college careers.
Margaret Shirley is the state’s most successful female amateur, reaching the finals of the USGA Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship the last three years, winning the title in 2014. Shirley, who played her college golf at Auburn before working at both Georgia and Auburn as an assistant coach, competed briefly as a professional, winning two mini-tour events before regaining her amateur status.
Shirley, the Executive Director of Atlanta Junior Golf, has won the Georgia Women’s Open three times, most recently in 2013.
The other sponsor exemption went to Karen Paolozzi, a former Futures Tour player who is one of the top female club professionals in the country.
Paolozzi, an assistant pro at Druid Hills GC, played the Futures Tour for two years about a decade ago, nearly winning a tournament in Tucson, where she lost in a playoff. She became a club professional after that and has been in the Georgia PGA Section since early 2014, making her mark at both the state and national level.
In her first appearance in the Georgia Women’s Open, Paolozzi won the title in 2014 and tied for second last year behind Ashlan Ramsey, who played the Symetra Tour in 2015 and is now a rookie on the LPGA Tour.
Later in 2014 Paolozzi became just the second woman to make the cut in the PGA Professional National Championship, getting plenty of air time on Golf Channel’s broadcast. She also placed second in the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Championship at Chateau Elan behind a former LPGA Tour veteran, and repeated that runner-up finish last year, again trailing only a veteran ex-LPGA member.
Paolozzi scored victories against otherwise all-male Georgia PGA fields last year, winning both the Assistants’ Championship and the Section’s PNC, the qualifier for the national club professional championship. She became the first female to win the Georgia PGA PNC and will make a second appearance at nationals in June.
With her invitation to the Symetra Tour event, Paolozzi will have a busy stretch of tournament golf the next few months, and will be playing in a U.S. Women’s Open qualifier two days after Gosling’s Dark ‘n Stormy Classic concludes.
Thanks to her play in the 2014 LPGA T&CP Championship, Paolozzi earned a spot in the 2015 Women’s PGA Championship and will be in the field again this year.
“That was very humbling,” Paolozzi said of playing against the top female golfers in the game at last year’s Women’s PGA Championship. “It was a neat experience. I had never played in a major and I really enjoyed that.”
Paolozzi has made a few trips to Atlanta National to gain some much-needed local knowledge about the course, and hopes that will give her a little edge over the Symetra Tour regulars, who will have no more than a practice round or two.
“There will not be a lot of birdies out here,” Paolozzi said of Atlanta National, which will play around 6,400 yards for the tournament, approximately the yardage from the club’s burgundy tees.
Hazards are seriously in play on about half the holes, including a pair of all-carry-over-water pars 3s that are now part of the front nine. With the par changes to holes 15 and 18, the course will now have a trio of potentially risk/reward par 5s, with the risk on the converted 18th the devilishly deep bunker off the right side of the sharply elevated green.
Instead of having a potentially drivable par 4, an island green par 3 and a long and demanding par 4 for its closing holes, the course will have a different finish for the tournament.
The dogleg right eighth (tournament 17) is one of the better par 4s at Atlanta National, with the second shot over a hazard to a wide, shallow green one of the most demanding on the course. The tournament finishing hole is a risk/reward par 5 with a large waste bunker in the middle of the fairway having to be negotiated from the tee and a winding stream fronting the green.
Tickets for the tournament are $10 daily, and can be purchased at the gate. For information, visit www.goslingsclassic.com.