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Lake Merced a Gateway to LPGA Stardom

Lake Merced a Gateway to LPGA Stardom

March 11, 2014

photo 4As a frequent and generous host of USGA qualifiers and major championships, Lake Merced Golf Club has become a checkpoint to greatness.

Yani Tseng and Natalie Gulbis both survived qualifiers for U.S. Women’s Opens at Lake Merced, making their return to Daly City next month for the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic full of nostalgia.

“I have great memories here,” recalled Gulbis, who won the 2007 Evian Masters on the LPGA Tour. “This is a great course. It’s going to play 6,500 yards, and in San Francisco, it’s quite a bit cooler, so the ball doesn’t fly as far as some places we play. The greens out here are small. It’s a good shot-makers golf course.”

The history of women’s golf at Lake Merced can be traced all the way back to the 1941 San Francisco Women’s Match Play Open, which was won by the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

A 14-year-old Lydia Ko competed at Lake Merced two years ago at the U.S. Junior Girls’ as the No. 1 amateur in the world, but her result was memorable for a different reason.

Ko was knocked out in the semifinals that year, although she would bounce back to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur less than a month later, and then the LPGA’s Canadian Women’s Open just two weeks after that — even though she was still an amateur. Ko pulled off an unprecedented repeat last year at the Canadian Women’s Open, defending her title while still playing as an amateur.

“Winning the Canadian Women’s Open twice, it’s not something I expected to do in my whole career,” said Ko, who is the second youngest LPGA Tour winner ever. “It’s been really cool. Two years went fast. It’s been about five or 10 years worth of experiences.”

Ko’s upset at Lake Merced brings to mind another amateur prodigy who competed at Lake Merced.  The only U.S. Junior Amateur that Tiger Woods failed to win was at Lake Merced in 1990 — when he was also 14.

Perhaps Ko, 16, has some unfinished business next month at Lake Merced?

“Playing here in 2012 is definitely helping me now,” said Ko, who turned pro five months ago and is already ranked No. 4 in the world. “It’s always a bit of an advantage to come back to a course you’ve played.

“It was a good experience. I had never played that championship before. My first match play tournament was the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur and I didn’t go that far, so it was nice to improve.”

The improvement continues for Ko, who has finished third, seventh and 19th in three 2014 events.

Lydia Ko (Callaway hat) poses with kids from Swinging Skirts, the First Tee and Youth on Course, all beneficiaries of next month’s LPGA Tour event at Lake Merced.

The last time the LPGA played in the Bay Area, Ko was just 12 years old. This year’s Swinging Skirts field is already loaded, with verbal commitments from each of the top 10 players in the world.

“This event is up there with the World Series, the America’s Cup and the Super Bowl,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, an avid golf fan. “Four years is too long to go without the LPGA in the Bay Area.”

Pleasanton’s Paula Creamer, Santa Cruz’s Juli Inkster, Stanford graduate Michelle Wie, San Jose’s Christina Kim and Sacramento’s Gulbis all have local ties, but it might be Taiwan’s Tseng who becomes the hometown favorite. The Swinging Skirts is the first LPGA Tour event co-sanctioned with the Taiwan LPGA, so its field will feature 120 LPGA golfers, plus the top 10 players on the Taiwan LPGA Official Money List and seven additional exemptions to players of Taiwanese descent.

Tseng – the former No. 1  in the world and the youngest player ever (male of female) to win five majors –  had a throng of Taiwan media tracking her every move during a visit to Lake Merced on Monday.

“I can’t believe we’re moving the Swinging Skirts to San Francisco and the biggest stage in the world,” said Tseng about Swinging Skirts, the Taiwanese nonprofit focused on growing women’s golf.

It’s certainly a stage fitting for the best women’s golfers in the world.

-Kevin Merfeld

Author: Kevin Merfeld

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