Regina Plasencia (Guadalajara, Mexico) started with three consecutive birdies en route to a 7-under 65 on the Gary Player Course to grab the 18-hole lead at LPGA Qualifying School Stage I. It’s the first 65 at Stage I since Megan Khang, who now plays full-time on the LPGA, in 2015. Soo Jin Lee (Sydney, Australia) and Rino Kotake (Nishibaru Higashi Ku, Japan) are one shot back at 6-under, 66.
The low 125 and ties after three rounds will make the cut to play on Sunday and the low 90 and ties following the final-round will advance to Stage II of LPGA Qualifying Tournament in Venice, Florida.
There are 12 different nations represented in players that stand in the top 30 after day one.
“I hit the ball very well, my drivers were very solid and long so I had short irons into the greens,” explained Plasencia. “I gave myself 12-13 good chances for birdie, which is a really good number.”
Plasencia, who graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2016, made birdie on her first hole and turned at 3-under. She rattled off birdies on the first three holes of her inward nine and completed the bogey-free round with a seventh birdie on hole five. She made pars on her final four holes.
In 2016, she played Qualifying School as an amateur after finishing college, but did not advance out of Stage I.
“I just really had to work on some technical stuff with my swing,” said Plasencia. “That’s what I did for a month and half.”
In the fall, she played in some mini tour events and then was invited by Lorena Ochoa to play in the Citibanamex Lorena Ochoa Match Play in May and said that tournament was the turning point. In June, she won the Monday Qualifier for the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship and was able to play in an LPGA event.
Plasencia has played in eight career LPGA Tour events through her Mexican and Arkansas connections. She played in the 2011 and 2016 Lorena Ochoa Invitational and played in the 2016 and 2017 Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
Plasencia has a very close relationship with Ochoa, who also grew up in Guadalajara. Plasencia used to watch her practice at Guadalajara Country Club and even got to miss school a couple times to practice with her.
Plasencia’s current coach is Lorena’s former coach, Rafael Alarcon, who was on her bag Thursday. Alarcon had to fly out on Thursday so her brother, Juan Diego, will caddy the rest of the tournament. Juan Diego played college golf at Texas State and is a scratch golfer.
“Lorena is a very close role model for me,” said Plasencia. “I have her number and know I can always reach her if I need anything.”
Plasencia posted ten career top 10 finishes from 2012-2016 at Arkansas with one career win. She was named All-SEC in 2014 and 2015.
JLPGA PLAYER RINO KOTAKE POSTS A 66Rino Kotake posted a 6-under, 66 on the Arnold Palmer Course to stand in a tie for second. The 25-year-old, who has played professionally in Japan for seven years on the JLPGA and the secondary tour, is competing in LPGA Qualifying School for the first time.
“At this stage of my life, I wanted a new challenge,” said Kotake, whose best finish on the JLPGA is an eighth place result. “Playing in the U.S. is going to be a challenge, but I really enjoyed my first round of Qualifying School.”
Kotake turned in a bogey-free scorecard.
“Since it’s my first Qualifying School, I was a little nervous,” explained Kotake. “I was able to calm down and had well balanced round.”
SOUTH AFRICAN ASSAD STARTS WITH A 67Lora Assad (Johannesburg, South Africa) didn’t start playing golf until the 11th grade when she was 17 years old. She broke her right pinky finger while playing field hockey, which is a very popular sport in South Africa. Assad excelled in field hockey and almost played on the national team.
She decided to pick up golf after the finger injury and with the help of her coach, Gavan Levenson, she took to the sport very quickly and is competing in her second LPGA Qualifying School this week.
She posted a 5-under, 67 on day one on the Gary Player Course. The big turning point in her round was the par-5 11th when she nearly holed out from 114 yards and it started a string of four straight birdies.
“I had a pretty good day from tee to green, everything was going well.” said Assad, who finished T78 at Stage I and T67 at Stage II to advance to Final Stage last year. “I hit almost every fairway and my irons were spot on.”
Assad earned full Symetra Tour status last year through Qualifying School, but has made just one cut in 12 starts this year.
“I learned that being on Tour is a lot different than college golf,” said Assad, who played college golf at Texas State. “You don’t have the support. You don’t have teammates, I have none. It’s a big change. Especially for me because I don’t have anyone with me.”
Assad is especially looking forward to getting back to South Africa for the first time in six months after Stage I. She will embark on the 26-hour trip from Los Angeles to Orlando to Dallas to London to Johannesburg on Tuesday after Qualifying School.
DREAMS OF OLYMPICS AS A DIVER TO LPGAWhen Martina Edberg (Glumslov, Sweden) was young, she dreamt of being an Olympic diver. She was a gymnast first, a diver second and a golfer third. Edberg had a sensational final year of college golf at Cal-State Fullerton this past year and is now zeroing in on the LPGA.
Edberg, 22, carded a bogey-free 69 on the Dinah Shore Course to start her first Qualifying School.
“I was excited to start on the Dinah Shore Course, one of the longer courses, I’m pretty familiar with it,” said Edberg, who played in the NWGA event last week on Dinah. “Posting a low score early helps to carry me through the rest of the week.”
Edberg won the 2017 Big West Conference Championship and was a four-time First-Team All-Big West performer. She was named the Big West Conference Player of the Year with six wins and top three finishes in 10 of 12 starts.
Edberg grew up on a golf course in Sweden and went to the same boarding school for high school that Madelene Sagstrom went to. She also has the same swing coach as Sagstrom, Hans Larsson. Sagstrom played on Team Europe in the 2017 Solheim Cup.
Edberg is one of 19 players from Sweden in the field.
THE LPGA EXEMPTION IN HIGH SCHOOL THAT SPARKED HALEY MILLSHaley Mills (Tyler, Texas) knew she wanted to be an LPGA professional after getting an exemption into the Volunteers of America Texas shootout as a senior in high school in 2013. She made the cut and then realized that just maybe the LPGA was reachable.
After two years at Kentucky, she transferred to Texas and finished her career in Austin in May with a Sport Management degree.
She posted a 4-under, 68 on day one on the Dinah Shore Course.
“I hit the ball well, ball striking was on point,” said 23-year-old Mills. “I didn’t make too many mistakes and my four birdies on the back really helped. The goal was to post a good first round. I exceeding my expectations. It helps to have cushion at the beginning of the week instead of trying to catch up at the end.”
Mills started her college career at Kentucky in part because her father, Steve, played college golf at Kentucky. Steve is on the bag for Haley this week at Stage I.
Mills made key birdies on 15 and 17 coming into the clubhouse to close strong.
“It has been a little different, I’ve never played three practice rounds,” said Mills on handling her first LPGA Qualifying School experience. “I knew it was going to be long week. I did minimal preparation and made sure to get rest. I felt pretty good out there. The main goal the next few days is fairways and greens.”
Mills was part of a strong Texas team that won the Big 12 Championship this past year.
TWO FLORIDA STATE PLAYERS PERFORM WELLMorgane Metraux (Lausanne, Switzerland) and Matilda Castren (Kauniainen, Finland) both played well on day one. Metraux carded a 5-under, 67 on the Gary Player Course while Castren posted a 3-under, 69 on the Arnold Palmer Course. Metraux and Castren are teammates at Florida State.
Metraux is a rising senior at FSU while Castren just finished her career in May.
Metraux, who has an older sister Kim in the field as well, made seven birdies.
“It was a really stress free round,” said Metraux, who is two years younger than her sister. “I hit every fairway and hit 17 greens in regulation. It was just about holing putts. I started off with two birdies inside 12 feet and then played really steady golf.”
While Metraux signed up for LPGA Qualifying School to make sure she had status for 2018 when she
graduates, she would turn professional if she advanced to Final Stage and earned her Tour card.
“My first thought was to get status for next year,” admitted Metraux. “If I happen to go all the way, I’ll turn pro. But it (signing up) was really for summer of 2018.”
Metraux is a Business Management major at Florida State and starts her senior year on Monday. She is flying home from Palm Springs on Monday so she will miss the first day.
The Metraux sisters took the silver medal for Switzerland at the 2016 World Amateur Championships in Mexico.
“It’s family, we both know we can count on the other,” explained Morgane about what it means to have her sister going through Qualifying School as well. “We are best friends and it’s even better than normal best friends. It’s a unique situation.”
The sisters were recruited during junior tournaments in Europe and Morgane said they could have gone to different colleges in the U.S., but both fell in love with Florida State.
Meanwhile, Castren’s 69 came on the Palmer Course
“I started off pretty well with two birdies and then made double on the next hole, but recovered pretty well,” said Castren. “Two-under on the back. Pretty solid day, nothing too crazy.”
Castren, an International Affairs major at FSU, is trying to add to the number of Finnish players on Tour. There is currently one player from Finland on the Symetra Tour - Emily Penttila.
“When I was little, like six years old, I told my parents I wanted to be the best in the world at golf,” said Castren. “I started playing when I was like four or five and they (parents) have been really supportive.”
PART-TIME CADDIE AT PEBBLE BEACH POSTS A 67:When Audra Kepler (Pleasant Hill, Calif.) is not playing golf, she’s still on the course caddying at Pebble Beach, Spy Glass or Spanish Bay. She’s caddied for Josh Donaldson, the third baseman for the Blue Jays and Lester Holt, who anchors the NBC nightly news.
This week, she’s focused on her own game and posted an opening-round 67 on the Arnold Palmer Course.
“I hit it well and really enjoyed my round,” said Kepler, who played Division II college golf at Cal State Monterey Bay. “I’m feeling confident heading into the rest of the week.”
AMATEUR ALE WALKER CARDS 68:Ale Walker (Paintsville, Kentucky) turned in a 4-under, 68 on the Gary Player Course. The Marketing, Management and Economics major at Kentucky has one year left of school, but decided to test her game against the field.
Yes, she’s a triple major and if she wasn’t pursuing a professional golf career, she’d be an entrepreneur of sorts just like her mother, Kathy.
“Honestly, I wanted to get my feet wet and see where I am with all the other girls,” explained Walker on why she entered Q-School before her redshirt senior season. I wanted to see where I need to be. That was it.”
Walker has one career top 10 and three top 20’s in her career at Kentucky. She missed all of the 2015-16 season due to injury.
Walker is from the self-described “hills” of Kentucky, a three-stoplight town with one golf course.