Every LPGA Tour player with 14 clubs and a sleeve of golf balls is excited about getting back to play. But this week in Sylvania, Ohio, one rookie has even greater motivation.
Jillian Hollis grew up just up the road from Highland Meadows in the town of Rocky River, a Cleveland suburb on the shores of Lake Erie. Her first memories of golf are riding in a golf cart with her grandfather at Elyria Country Club. Paul Minnich set northern Ohio ablaze with his play, which included 18 club championships at Elyria. Five years ago, Jillian’s grandfather and her mother Sharon, a former Symetra Tour player and college golf standout at both NC State and Ohio State, were inducted into the Northern Ohio Golf Hall of Fame.
Now, the third-generation stalwart makes her first start in her home state as a LPGA Tour member.
“I did a lot of rookie interviews at the beginning of the year,” said Hollis, who was an All-American at the University of Georgia and played the Symetra Tour in 2018 and 2019. “I got asked the question a lot: ‘What tournament are you looking forward to the most?’”
The answer was simple.
“(Marathon Classic tournament director) Judd Silverman has been so great to me, and I played in this tournament -- I was counting the years -- seven years ago as a sponsor's invite as an amateur. Then I played a couple years ago again as a sponsor's invite as a professional.
“So, it was really cool. Last year when I was playing Symetra, I was doing really well. I won two tournaments and I got the invite to come play in this tournament (again). But I told Judd, ‘I want to come back next year as a (LPGA Tour) rookie. That's my goal, rookie on the LPGA. I want to come back as a member of the LPGA Tour.’ So, I was solely focused on Symetra.
“He was, like, ‘Jillian, I respect that. That's awesome.’ So, I had said that the Marathon was the tournament I look forward to the most.” Then she jokingly added, “I feel like I jinxed everybody because a big global pandemic happened and now this is like the first tournament back.”
Under normal conditions, Hollis would have family and friends lining the fairways at Highland Meadows to watch her. But, even without a gallery and under protocols that no one could have anticipated earlier in the year, the 23-year-old couldn’t be happier for the love and support of so many nearby.
“It's been so special,” she said. “We have a lot of history here. My mom played professional golf and Judd gave her a sponsor's invite a long time ago when she was playing. So, we always joke about that. He says, ‘Tell my sponsor's invite that I said hello.’ We chatted earlier this week and (Judd) said that (again). I always get a kick out of that.
“There is so much history here. I'm only an hour and a half away. To play Inverness last week, I know the setup was a lot harder than I anticipated, but I've played out there before. A lot of members at the club I play at in Rocky River are members at Inverness as well. So, it's cool. There are a lot of connections.
“I wish circumstances were different and they could come out and watch me, because they've been talking about it and how there were supposed to be fans. But I know everyone will hopefully be watching from home.”
Hollis remained sharp during the 166-day LPGA Tour break by playing money games with friends. On Tuesday, she joked, saying, “Are we allowed to say ‘gambling’?”
But she is serious about the support she has in her home state and optimistic about the outlook for this week. “I've played this course a lot of times,” she said. It's really good. It's like a placement golf course. You don't hit driver off the tee on every hole and I like that. I like when you have to think about your tee shots.
“The fairways are so good. I love coming back up north and playing on the bent grass. It's so nice. The greens are always good out here. Very consistent. There is a lot of slope that you might not be able to see. But just playing it over the years, I've kind of felt that and know where the breaks are. I'm really looking forward to playing this week. It'll be interesting.”
Local knowledge is a good thing. But it’s not close to the boost you get from local support.
“I've gotten a lot of text messages and a lot of support from the members of the club that I play at in Rocky River,” Hollis said. “Like I was saying, every time I go up there, I hear, ‘When are you starting? Good luck.’ It's so great that we have a tournament so close to my hometown. It's been here for so long. There is so much history here. I feel very loved and I'm very grateful that we're playing again on the LPGA Tour and that it's in Toledo, Ohio.”