For some, it’s a return to LPGA Tour competition after what was arguably the strangest season in history. For others, this week’s Kia Classic is a homecoming, a nostalgic visit to familiar stomping grounds. A place they know.
Second-year rookie Jennifer Chang didn’t grow up in Southern California. She’s a Carolina girl, the only person in history to win four consecutive North Carolina Women’s Amateur titles, and the pride of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. But her three years as a Trojan at the University of Southern California gave the 21-year-old a sense of kinship with this part of the world.
And the memories from a preview visit to Aviara during her freshman year of college came flooding back as she prepared to tee off for the first time in the Kia Classic.
“I actually came out here my very first semester in school and became a spectator, so I got to see it behind the ropes,” Chang said on Tuesday afternoon in Carlsbad. “We watched a couple of the alumni from USC, so I got a sneak peek not knowing that I would get a chance to play here three years later.”
She watched Lizette Salas back then, the most decorated Trojan golfer in history. And she spent a little time watching Lydia Ko, who is only three years older than Chang. She loved the rolling hills and fresh air in this part of California, just a short drive from the Pacific Ocean. But more than anything, she loves being back at Aviara as a competitor.
“Obviously, last year (the Kia Classic) being postponed was unfortunate. But I got a chance to play (Aviara) last year and got a sneak peek at the course.”
She studied the place. Like a coach watching game film, Chang looked at replays of old Kia Classics to get a sense of what she would face and what kind of numbers she might have to shoot.
“The key I think this week is just hitting fairways,” she said. “It’s really important to set yourself up in a good spot, especially on approach shots; just giving yourself as many opportunities as possible. I watched highlights and looked at the scores from the previous couple years and I think last year's winning score was 18-under by Nasa [Hataoka]. So, definitely some birdie opportunities out here. A lot of scoring you can do. You just have to make sure you give yourself the right opportunity.”
As for the late nights in the film room, she chuckled a little and said, “This year in particular, because it was such a big gap, two years since the last time we played, I just wanted to give myself some background knowledge on this course just to see what kind of scoring opportunities are out there and look back on the highlights.”
She also wanted to capitalize on her good play coming into the week. After a career-best tied for 8th finish at the LPGA Drive On Championship presented by Volvik, Chang feels the need to strike while hot.
“It helps a ton, first top-10 finish, best career finish,” she said. “That gave me a lot of confidence coming into this week and moving forward. I think prior to that week I got a lot of feedback on what I needed to work on. I kind of fine-tuned what I needed to do, which is more consistency off the tee and making more putts.
“That's the same goal this week. I mean, I came out here to California a week early to see my coach because I hadn't seen him in over a year. So, to finally get to see him, get my swing dialed in before this week, was a huge thing for me.”
It’s also huge that she gets a re-do on her rookie season, along with all of the other 2020 LPGA Tour rookies who saw their first years shortened by COVID-19.
“They say your rookie year is your hardest year and they weren't kidding,” Chang said. “We were fortunate enough to get a preview into our season now. It's pretty much a freebie, having all the experience we could get from it and not having it affect our status. So that was really nice.
“But I think it was a blessing and a curse, at least from my point of view. I didn't play that well last year and I think my whole focus was just making cuts. After my experience from last year, and the past two weeks, I know that I'm more than capable of being out here.
“I just have to stick to what I do best and not focus on what other people do.”