It’s a first for a lot of them. Those players who were fortunate enough to win a watch last November in Naples for being Rolex First-Time Winners earned an added bonus, one they will cash in next week when they tee off at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando, Fla.
Gemma Dryburgh can’t wait. The 29-year-old Scot won a $4,000 toilet in addition to her first LPGA Tour title at the TOTO Japan Classic. Now, she will try to add a win stateside to her resume.
Jodi Ewart Shadoff is looking forward to playing near home. While she hasn’t lost her English accent, Ewart Shadoff has lived in Orlando for years. Her tearful post-victory interview at the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship made highlight reels throughout the postseason. And her husband, Adam, a local television sportscaster, has been the starter at the HGV TOC since its inception.
Jennifer Kupcho and Ashleigh Buhai made their first career victories major championships - The Chevron Championship and the AIG Women’s Open, respectively – and Paula Reto, Maja Stark, Ayaka Furue, and Leona Maguire had us all brushing away moisture from our cheeks as their lives changed forever with those first LPGA Tour wins.
One of the players most excited to be starting her season in January is Andrea Lee, a California native on whom much was heaped when she joined the tour. Lee was the No.1-ranked amateur in the world, the most decorated golfer in Stanford Women’s Golf history during her collegiate career, a two-time Curtis Cup stalwart for the United States side, and someone who carried the burden of expectations early as a pro.
As happens more often than not, Lee’s transition to professional golf took some time. The fact that she turned pro in late 2019 and had the COVID-19 year as her introduction didn’t help. She had two top-10s in 2020, none in 2021.
Entering 2022, Lee battled doubt. She plowed through the lows that hang like a yoke on every player at some point in their careers. Then, last April, playing on the Epson Tour, Lee captured her first professional victory at the Casino Del Sol Golf Classic. She beat her former Curtis Cup teammate Lucy Li in a playoff.
Five months later, Lee’s life changed when she captured the AmazingCre Portland Classic by a shot over Danielle Darquea.
Now, Lee has a fresh set of goals and a great attitude entering 2023.
“I’m really excited and looking forward to it,” she said of the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions. “I played (Lake Nona) when Gainbridge was there in 2021 and I really like the golf course. It looks different from the other Florida courses I’ve been on. It’s not a course where people are going to go really low, which makes it a great course to start off the year.”
She is also excited about playing with celebrities. “I’ve watched it on TV the last couple of years and I think it’s really cool that we have this opportunity to play with these celebrities that also have some relationship to golf,” Lee said. “I think whoever I’m paired up with I’m going to be a little nervous but also super excited to play with some athletes or TV stars.
“I actually would love to play with Wells Adams. He was on ‘The Bachelor’ a while ago, and now he hosts ‘Bachelor in Paradise’ and is married to Sarah Hyland who is an actress. I love him because he’s so funny. I follow him on social media, and I requested him (as my amateur playing partner). We’ll see if I get him. But otherwise I’d love to play with Brain Baumgartner. I loved him in ‘The Office.’ That was probably one of my favorite TV shows when I was in high school and college.”
After her Portland win, Lee continued to play well in 2022, finishing runner-up to Lydia Ko at the BMW Ladies Championship in Korea and closing the year ranked 15th in the Race to the CME Globe.
“In the off season, I was able to look back and be grateful for the year I’d had,” Lee said. “I would have never imagined that I would now be where I am, especially when I think back to the beginning of 2022. So, I’m really proud of myself and I’m really motivated to win more golf tournaments.
“Being able to set my schedule and knowing that I’m in everything has been such a huge weight off my chest. The last couple of years, I never got to set my schedule (early). This will be the first year where I can look ahead and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play the Asian swings, and I’m not going to play this week but will play this other week.’ It’s really nice to have that pressure off.
“I’m feeling a lot more comfortable being out on tour, getting used to tour life and knowing what works best for me.
“I’m also really happy with where I am. I’m very blessed. I love golf. I love competing and I’m itching to get back out. I’m in a great place.”
As for 2023 goals, Lee said, “I’d love to win a major championship. The U.S. Women’s Open is coming to Pebble Beach. I have my eyes set on that one. I can’t force it, obviously. Everyone wants to win majors, so I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully put four good rounds together.”
She played Pebble Beach in the TaylorMade Invitational after turning pro, but, surprisingly, never played there while going to school just over the hill in Palo Alto. “We played Cypress Point several times with Dr. (Condoleezza) Rice, but never Pebble,” Lee said.
That will change this summer.
But a major isn’t the only goal.
“I really want to make the (U.S.) Soheim Cup team,” she said. “That’s been a goal of mine since I turned pro, and I’m really hoping to make that team.
“Representing your country at any level is really cool. When I played in the Curtis Cup in Ireland against Leona (Maguire) and Bronte (Law), they smoked us on the last day, so playing (the Curtis Cup) again in New York (at Quaker Ridge) was kind of like revenge for us. Every one of us (on the U.S. team) won our singles matches (the last day).
“Those are some great memories that I can hopefully take to a future Solheim Cup.”
Lofty goals, even for a player used to high expectations. Four years in, Lee knows to be patient. Nothing exists in golf but the next shot in front of you. That shot will take place next Thursday when Lee tees off at Lake Nona, a new winner in a tournament designed exclusively for them.