Each of life’s journeys gets its start somewhere, and for golfers making the transition into the professional ranks, those first opportunities often come in the form of a sponsor’s invite. Those invitations provide young, up-and-coming players a taste of what it’s like to compete in the big leagues and allow them to gauge their game against the most talented golfers in the world. For some, it's merely a chance to test the waters. For others, it’s a time to shine.
It was a sponsor exemption that afforded Rose Zhang a chance to make her professional debut at last week’s Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Course where she ultimately made history, becoming only the second player on the LPGA Tour to win in their first start as a pro.
This week, it’s Chiara Noja’s turn. The 17-year-old is making her LPGA Tour debut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer having received one of three sponsor invites into the field in Galloway, N.J. The teenage sensation, who turned professional in 2021 at the age of 15, made history on the Ladies European Tour when she became the youngest to win an LET event in 2022.
Noja becomes the latest to take part in what has become sort of a tradition at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, a popular launching point for many young players’ careers. The tournament has made a habit of extending invitations to the game’s rising stars as Cristie Kerr received an invite in 1996, Michelle Wie West in 2003 and Paula Creamer in 2004, just to name a few.
In 2015, Brooke Henderson made her first start as a professional on the LPGA Tour at the ShopRite LPGA Classic. The Canadian never forgot how the invitation she received helped to launch her young career. She finished tied for fifth that year and has made an effort to return to the tournament every season since. In 2022, Henderson clinched her first win at Seaview, a Dolce Hotel, in a playoff victory and she’s back this year seeking her second win of the 2023 season.
Like Henderson, Lexi Thompson got her first start as a professional at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in 2010. The American captured her most recent career win on the LPGA Tour at Seaview in 2019. The two major winners are also joined by more than a dozen other major champions, including players like Georgia Hall, Ashleigh Buhai, Yuka Saso, Sei Young Kim, Anna Nordqvist and Stacy Lewis.
Natalie Gulbis, who made her season debut in April at the JM Eagle LA Open presented by Plastpro, makes her second start of the season in New Jersey. And Gerina Mendoza is making her first start of the year.
They’ll all be seeking to etch their name besides the game’s greats who have hoisted the trophy in New Jersey as the ShopRite LPGA Classic champion. The tournament, which began in 1986, is one of the longest running non-majors on the LPGA’s schedule and is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, having not been played between 2007-2009. Notable past winners include legends like Juli Inkster, Betsy King, Nancy Lopez, Se Ri Pak, Karrie Webb and Annika Sörenstam.
Beginning Friday, the world’s best players will tee it up on the Donald Ross layout in a 54-hole event, as is traditional for this tournament, and compete for a purse of $1.75 million.
The best players in women’s golf all got a start somewhere, and for some, it was right here in New Jersey. The return to Seaview gives players a chance to reflect back on how much they’ve grown, to think about what they’ve accomplished. And, for many, it allows them to take a moment to remember how it all began.