13th February 2014 | Sunshine Ladies Tour
Heartache for Pace, but joy for Simon
South Africa’s Ashleigh Simon held up under immense pressure to defeat three equally determined players in a play-off to secure her LPGA Tour card for 2014 at the Final Stage Qualifier in the United States on Sunday.
Simon was one of 154 players vying for 20 cards alongside compatriots Lee-Anne Pace, Paula Reto and Melissa Eaton. Speaking from London en route home, the 24-year-old from Johannesburg said it was undoubtedly the toughest week of her career since she joined the pro ranks in 2007.
“Phew, the Final Stage Qualifier is indescribably tough,” Simon said.
“Pressure-wise, nothing compares to this week at Q-School. The standard is exceptionally high and you go up against players who campaign on the Symetra Tour and on the college circuit, who obviously have the benefit of experience over there.
“But I’ve been there before, so I knew what to expect and this time, all that experience paid off.”
Simon carded rounds of 72-67-73-68 at the LPGA International in Florida to tie for ninth before the cut to the top 72 and ties determined the field for the final 18 holes.
However, after two earlier sub-par rounds at the Jones course, she suddenly found herself in a four-way tie for 19th and fighting to survive.
“I knew I had to get myself into contention early and I had two great rounds at the Jones course, but I really struggled in the final round,” Simon explained. “The birdie at the par-three 17th got me in the play-off, but that 74 was the worst score in the group, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence.”
Haru Nomura from Japan carded a 69 and Symetra Tour members Megan McChrystal and Jenny Suh signed for respective rounds of 70 and 71 to join Simon in the three-hole play-off.
“I thought I would be nervous, but I was very calm,” said Simon, who added that caddie and boyfriend, David Buhai, who has been her biggest supporter for the last four years, kept her calm and focussed on the job at hand.
She parred the par-five ninth, then nearly holed out with a gap-wedge at the 10th and tapped in for birdie at the par-four. “I told myself that I didn’t come all this way to go home empty handed, so at the 11th, another par-five, hit a three-wood to the back of the green, lagged it close from about 26 meters and made the second putt to win the play-off and seal my card.
“It was the most amazing feeling. I was speechless, knowing I had finally done it. It’s a dream come true for me, because I have dreamt of this as a youngster. This ranks right up there with my previous accomplishments.”
Simon, whose 2013 season only got underway in April after hip surgery at the start of the year, said her emotions are still all over the place.
“Every now and then I catch myself grinning like an idiot as it hits me that I’m going to be playing in America next year,” she said. “I have to ask David to pinch me just to make sure it really happened.
“I kind of rotate between relief and joy and I think it will only really sink in once I sit down and plan my schedule for next year.”
A two-time winner on the Ladies European Tour, Simon finished the season ranked 13th and, although she intends to concentrate on the LPGA Tour, she plans to play the requisite six events to keep her LET card.
“It’s going to be an incredibly busy year,” she said. “I definitely want to keep my LET card. The news about the Sunshine Ladies Tour next year is also phenomenal news for South African women’s professional golf and I hope to show my support.
“I also hope to come back for the SA Women’s Open, so it is going to take some careful planning.”
Simon will join fellow South African Paula Reto, who tied for 13th to secure her card for 2014.
The Bloemfontein professional made All-American first-team and graduated from the University of Purdue in July. She campaigned in seven events on the Symetra Tour, with a joint sixth finish at the Volvik Championship and a third place finish in the season-ending Symetra Tour Championship.
Reto played her way into the Final Stage with a top 28 finish in the second stage. The 23-year-old, who only took up golf in 2005, relocated to the United States when she was 15 and resides in Florida.
Meanwhile South Africa’s Lee-Anne Pace may not have secured a full card, but the former European number one finished among the additional 26 players who also earned LPGA membership for 2014 in category 17.
The seven-time European Tour winner was on the back foot after an opening 75, but played her way into the final field with rounds of 70-71-69. Pace carded a final round 72 to tie for 29th, finishing just two shots outside the cut-off for the top 20 cards.
“I was obviously disappointed to have come so close, but limited starts is still a step in the right direction,” Pace said. “I will definitely be looking to use the opportunity to try and get my full card for 2015.”
Fellow South African and Symetra Tour winner Melissa Eaton missed the 72-hole cut by one after carding rounds of 70-73-78-71.
Photo Supplied by: Getty Images