Masters preliminary events give young stars a chance to shine

Unless Kevin Streelman, Luke Donald, Doug Ghim, Nick Hardy or Dylan Wu win this week’s Valero Texas Open there won’t a Chicago-connected player in next week’s Masters tournament.

The champion of the PGA Tour event on Sunday in Texas gets the final spot in the year’s first major championship at Georgia’s Augusta National, and all five of Chicago’s PGA Tour members – none of them Masters qualifiers yet — are in the field when play begins on Thursday in San Antonio.

Regardless of how they fare, however, there will be a significant Illinois presence in Masters-related competition.

Two collegiate stars, Northwestern junior Irene Kim and Illinois senior Crystal Wang, received invitations to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, which tees off on Wednesday (TODAY), and five Chicago area youngsters are among the 80 qualifiers nation-wide for the Drive, Chip and Putt finals staged on Sunday.

Members of Augusta National established a 54-hole women’s tournament in 2019.  This year’s 72 invitees will play the first two rounds at the nearby Champions Retreat course on Wednesday and Thursday.  Friday will be a practice day at Augusta National and the top 30 who survived the 36-hole cut will decide the title Saturday on the Masters’ course.

Jennifer Kupcho, the world’s top-ranked amateur at the time and now an LPGA member, emerged the first champion after she played her final six holes at Augusta National in 5-under-par.  The tournament wasn’t held in 2020 because of pandemic concerns and 17-year old Tsubasa Kajitani of Japan won last year in a playoff with Wake Forest student Emilia Migliaccio.

Kim and Wang will be part of a strong international field in this year’s ANWA.  Migliaccio returns for her third appearance in the tournament and Rose Zhang, now the top-ranked women’s amateur, heads the field.  Kim was the Big Ten’s Golfer of the Year in 2021 and Wang had four top-15 finishes in five starts for the Illini in the fall season.  She was also third in last year’s Illinois Women’s Open.

The Masters competitors will start arriving on Saturday and many will be on hand for the final round of the ANWA and Sunday’s Drive, Chip and Putt finals.  Both will be televised on NBC.

All five Chicago qualifiers earned their spots in a regional final at Medinah Country Club last fall. Two of them – Naperville’s Lisa Copeland, in the Girls 12-13 age division, and Clarendon Hills’ Michael Jorski, in the Boys 12-13 division, will be making their second appearances at Augusta National.  Lisa qualified in 2017 and Michael in 2018, when he was living in Kansas.

Medinah hosted the qualifiers earlier this month but Copeland couldn’t make it.  She has spent the winter sharpening her game in Florida.

Jorski felt that being at Augusta National before will be a big help the second time around.

“It definitely will,’’ he said.  “I was just really nervous (the first time).  It’s harder to see the actual beauty and actual fun of being there.  Now that doesn’t matter.  You’ll have fun.  Of all the people who tried to qualify you’re one of just 10 (in your age group) who made it.’’

He was in the 7-9 age group in his first appearance. Since moving to Chicago he has played on the Cog Hill team that qualified for the national finals in the PGA Junior League in Arizona last year.

The other Chicago qualifiers for this year’s Drive, Chip and Putt are Ledius Felipe, of Poplar Grove, in the Boys 10-11; Eloise Fetzer, of LaGrange, in the Girls 7-9; and Martha Kuwahara, of Northbrook, in the Girls 14-15.