Yuen, Lau, Nowlin ready for Augusta National’s new women’s tourney

AUGUSTA, Georgia — Last year the biggest new event in golf was the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, which was conducted in July at the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton. This year’s biggest new event tees off today in Augusta, Ga., with three Chicago-connected players in the international field of 72.

This one is called the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. It’s a 54-hole competition put on by the members of Augusta National Golf Club. They have staged the Masters tournament, arguably the most popular golf competition in the world, since 1934 when legendary player Bobby Jones organized the event on the course he created.

That tournament had an immediate Chicago connection as well. Horton Smith, then the head professional at Oak Park Country Club, won the first title and also won it again two years later.

In more recent years Augusta members have been pushed to do more for the good of the game and they responded. Augusta National eventually welcomed black members, then added women. In more recent years the club opened its gates the Sunday before the Masters to host the national finals of the nation-wide Drive, Chip & Putt competition.

This week Augusta National is a trend-setter again. In an effort to bolster women’s golf the club created the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The 72 elite players invited by the club membership start the tournament with rounds at Champions Retreat, another Augusta club, Wednesday and Thursday. The low 30 qualify for the final round, which will be played on the Augusta National layout that will again be the site of next week’s Masters.

All the players in the field players will get a closed-to-the-public practice round at Augusta National on Friday and the reward for winning the title on Saturday is substantial. Not only will the first champion assume a significant place in golf history, she will also be given a five-year exemption to play in the tournament, receive spots in this year’s U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s British Open and be welcomed at events put on by the U.S. Golf Association, PGA of America and Royal & Ancient Golf Club.

The final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur will be televised from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (CDT) by NBC Sports.

Unlike next week’s Masters, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur will have a noteworthy local contingent. Topping the list is Northwestern junior Stephanie Lau, who is coming in on a hot streak. She posted a 7-under-par 209 for 54 holes to finish in a three-way tie for first place in a big college tournament – the Ping/Arizona State Invitational – last week. It pales in comparison to this week’s event, however.

“When I heard he announcement of this event I was more than excited for women’s golf,’’ said Lau. “The message that Augusta National brings to the table with its deep-rooted history is tremendous and speaks volumes to every woman golfer out there. I am so humbled and grateful to be invited and be a small part of it.’’

A mainstay on coach Emily Fletcher’s powerhouse teams of the past three years, Lau is making a big name for herself even before finishing her collegiate career. In addition to being invited to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur she also was named to the first U.S. women’s team that will compete in the Palmer Cup matches in June. For the last 23 years that event has been limited to male collegiate players.

Two other college stars will join Lau in bidding to be in the first women’s field to compete on Augusta National’s historic links. Illinois junior Tristyn Nowlin was runner-up in last year’s Illinois Womens’s Open at Mistwood in Romeoville. Nowlin, from Richmond, Ky., was beaten for that title by Hannah Kim, one of Lau’s NU teammates who was making her professional debut and would also win the Tennessee Women’s Open the following week.

Third member of the Augusta trio is Jessica Yuen, a junior at Missouri who developed her game in the elaborate teaching program at Mistwood. Yuen was invited only last week when another player withdrew because of injury. Yuen had four top-10 finishes in five starts in 2018 fall collegiate season. She also owns two of the top three single season scoring averages in Mizzou history.

On to the finals

While entries have just opened across the country for the 2020 Drive, Chip & Putt competition the best in 2018 will compete Sunday at Augusta National in the climax to that year’s competition. The finalists include four from the Chicago area – Lilian She, 9, from Buffalo Grove; Luciano Giangrossi, 9, from Evanston; Joseph Luchtenburg, 13, from West Chicago; and Joshua Pehl, 14, from Sugar Grove.

The Illinois PGA conducted 10 qualifying tournaments and two sub-regionals last year and those events drew over 2,000 participants in the 7-15 age range. Sunday’s finals will be televised from 7 a.m. to noon on The Golf Channel.