Szokol has become Jeray’s successor on the LPGA Tour

Chicago area players reaching the Ladies PGA Tour are few and far between. Only Nicole Jeray made it regularly over the last three decades and this year she’s decided to focus on a teaching job at Mistwood, in Romeoville.

There will still be a local rooting interest on the premier women’s tour, however. The timing was perfect for Winnetka’s Elizabeth Szokol to have a breakthrough season on the LPGA’s Symetra Tour in 2018, and that earned her a place in the big time of women’s golf.

The Szokol story began as she was about to enter high school at New Trier. She had been an avid tennis player but knee problems contributed to her looking for another sport. She opted for golf and immediately became a key part of New Trier’s powerhouse teams. She was on the varsity all four years, and her teams finished in the top three of the Illinois prep championship each season. That included a state title in 2010.

From there it was on to Northwestern for two seasons, the second of which saw Szokol earn second-team all-Big Ten honors as well as a spot on the conference’s All Academic team. She was also the Illinois Women’s Amateur champion in 2012.

Despite all that success on the home front Szokol opted to transfer to Virginia for her junior season and she finished her collegiate career there in style, finishing as co-medalist in an NCAA regional in her senior season. She was also 20th as an individual in the NCAA finals and part of a Virginia team that finished fifth in the nation.

“Playing on the LPGA Tour was always a dream, something I wanted to do,’’ said Szokol. “I saw improvement every year, and winning the NCAA Regional my senior year was a confidence builder.’’

Good college players don’t always make it at the professional level, however. Szokol had to survive three stages of 72-hole qualifying tournaments to just earn a spot on the Symetra circuit.

The first was in Palm Springs, Calif., where 350 players competed for 80 spots in the second stage. Szokol survived that and headed to Venice, Fla., where over 200 competed for 90 places in the third and final stage. She got survived those, too, and got through her rookie pro season with only limited success.

“That first year I found out that professional golf is a lot different than it was in college,’’ she said. “The second year I had things to figure out. Mainly it was time management. I had to find a good balance between practice and playing.’’

That task was made more difficult by a major health problem. Szokol needed knee surgery to fix extensive cartilage damage and wanted to have it in December of 2017. It had to be delayed a month, however, because no donor cartilage was available. After getting the surgery in January Szokol found herself in a brace from her left ankle to her hip. She had to learn how to walk again while her Symetra rivals were gearing up for the start of another season.

Amazingly, Szokol missed only the season-opening tournament of the 2018 season in Winter Haven, Fla. She started swinging a club while that event was going on and played in the next stop in Beaumont, Tex. The breakthrough came in the third event – the IOA Invitational in Atlanta.

Closing with a 4-under-par 68 Szokol came from five shots back on a windy day to claim a one-stroke victory. To play so well so quickly after surgery was a surprise to many, but not Szokol.

“My game was there and I putted well,’’ she said. Szokol didn’t win again in 2018 but she had seven top-10 finishes and a strong third in the season-ending Symetra Tour Championship. Her $76,612 in season winnings was good for fourth place on the year’s money list, and the top 10 were awarded their LPGA Tour cards.

Though there’s a big difference between the LPGA and Symetra circuits, the momentum from last year didn’t wear off when Szokol finally got her chance in the big time. Her first two tournaments were in Australia in February. A bad second round led to her missing the 36-hole cut in her LPGA debut but she rebounded the following week by tying for 58th in the Women’s Australian Open. That enabled Szokol to claim her first LPGA check — for $3,360.

“It was definitely great to go and play,’’ she said. “I was happy to get my first two starts and now I expect to play a lot. I’m guaranteed to play in all the full-field events except the majors.’’

Her tournament schedule resumed in mid-March in Phoenix and she expects to play in six tournaments on the West Coast in March and April.

When in Chicago she practices at Lake Shore Country Club in Glencoe but her swing coach isn’t there. Szokol is working with Kim Lewellen, her college coach at Virginia who has since moved on to Wake Forest. Szokol also has her first agent and sponsorship agreements with Ping and Titleist.