By Paul Gatling
What began as a nice gesture by the LPGA Tour and its sponsors to the University of Arkansas women’s golf team has turned into a long and mutually beneficial relationship.
At this week’s Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G, the UA is represented by five current or former members of its highly successful women’s golf team.
Current LPGA Tour professionals Stacy Lewis and Gabriela Lopez, along with current Hogs Maria Fassi, Alana Uriell and Regina Plascencia, all earned a spot on the tee box in Friday’s first round at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, broadcast nationally on Golf Channel.
The chance to play in the tournament is guaranteed to the Razorbacks each year, through a sponsor’s exemption or Monday qualifying.
Head coach Shauna Estes-Taylor said these are the weekends a coach dreams about.
“When you get to watch five of your players compete against the best players in the world, it adds another really cool dimension to make this event super special for our program,” she said.
Estes-Taylor, the UA women’s golf coach since 2007, said the chance to qualify for the tournament is a significant part of her recruiting pitch to help attract some of the best players in the country to Arkansas. Most of the young ladies she recruits have a goal of being an LPGA Tour professional, and there is no greater experience than to potentially have the chance to qualify for an event while playing at Arkansas.
“I could never put a price tag on it,” Estes-Taylor said. “There are some other universities that have LPGA events close by, but to have one at one of your home facilities and in your community is a huge separator for us and a huge advantage for our program. It’s definitely something that we sell every time we get in front of a recruit and bring them to campus.
“You try and find those little things in recruiting to make your program stand out, and this opportunity to qualify for an LPGA Tour event really allows our program to stand out among others.”
During a pre-tournament news conference this week, Lewis echoed her former coach, saying the heavy Razorback flavor this week should continue to help recruiting.
“It’s going to be an awesome experience for [the current Razorbacks] and great for the program,” Lewis said “That was the whole goal. If we can get the best kids in the country or in the world now to come to Arkansas and be a part of this team and see what we’re doing here and have an opportunity to play in an LPGA event while you’re in school, that’s something no other university can say.”
High on the Hogs
The benefits of having an LPGA Tour event in Northwest Arkansas are evident for Estes-Taylor and the Razorbacks, but the relationship is far from one-sided. Now in its 10th year, the tournament has also benefitted from its connection to the Razorbacks in several ways, including sponsors (some of whom also support Razorback Athletics), attendance and additional media coverage.
Tournament director Harry Hardy said having a strong Razorback presence this week engages not just golf fans, but Razorback fans in general.
And that, he said, translates to a more involved crowd.
“It helps attendance because it brings new people to the event, but at the same time it creates a buzz and energy for those who are already fans of the game,” he said. “You can see it and hear it when there’s a Razorback player in the field. You know where they are [on the course] because of the crowds and the energy. We’ve seen it with Stacy Lewis over the years. When she’s played well, the crowds come out.”
Perhaps nowhere on the course is the Razorback presence felt more than the par-3 17th hole, marketed as “The Loudest Hole on Tour.”
Since 2013, spectators gathered around the hole have been encouraged to be noisy. Traditionally, the green at No. 17 during tournament week is loud, with Lewis always a fan favorite, leading the crowd in a chorus of Hog Calls.
In 2015, the grandstand buildout was extended down the fairway toward the tee box to give the hole even more of a larger stadium feel.
Tournament organizers say the buildout is the largest of any hole on the LPGA Tour.
And with five Razorbacks in the tournament field, Hog Calls should be echoing often throughout the course. Estes-Taylor said she regularly shows a video to visiting recruits that demonstrates what it’s like for a Razorback golfer to walk from the tee box to the green at No. 17 during the tournament.
“The Northwest Arkansas community really gets behind our young ladies while they are out there living a dream opportunity, and that’s always something I want to show to a player we are recruiting,” she said.
Hardy, who works for sports agency Octagon, has been the tournament director since 2013. He says Razorback fans are some of the most passionate he has encountered, even going so far to compare them with particularly fervent soccer fans in his native United Kingdom.
“It’s no secret this is a passionate Razorback region,” Hardy said. “So to have a world-class golf tournament on their doorstep, it only makes sense from the tournament’s perspective to partner with them. The LPGA recognizes this is a unique market in that there isn’t a big pro sports team. Having a relationship with the Razorbacks is another angle to generate additional media exposure and buzz around the tournament.”
Road to the@NWAChampionship
Lewis, a four-time All-American at the University of Arkansas, has gone on to become one of the top-ranked professional golfers in the world. Her success on the national and international stage always brings attention to the UA women’s golf team, and that all began nearly a decade ago.
In 2007, for the inaugural Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, Lewis, prior to her senior season at the UA, was given a sponsor’s exemption to play in the tournament.
She took full advantage, shooting an opening-round 65. She was eventually named the unofficial winner when the tournament was shortened because of rain.
That was the beginning of what has evolved into the Road to the@NWAChampionship, a program that ensures a Razorback is in the tournament field each year.
Since Lewis’ inaugural appearance, several Razorbacks have played in the tournament, either through a sponsor’s exemption or Monday qualifying.
But the partnership between the tournament and the UA was made more official last year when the Razorback coaching staff implemented a specific criteria to formalize the selection process for claiming the sponsor’s exemption and two Monday qualifier spots.
The criteria for selection is based on the student-athletes’ performance both on the course and in the classroom. The top-ranked UA player by stroke average as of May 1 will be eligible for the sponsor’s exemption. The qualified player must write an official letter requesting invitation and be in good academic standing with the university. The second- and third-best stroke averages from the team’s competitive season will receive spots in the Monday qualifier at Pinnacle Country Club, with the chance to play their way in to the tournament field.
“I think it’s really important to have a great resume, and all those things are important,” Estes-Taylor said. “This makes them do a little work outside of golf to prepare them for the future.”
KNWA-TV also partnered with the tournament to promote the competition among the Razorbacks, and bring more awareness to the event. A series of “Road to the @NWAChampionship” stories about the season-long competition, and which players were leading in the chase for the exemption and Monday qualifier spots, were common in the weeks leading up to the event.
In this year’s chase, Fassi, a freshman who just turned 18 in March, earned the sponsor’s exemption with a season stroke average of 72.56 at the time of the selection. Uriell (73.46) and Plasencia (73.93) not only earned the two spots into the Monday qualifier, they bested 16 LPGA Tour pros to claim both spots into the tournament. Uriell, a sophomore, blistered the course with a 7-under 64, while Plascencia, a senior, shot 2-under 69.
“This year is a perfect example of how amazing the opportunity is,” Estes-Taylor said. “To have two girls win the qualifier, you couldn’t write a better story for this week and this championship.”
Fassi, who hails from Pachuca, Mexico, was the top-ranked women’s amateur in Mexico, has twice competed in the U.S. Amateur and is the reigning Mexican Amateur champion.
The talented teen was recruited by several Division I programs, but the annual opportunity she’d have to to play her way into an LPGA Tour event was an important factor in choosing Arkansas.
“We actually had a pretty long recruiting process,” Fassi recalled, adding that Arkansas coaches Estes-Taylor and Mike Adams started recruiting her when she was 13. “So I knew about the tournament and the exemption spots that were available. I couldn’t think of any other school that could offer that kind of opportunity, to be tested against the best players in the world, so that was definitely one of the things I considered when I made my decision to come to Arkansas.”
Added Estes-Taylor: “When she was between two schools that were pretty similar, I think the LPGA event really was a difference maker for Maria.”
Lopez, who is currently third in the points race for the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award, is actually making her fourth consecutive start at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. She received the coveted sponsor’s exemption into the tournament three consecutive years, and agreed that the tournament was also a factor in her decision to attend Arkansas.
“Coming here on an official visit, I came here and it was actually the time for the LPGA and Shauna brought me here and it was pretty impressive to see what the university offered to me,” she said. “It was just — I think it’s a really good point that you can come here and get to know the arena, the environment, and [see] all the opportunity the university can offer for you. I think it was just a really important point.”
Estes-Taylor said the experience Lopez was able to gain in her previous starts at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship has benefitted her as she begins her professional career.
“She’s done so well already this year,” she said. “But I really give credit to the other times she has been able to participate in the event.”