A 39-year-old pro with renewed dreams and a bevy of teens among 311 players at Stage I of LPGA Qualifying School at Mission Hills

·5 min read

For those wondering, it’s too hot for the scarf. Kim Welch, a 39-year-old pro who has competed only a handful of times in the past few years, is known for her trademark head scarf. The 2008 “Big Break” winner came back to Stage 1 of LPGA Q-School this year in the California desert because her heart told her head she wasn’t done.

Meanwhile, for Bailey Shoemaker, a 17-year-old who competed last week in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, everything is new this week. The rising high school senior and University of Southern California commit wanted to give Q-School a test drive. Shoemaker said she has no plans to turn professional this year.

“I just wanted to test myself a little bit this week,” said Shoemaker of her first time to Mission Hills. “I feel like the more rounds I have the better chance I’ll have in the future.”

Bailey Shoemaker plays her tee shot on the second hole during the second round of the 77th U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club on June 03, 2022 in Southern Pines, North Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

A field of 311 hopefuls will tee it up this week for the chance to compete for an LPGA card later this year. Stage I is held over three different courses: Mission Hills Country Club (Dinah Shore and Palmer Courses) and Shadow Ridge.

Players who complete 54 holes without a score of 88 or higher will earn 2023 Epson Tour status. Any player who shoots 88 or higher in any of the first three rounds will be withdrawn from the event and not be eligible to receive any tour status for 2023.

The top 100 and ties will advance through to Stage II in October. There are a total of three stages.

The youngest player in the field is 16-year-old Holly Victoria Halim of Indonesia, and the oldest is 41-year-old Constanza Jofre of Argentina.

Welch, who won 11 times at Washington State, can’t even remember her first trip to Q-School.

“Were some of these kids not even alive?” she asked with a laugh. “It’s actually a really legit question that I don’t want to know the answer to.”

Welch has 23 career starts on the LPGA and won on the Epson Tour more than a decade ago. She spent most of 2020 volunteering at Los Angeles food bank during the pandemic and later started a small charcuterie business. She even worked as Kenny G’s moving coordinator during her break from competitive golf. She and her fiancé have known the famed musician for years.

Kim Welch of USA in action during the Mission Hills Celebrity Pro-Am on 26 October 2014, in Haikou, China. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)

Before Covid, when Welch was competing full-time on the Epson Tour, she felt pretty good about her game as she climbed the money list in 2017. But with four events left in the season, Welch found out that her father, Pete, had Stage 4 prostate cancer and he died within two months.

She had already signed up for Q-School that year and decided that he would’ve wanted her to play.

“I literally could not tell you what I shot, how I played, how I felt,” she said. “I was just kind of like a zombie that week.”

It was at a U.S. Women’s Open qualifier this year that Welch really felt the competitive juices start to flow again. She wanted to give the LPGA another go because deep down, it doesn’t feel over yet. And she felt it was a way to honor her dad.

There’s also the fact that the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open will be played at Pebble Beach for the first time, a special place for the Welch family. As a junior, tournament winners in Northern Cal gathered on Dec, 26 at Pebble Beach for the annual Tournament of Champions.

Welch remembers packing up Christmas day to head to Pebble with her parents – the ultimate present.

As a pro, Welch was invited to play in the TaylorMade Pebble Beach Invitational and had the chance to invite her parents.

“It ended up being my dad’s last 18 holes of golf,” said Welch, “which is pretty epic.”

Left to right at Pebble Beach in 2017: Dad Pete Welch, Kim, fiance Bret and mom Kazuko (courtesy photo)

There was a time when Welch, a former bomber, would look up and down the range at Mission Hills and compare herself to other players in the field. She doesn’t feel the need to do that anymore.

“I think I used to carry around a lot of self-doubt and needing validation,” said Welch, “and now it’s like I have that internally.”

Welch competed on the Ladies European Tour at the same time as Ashleigh Buhai, and said the 33-year-old’s breakthrough success at the AIG Women’s British Open at Muirfield certainly serves as inspiration. Even teeing it up in a Women’s British for the first time, for Welch, would be a thrill.

Welch played a practice round this week on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course with a “Big Break” super fan who peppered her with questions. It was a fun trip down memory lane.

Shoemaker, a semifinalist at Chambers Bay, is at the start of her memory-making journey. The highlight of her summer, she said, was making the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. She loved playing in front of a crowd.

Shoemaker said she plans to take classes next summer to get a jump on her college degree and hopes to graduate in three years. There are 23 teens in the field this week.

“I feel like the window for women’s golf is a lot smaller,” said Shoemaker.

But there’s always room for late bloomers.

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Story originally appeared on GolfWeek