Symetra stasis: With pro golf on hold, up-and-coming players' dreams are on hold, too
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Symetra stasis: With pro golf on hold, up-and-coming players’ dreams are on hold, too



These interviews were conducted, respectively, on March 20 and 21. On March 23, Los Angeles County ordered the temporary closure of all golf courses under the purview of its Parks and Recreation Dept. A day later, Riverside County ordered a complete, temporary shutdown of "both public and private" golf courses.)

In the waning days of March, "The Road to the LPGA," akin to most pro golf roads and all manner of working professions around the country, is a path lined with orange cones.

So it goes amid the sporting and working stall during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Some pros are, of course, better suited than others to ride the wave, whether such fallback comes via respective tour status or money in the bank. Consider, if even arbitrarily, that the all-time PGA Tour money list has 446 players having earned at least $2 million on-course, a figure which excludes any off-course income. By contrast, on the LPGA, 270 players all-time have earned a minimum of seven figures. Off-course income is harder to come by for female pros.

Pro golf's working class deals with a different set of numbers.

The Symetra Tour, qualifying tour to the LPGA, has nary a player all-time with on-course earning exceeding $266,000.  Of course, for the vast majority of Symetra competitors the objective is to not be there but rather to play well enough to evolve to the big leagues of women's golf.

The task has become undoubtedly tougher during the curious, concerning recent days, with a lone line of tournaments cancelled or postponed, just like global sporting games and events across the spring season.  For the Symetra calendar, one event, Florida's Natural Charity Classic, was played this season at the onset of March. Now, the schedule is on hold into the summer.

In California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a "Stay at Home" mandate on March 19, a trio of Symetra professionals are awaiting their next playing – and earning -- opportunities with measures of perspective and patience, and degrees of practice.

See What You're Made Of

SoCal native Savannah Vilaubi, 26, turned pro in 2015, following a stellar career at the University of California Riverside.

Armed with full Symetra status for the season-on-hold, Vilaubi's pro resume includes 27 events played on said tour since 2017, with a T-34 at the Florida tournament in March.

Like most touring pros across all tour levels, Vilaubi is understanding of continued changes on her playing calendar.

"The initial reaction is, 'Dang. Really?'," says Vilaubi.  "When hearing about the first cancellations or postponements, it was then, 'Okay, we can get through missing a couple tournaments.' But then as the gravity of it grew as things such as courses and gyms started shutting down, it goes from canceling tournaments to impacting the daily routine.  t's a realization of not having an event to get ready for anytime soon, so, it's getting harder to have outlets to even get ready."

In lieu of much on-course prep, staying sharp for Vilaubi is now more of an at-home endeavor.

"Nothing has really changed as far as the mental practice. I do a lot of reading, a lot of visualization and reflecting; you can call it meditation, I suppose. But I do it daily, start my days this way to clear my mind," she says. "As far as the physical part, I'm doing a lot of home workouts, exercises with resistance bands. And also a lot of mirror work, just to check my positions, which helps ingrain what I'm doing on the course. Admittedly, this wasn't a huge part of my practice routine before, but it definitely will be now."

Though Vilaubi's CV is awaiting a box check for a Symetra win, an alternate tour where she's had ample success is one of the few still playing. The Arizona-based Cactus Tour, where Vilaubi has won eight times since 2015, is proving an outlier with ongoing events and has seen the likes of LPGA standouts Carlota Ciganda and Anna Nordqvist competing onward amid the tournament stall.

"I've considered it," Vilaubi says of playing the Cactus right now. "The Moon Valley event (played March 18-20) was a late addition, but, I don't know, I just had a weird feeling about playing. Just reading the news, seeing how the virus was unfolding, I decided ultimately not to go. And I'm okay with that decision; the details and logistics of going out there, booking a hotel . . . it's not really the golf course that concerns me, it's the other factors, and I do think twice about the travel to Arizona to go play."

While Vilaubi has one eye on an appreciation for spending more time with her family, she has another on her checkbook. A playing ambassador for Surf & Turf Golf and owning a burgeoning social media presence, she's got her head on a swivel for opportunity, whether that comes online or on-course; while her home track remained open (through March 20), her playing endeavors included taking all health and safety precautions.

"With not being able to work and earn through tournaments alone, it does turn your head to other opportunities," Vilaubi says. "Whether that's monetizing social media or playing in money games, with Venmo transactions. I have tournament earnings saved, and there may be a lot of people dipping into their savings now. But I know that I may need to push myself to get creative, find other ways to get a cash flow. And that's actually a challenge I'd look forward to."

Vilaubi sees further value in making use to the time to look past the flagsticks of her trade.

"This time is also an opportunity to look at other things we like to do outside of golf," she says. "With tournament play not a priority right now, it's a chance to explore different parts of yourself, see what else you're good at, along with a time to get to know yourself a little better and see what you're made of."

Girl Interrupted

NorCal's Lucy Li has been a household name in golf circles since becoming the youngest-ever player to compete in a U.S. Women's Open, when, in 2014, she qualified as an 11-year-old at the Pinehurst event won by Michelle Wie.

Presenting a maturity which belied her years with a solid 78-78 showing at the Open in '14, Li's continued evolution up the amateur ranks led her to the gates of pro golf for 2020, with Symetra status earned via the LPGA's Q-Series.

Ready to compete as a 17-year-old pro, Li's purview continues to evidence an advanced capacity.

"Obviously, it's tough. But I think that everybody's health is super-important. For me, I feel very fortunate, and I'm just trying to make the best out of it," says Li.  "It's disappointing. I was so excited to get out there and get in the groove. But I'm a very positive person, and I guess you just accept things as they come, and I've accepted that this is what's happening and just staying positive."

Following a five-month off-season since Q-Series, Li's highly-anticipated pro run was put on pause after the lone Symetra event. At present, being on a golf course isn't her top priority.

"At this time, just trying to stay as safe as possible," continues Li. "I try to practice when I can, and not get too rusty. But after the Governor's announcement to stay at home, I have been out there less. I think's it's best to stay safe; I guess if you're not using a cart, you're probably safe, but I'm thinking it's just better to follow the advice and stay home."

Sans club in-hand, Li is finding ways to make use of the down time, staying active with a pair of online college classes which currently includes a professional writing course, along with a class in ethics.

Her buoyant youth is also part of the daily recipe.

"I love food, so not being able to go out to eat has been a struggle," Li says lightheartedly.  "So, I've started cooking a lot. I've made a few paninis, and made pizza twice in the last week – so good. And also playing some console video games, which I've always enjoyed, though I didn't play too much when I get busy. I've had a (Nintendo) Switch for two years, and I'm still playing Zelda, because I'm kind of a completionist. And I did finish Skyrim about a month ago."

At just 17, Li grants that lack of playing and earning opportunities doesn't have the same effect on her as it does on more seasoned players.

"I'm so fortunate to have parents that are so supportive," says Li. "But I truly appreciate how this is harder for other girls or women who have been grinding it out for a lot longer, and this is their income, so I know this is much more difficult for a lot of others. I'm very fortunate."

"Off-Season 2.0"

Akin to Savannah Vilaubi's playing pause, another SoCal vet of Symetra is trying to keep perspective during the hiatus.

Los Angeles native Demi Runas, 28, has been grinding a pro career since 2014, having competed in 65 Symetra tournaments and 45 LPGA events over the time frame.

In recent weeks, Runas has kept in close touch with fellow players across the country.

"I've checked in with friends, other players around the country, and everybody has the same feel of uncertainty as to what will happen with our schedule," she says. "We've had a laugh about 'Off-Season 2.0,' because, of course, we got in the one event and then, obviously, things have taken a different turn. So, we're all at our homes with things on hold."

Adapting to new norms has included adjustments.

"I've stayed at home as best I can. I set up a home gym, if you can call it that; I ordered a few things on Amazon, along with a putting mat.  And my mom has rugs around the house, so I've been setting up my Pelz plates and putting through them," says Runas with a laugh.

"I'll also do reps in the mirror, which isn't terrible; there's always something you can work on. And I've talked with my sports psychologist, and he told me that while this may not be a time to better my game, it is a time when I can maintain."

For Runas, the lack of earning opportunities is slightly assuaged by a living situation for which she's extremely thankful.

"Golf might be a different job than most, but it is our job. Sure, if we were playing right now, there's no guarantee of earning, and we all have bills to pay," she says.  "But I feel very lucky because I live with my sister and her husband, and they're very understanding; they don't pressure me to pay rent. So, I've taken a step back to think about all the things I'm thankful for, and to not have that (rent) pressure has taken a big load off."

And yet, for a perspective of real pressure, Runas only need look so far as her own inner circle. Most of her family works in health care, namely in Long Beach, Calif.

"My mom was an ER nurse, now retired. My sister is a respiratory therapist, my brother is an NP (nurse practitioner); all of my family works as nurses in some section of a hospital," Runas says. "And they have to go to work. They're out there protecting us as best they can. So, for me, I want to do my part and ensure there are fewer people they may need to expose themselves to."

Doing her part includes a pause in on-course prep.

"Initially, I was testing the waters (on course), but, as the situation progressed, I second-guessed that," says Runas of playing. "With nothing particularly pressing to get prepared for, the most important things is everybody's safety and well-being. I kind of feel guilty either way.  Seeing some people out there still playing, I wonder if I should be doing that, too. But then my mind just goes right back to what my family is doing right now. There are more important things in life than golf tournaments, so I think being smart and thinking about others right now is what we need."

Like all touring professionals, Runas has a temptation to look ahead to the other side of these days of virus, and consider a return to competition.

"I've really grown to appreciate what we had, and what we'll have again as things settle down and heal.  But it does give perspective," concludes Runas. "I had a talk in recent days with my aunt, she's over 60 years old and still works in a hospital, and she was telling me about new patients coming in and testing positive (for coronavirus). At that moment, I felt so very fortunate to do something I love, to play golf for a living; when we get back out there to play, I'm going to appreciate it so much more."

About the author

Judd Spicer

Judd Spicer

Judd Spicer is an award-winning writer, co-host of The Press Box radio show on ESPN 103.9 FM-Palm Springs and contributing columnist to The Desert Sun newspaper. A Minnesota native, he relocated to the Palm Springs area in 2011 to pursue his Champions Tour dream. Sporting suspect accuracy off the tee, he refers to his 56-degree as his Magic Wand. Visit www.JuddSpicer.com or @JuddSpicer for more.

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