July 28, 2014
By Chad Shepard
University of Michigan women's golfer Grace Choi was out practicing on a public course near her home in Dallas, Texas, a few weeks ago when she got a surprising phone call from head coach Jan Dowling.
"I thought I was in trouble," joked Choi, who says she normally never answers her phone during a practice round.
In reality, Dowling called for quite a different reason. She explained that Meijer, title sponsor of the Meijer LPGA Classic at Blythefield Country Club next week, was offering two event exemptions to amateur golfers. They had chosen to award one to both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University women's golf teams, and Dowling wanted Choi to represent the Maize and Blue. The rising sophomore could hardly believe it.
"When Coach Jan told me the news over the phone, I was ecstatic," said Choi. "I've always dreamed of playing in an LPGA event and competing against the best players in the world ever since I was little."
Now Choi will get to make that dream a reality, as she tees off against more than 140 of the LPGA's biggest stars.
"These are the best players in the world," she said. "I want to take in as much as I can from this experience to make myself a better player."
"This is a wonderful opportunity for Grace to test herself against the best female golfers in professional golf," added Dowling. "It will be a thrill for her, and a great experience, from the practice rounds right up to when her last put drops."
The tournament marks the LPGA's first stop in the state of Michigan since 2000, and brings an annual event to the state's Lower Peninsula for the first time since the 2009 PGA Buick Open was played in Grand Blanc.
The 144-player field will feature some the top pros on the LPGA Tour competing over 72 holes for a $1.5 million purse beginning on Thursday, Aug. 7. After setting a U-M freshman scoring average record with a team-best 75.64 strokes per round last season, Choi jumped at the chance to represent her school.
"I'm honored [Coach Dowling] chose me to represent the University of Michigan," she said.
Blythefield, which has hosted such prestigious events as the 1953 Western Am and the 1961 Western Open, an event won by Arnold Palmer, has been providing West Michigan with one of the state's most beautiful championship layouts since 1928. More recently, Rickie Fowler won the 2005 Western Junior there.
Blythefield Country Club in Grand Rapids
"Having the best women golfers in the world, not just the best golfers in the city or the state, but in the world play here is another great chapter in Blythefield history," said Patti Butcher, the current general manager and director of golf at the course. "We're excited to help bring this to the community and partner with Meijer. It truly is historic."
The tree-lined course has experienced very little change by way of design since Arnold Palmer's victory there in over fifty years ago, and Choi got her first look at the country club when she traveled there last week to accept her official exemption.
"The course looked to be in great shape," said Choi, who explored the putting greens, but will not play her first practice round until next week. "I heard that the course demands shaping shots off the tee, so I'm looking forward to being able to use my imagination with my shot selections and having some fun with it."
As a family-owned retailer based in Grand Rapids, Mich., Meijer's driving mission behind the LGPA Classic is feeding the hungry and strengthening the community it serves. The tournament will help provide meals to families in need with all proceeds supporting the Meijer Simply Give program that replenishes shelves of food pantries throughout the Midwest.
Choi, who led U-M in five of 10 events, including four of six spring tournaments, accepted her award alongside Michigan State's exemption recipient, fifth-year senior Lindsey McPherson, a native of Flushing, Mich.
"We know these ladies have great careers ahead of them -- both on and off the field -- and we're thrilled to have them play in the tournament this year," said tournament director Lesley Baker. "Giving these local amateurs a chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage is great, not only for the players, but also for the fans and community."
MSU's Lindsey McPherson and Grace Choi pose for a photo
"Lindsey and I are so grateful to Meijer for giving us the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream," said Choi. "To be college players and have the opportunity to gain such valuable experience playing against the best competition in women's golf is only going to make us better golfers."
Dowling is excited about what this annual exemption award means for the U-M program.
"It's an honor that Meijer has chosen both Michigan and Michigan State golfers with their sponsor exemptions," said Dowling. "Playing on the LPGA Tour is what most college players are working towards; this event allows our players a taste of the highest level in women's golf at an early stage in their careers."
Choi and McPherson got an early feel for their competition when they were surprised by Morgan Pressel, a two-time LPGA tour winner, who arrived at the club to join in awarding both players their exemptions last week.
"It was a wonderful surprise meeting Morgan," said Choi. "She is such a nice person."
Though she may still be a celebrity to the amateur competitors, Pressel's presence only made Choi more anxious for the event to begin.
"She told me that this event will be like nothing else I've experienced, which only made me more excited for the tournament."
Grace Choi with LPGA pro Morgan Pressel
Though her confidence in her own game is high, Choi is looking forward to learning from the LPGA Tour members that will surround her in Grand Rapids.
"The competition at this event will be like nothing I've ever been up against," acknowledged Choi. "I'm looking forward to watching the professionals, especially how they handle a bad shot and how they react to pressure."
"You learn so much by simply watching the best players in the world practice, prepare and compete," said Dowling. "No matter what happens throughout the week of the Meijer Classic, it will be incredibly positive for Grace."
"I have to trust my game and remember to take it only one shot at a time," said Choi. "If I stay in the process and play as hard as I can and enjoy the experience I know I can play well."
The four-day event beginning Thursday, Aug. 7, will feature 72 holes of stroke play to trim a field of 144 down to about half that size by the weekend. Television coverage will be provided by the Golf Channel, running from 5-7 p.m. each day of the tournament.
Visit MeijerLPGAClassic.com for more details.