To play in US Open in Charleston would have special meaning for Lauren Stephenson

Lexington native Lauren Stephenson
Lexington native Lauren Stephenson Alabama Sports Information photo

To make her professional debut on the LPGA Tour in February, Lauren Stephenson traveled halfway around the world, a journey that included a 15-hour plane ride to Australia.

To compete in a major championship at the end of May, she would need only to zip a couple of hours down Interstate 26 from her Lexington home to Charleston.

The latter tournament, the U.S. Women’s Open, will be staged at the Country Club of Charleston. “A special place to me,” Stephenson said Wednesday during a preview for the most prestigious championship in women’s golf.

First things first: She will need to qualify for the 74th edition of the USGA-sponsored championship. She’s done that twice before in her amateur days, and her first steps to play-for-pay — ties for eighth and 33rd — bode well for this year.

“My junior golf career started here,” Stephenson said, remembering her competing in the Beth Daniel Junior Azalea over the Seth Raynor design that opened for play in 1925. “I played in the U.S. Amateur here, too. Qualifying would be like a home tournament for me.”

Her achievements have been well chronicled, ranging from her career at Lexington High that included earning all-state honors on both the girls’ and boys’ teams to AJGA championships to a record-setting college career and success in USGA tournaments and berths on national teams.

After qualifying for the LPGA Tour last in 2018, she decided to forego her final semester of college eligibility at Alabama. Indeed, after a record 69.76 scoring average and Golfweek Player of the Year honors, she had no amateur worlds left to conquer.

Results from her first tournaments in the pro ranks validate her decision.

“(Pro golf) has been awesome,” Stephenson said. “I’ve had a really great experience. There really haven’t been any surprises; it’s been what I thought it would be. I really focus on golf and everything has exceeded my expectations.”

She shrugged off the long journey with a 3-under-par 69 in her first pro round and finished tied for eighth in the Vic Open. A week later, she shared 33rd in the Australian Women’s Open. She will be off until the tour schedule resumes late this month in Phoenix and, she said, “I’ll be on the West Coast for six weeks.”

The tour returns to Virginia before the Women’s Open in Charleston May 30-June 2. If her fellow pros need a scouting report on the Charleston layout, Stephenson would tell them to bring their best short game and putting stroke.

Plus, beware of No. 11, a par-3 that measures 172 yards — with a landing area about the size of a postage stamp. “No. 11 is a challenge,” she said and laughed.

How big a challenge? Hall of Fame golfers Henry Picard and Beth Daniel advise laying up “if you don’t have a perfect yardage and wind conditions,” Daniel said Wednesday.

“If you’re going to miss, miss in the right bunker,” Stephenson advised.

Playing on the big stage is nothing new for Stephenson, who made the round of 32 in the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Charleston during her high school days. She also suffered excruciating late-round losses in extra holes in both the 2017 and ’18 Women’s Amateurs. She made the U.S. Women’s Open in both 2016 and ’17, finishing 41st in the latter.

Like most rookies, Stephenson said she would be adjusting to life on the road and “how to travel by myself.” Learning new golf courses will be part of the puzzle.

Then, if sectional qualifying goes well, she will be back in familiar territory for the Big One — the U.S. Women’s Open “at a special place for me.”

Chip shots. Jensen Castle (West Columbia), a senior at Gray Collegiate who will play at the University of Kentucky in the fall, finished third in the girls’ competition in the Dustin Johnson World Junior Golf Championship at TPC Myrtle Beach. Among the boys, Gene Zeigler (Florence) tied for sixth to lead South Carolinians in the event that annually draws a premier field. . . . Kyle Bearden (Barnwell) and Walt Todd, Jr. (Greenville) joined forces to win the SCGA’s Partners Champion at Spring Valley CC and the Members Club’s Woodcreek Course.