SOUTH BEND — Area golf fans will have a chance to see the future of the LPGA Tour when the Four Winds Invitational makes its annual stop at South Bend Country Club beginning Thursday.
The 54-hole Epson Tour event, the 15th stop on the LPGA’s satellite tour, will once again feature a stellar starting field competing for the $30,000 first-place check in the $200,000 event. The top 36 money-winners this season, led by Australia’s Gabriela Ruffels, are among the 144 players who will test their games on the par-72, 6,468-yard course near South Chain Lake east of Lydick designed by noted architect and teacher George O’Neil more than 100 years ago.
Their ultimate hope is to follow the paths taken by California’s Lilia Vu (2021) and China’s Yan Liu (2022) to the LPGA Tour after winning at South Bend Country Club, which took over as host from Blackthorn Golf Club following the COVID-19 pandemic year of 2020.
“The most gratifying thing to see is our membership’s support for this event,” said tournament director Greg Helmkamp, the club’s head professional and general manager. “To partner with Four Winds and Beacon’s Children Hospital, it has been a highlight for us. Many of our members have built relationships with these players.”
The 25-year-old Vu, who played at UCLA, won the $30,000 first-place check by two strokes over Ruixin Liu of China. She is currently 12th on the LPGA money list with $1,169,386 thanks in large part to victories at the season-opening Honda LPGA Thailand (Feb. 23) and the season’s first major, the Chevron Championship (April 20) in The Woodlands, Texas.
The 25-year-old Liu, who won last year after a playoff with American Gabby Lemieux and Finland’s Kiira Riihijarvi, is 69th in LPGA Tour money earnings with $221,083 in 12 events including Top 10s at the ShopRite LPGA Classic (June 9) and Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational (July 19).
“That’s gratifying for us here at the club,” Helmkamp said. “We’ve seen how women who have proven themselves here end up on the LPGA Tour the following year.”
The 23-year-old Ruffels has earned $126,283 thanks to five Top 10 finishes, including two victories, in 11 events. Born in Orlando to tennis players Anna-Maria Fernandez and Ray Ruffels, Ruffels began her athletic career as a tennis player before switching to golf at age 14. Her family calls Melbourne, Australia, home, but Ruffels attended Southern California on a golf scholarship. She won the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur, finished runner-up the following year and turned professional in 2022.
Ruffels, whose victories came at the Carlisle (Ariz.) Women’s Golf Classic (March 19) and the Garden City (Kan.) Charity Classic (May 7), is one of three players with two Epson Tour victories this season. The others are former Georgia player Jenny Bae and former Alabama player Jiwon Jeon.
The 21-year-old Bae won back-to-back Epson events in July at the Hartford (Conn.) HealthCare Women’s Championship (July 16) and the Twin Bridges Championship in upstate New York (July 23). In four events, Bae has earned $76,423, ranking her fourth on the money list one spot behind the 26-year-old Jeon. A native of South Korea, Jeon won the Inova Mission Inn Resort & Club Championship at another O’Neil masterpiece, El Campeón Golf Course in Howey-In-The-Hills, Fla., on May 28.
Then on Sunday, Jeon earned a three-stroke victory over Kristen Gillman of Austin, Texas, in the French Lick Resort Championship at the difficult par-72 Pete Dye-designed course. Jeon was 15-under for four rounds, and the victory was worth $50,250, boosting her earnings to $107,403. Bae and Ruffels shared fourth place at seven-under 281.
Also entered this week is No. 2 money-winner Natasha Andrea Oon. A 21-year-old rookie from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who played collegiately at San Jose State, Oon has not won in her previous 14 Epson events. But she has recorded seven Top 10 finishes, including runners-up at four events.
If there’s a “hometown” favorite in the field this week it would be 33-year-old Becca Huffer, who played for former coach Susan Holt on Notre Dame’s first NCAA tournament team in 2011. The 2013 winner of the Colorado Women’s Open, the Denver resident stands 13th on this year’s Epson Tour money list with $48,701 in 14 events. Huffer has a pair of fourth-place finishes coming in the season-opening Florida’s National Charity Classic (March 3) and the Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass Golf Club in Harris, Mich. (June 23).
Despite recent rains, long-time course superintendent Nick Nate and his staff have South Bend Country Club finely tuned for the players who began arriving on Monday after the trek up from French Lick.
“We’ve made a lot of investment into the drainage system here,” added Helmkamp, who said the course weathered recent rains (more than five inches) well during the annual men’s invitational late last month. “That along with the work Nick and his staff do shows we can handle the weather better than we have in the past. The golf course should be in very good shape.”
Following a pair of pro-am events Tuesday and one Wednesday, the tournament officially begins off both the No. 1 and No. 10 tees at 7:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday. Following a 36-hole cut, the final round Saturday will begin off both sides at 7:30 a.m.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Epson Tour Four Winds Invitational at South Bend Country Club preview