BEAUMONT, Calif. — Collegiate connections are abundant in the Golden State for the fifth annual IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa. Seventeen players in the field represent 11 different California institutions and they’ll have fans cheering from Sacramento down to San Diego this weekend.
The question begs to be answered—will college rivalries remain in the past or rekindle once tournament action begins in Riverside County?
“I love coming to California to play golf. It brings back many memories from my college years, specifically in Southern California,” said University of Southern California (USC) graduate Veronica Felibert (Caracas, Venezuela), the lone former Trojan set to compete at Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon. “I have had the same coach—Jamie Mulligan—for 17 years now. He’s based out of Long Beach and so I’m constantly coming here to work on my game and hang with friends. I love it here. It feels like home.”
While many professionals spent their college years in California, a total of 20 individuals have been here since they could first swing a club and call the state home, including Brianna Do (Lakewood, California). A 2015 Epson Tour graduate, Do maintains several close friendships and bonds with fellow Southern California golfers on both the Epson Tour and LPGA Tour. The UCLA graduate is eager for her first start on the Epson Tour since the 2017 PHC Classic before Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G next week on the LPGA.
“In football, it’s always UCLA versus USC but when I was at school, we actually went to dinners with the University of Southern California golf girls,” said Do. “Our campuses are only 15-20 minutes apart and we already grew up playing junior golf with a lot of them. We are rivals in that we want to beat each other at tournaments, but as for individual friendships there are no real rivalries there. It's always fun to see which schools have the most girls coming out of which college at the start of every year, yet most of us are from Southern California so it's really like a big family.”
The player closest in proximity to her college stomping grounds is actually Savannah Vilaubi (Downey, California). The local favorite this week is just 25 miles down the road from her alma mater, University of California, Riverside.
“Being back in California is great,” said Vilaubi, a two-time winner on the Cactus Tour in 2020. “Everything is somewhat coming together for me. Especially after last week in Arizona and a few good finishes on the Cactus Tour earlier this year. It just feels like it's going to be something really solid this weekend for me.
“To put the alma mater on your back is a fun way to think about it. I'm sure each of our respective schools are going to feel that way. They all have a horse in the race, and I can be that horse.”
PAST CHAMPION LEE RETURNS TO BEAUMONT
Fifth-year pro and UCLA alumna Erynne Lee (Silverdale, Washington) may be from the Pacific Northwest, but California is now where she calls home.
“I live in Los Angeles now so it's nothing new competing here, but it's always great to be close to home,” said Lee. “You can travel in your own car and pack some food, but there is nothing like a true home-cooked meal during a tournament week.”
Lee captured the first of her three career Epson Tour titles at the 2016 IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa as a rookie on the “Road to the LPGA.” Then in 2017, Lee secured wins at the Donald Ross Classic and FireKeepers Casino Hotel Championship—part of six total top-10 results—to finish as a Epson Tour graduate at No. 6 in the Volvik Race for the Card and first earn LPGA Tour membership.
“That win came as a surprise,” Lee said. “I didn’t have the best status going into the year and happened to get into the tournament. It was great because having that win, my status was boosted for the rest of the year. I was also confident enough that I could play the rest of the year, rather than being in limbo.”
As a 2018 rookie on the LPGA Tour, she captured a career-best finish of tied for seventh at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. Since her maiden year on the big stage, Lee has competed on both tours, adjusted her game and grown as a player.
“I’ve gone through a lot of swing changes over the years, like any other professional golfer,” said Lee. “I think if anything, returning here this week, I have little more maturity in terms of my mental game. Golf is always kind of like a box of chocolates—you never know what you're going to get.
“You have to take it one shot at a time and I'm trying to do a better job of having fun each round. Golf is really competitive and it can be stressful. I think this being my fifth year on Tour, I have learned you just have to have fun and there's no point of being stressed.”
- Ascensus Race for the Card