WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA | Amateur Alexa Pano is no stranger to the Epson Tour. The 17-year-old has already teed it up seven times on the circuit, primarily competing on sponsors’ exemptions. Her best finish was a T-8 at the 2019 SKYiGOLF Championship.
But Friday’s opening round at the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic marked Pano’s first start as a full-fledged Epson Tour member, a newfound title that’s boosting the confidence of the youngest player in the field. She began her tenure firing a 2-under 70, carding three birdies and one bogey to sit in a tie for seventh after round one.
“It's nice to be a member of the tour,” said Pano. “I feel like I'm not just coming out as a sponsor exemption because I know somebody. It's a nice feeling (being) established and knowing that I qualified to be here. It’s been such a fun week so far. I got to play some practice rounds with some really nice people and couldn't have asked for a better start to the week.”
It’s both Pano’s youth and prowess on the golf course that constantly keep her name in the headlines. Such was the case at last year’s LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament Stage II. Pano finished in a tie for tenth, but couldn’t advance to LPGA Q-Series because she didn’t meet the Tour’s minimum age requirement of 18. Two other players ran into the same roadblock, but the young star became the story, especially because a professional golf career is a forgone conclusion for Pano.
Lucky for Alexa, Stage II affords participants that don’t move on to Q-Series Epson Tour status for the next season, and that high finish propelled Pano to the circuit in 2022. Though she isn’t a stranger to the big stage – Pano has competed in both the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open – pro golf life can still be daunting, no matter how accustomed you are to the spotlight.
Plus, the lanky teenager seems ready to shed the skin of her junior golf days and turn her focus to her professional aspirations, with the Epson Tour being the best place to ready herself. Though she hasn’t flipped that switch just yet, the chance to prepare yourself for life as a pro by playing against some of the best talent in women’s golf is just too good to pass up.
“I think it's going to give me a lot of experience and I'm excited to see how this year goes,” Pano said. “I've got a couple of amateur and junior events coming up but other than that, I should be on the Tour the rest of the year, and I'm excited to see how it goes.
“It's a lot different from junior golf. I think everyone says that, whether they're coming from college or junior golf but it's a nice difference. I like it. It's a mature side of golf. Me and my dad have enjoyed being out here this first week.”
There are just three days of competition in Winter Haven so anything in the red is a good way to kick off your 54 holes. With blustery afternoon conditions and greens slicker than a grease monkey’s jumpsuit, Country Club of Winter Haven bared its teeth on day one. But Pano knows made putts will be at a premium this week and plans to continue plotting her way around the golf course, trying to make things as easy as possible for herself when the flatstick is in hand.
“The greens are definitely a challenge,” she said. “I wasn't making a lot of putts over like 10 feet, but I was making tricky putts around the cup because the greens are slick and you don't want to knock it about five feet by, and then you've got a slider coming back. So there was a lot of strategy out there, but it's fun. I like the greens and I like the course a lot so I like having to challenge myself at times.
“It's hard to see into the future but I’m just taking it week by week trying to play the best golf that I can. Hopefully I’ll see a couple more under-par rounds out here and I'll be happy.”