DAYTONA BEACH, FLA | The Ascensus Race for the Card is as close as ever heading into final day of competition at the Epson Tour Championship. The tournament boasts a $250,000 purse and a $37,500 winner’s check, which means that anyone from 11-37 on the money list entering the final week of the tour had a chance to play their way into the top 10.
With so much left to win, it’s unsurprising that after three days of play on the Jones Course at LPGA International, it looks like the top 10 and the rest of the money list is in for some serious reshuffling.
Charging to the Top
Hyo Joon Jang, a 19-year-old rookie from Korea, went into the first day ranked 11th with $74,202, just $1,076 behind No. 10 Alexa Pano. It’s something she has struggled to stop thinking about for the past three days.
“I'm trying to avoid thinking about the money list, but I'm very much thinking about it every single time,” Jang said. “I try to tell myself, ‘If I don't get this, I still have Q-Series. So don't even think about that much external, because what's the point?’ So, I'm trying to focus on what's right now and what I'm doing right now.”
Despite the nerves, by Saturday afternoon Jang was 17-under par and locked in a three-way tie for the lead. If she wins, Jang is projected to jump to fourth in the Ascensus Race for the Card, well beyond what she needs to lock in her 2023 LPGA Tour card. She’s put herself in a good position, but she doesn’t plan to take her foot off the gas.
“Comfortable is not really a word for me right now,” Jang said, smiling. “But I feel more confidence. New day, new opportunity. I will try to stay low and if the chance comes, I will try to grab it. If not, I will do my best always.”
Milagros Chaves, another rookie, is also tied for the lead and just a day away from breaking into the top 10. Her path there is a little more complicated and has much less room for error. Chaves entered the week ranked 28th on the money list and would need both a win and subpar performances from those sitting above her to earn her card on Sunday.
While the chances are slim, it’s not impossible and Chaves has certainly been playing with the precision she needs. Chaves shot 10-under par Saturday, breaking the personal scoring record of -7 she had set just the day before.
“I'm not going to think that much about the money list,” Chaves said coming off the 18th green. “I'm just going to try to do my best again. Yesterday I broke my scoring record and today I broke my record again, so hopefully tomorrow I can do something crazy again and do better.”
But even if Chaves can play lights out on Sunday, she can only control herself. Even with a win, Chaves is currently projected to only move to No. 15 in the rankings. She would need those currently in the top 10 and players like Jang to slip up on Sunday, opening the door to the LPGA just a bit wider for the 26-year-old.
On the Outside Looking In
But with an LPGA season on the line, Chavez might be out of luck. There are plenty of players just outside the top 10 looking to make moves like Jang.
Gabriela Ruffels currently sits at No. 14 on the Ascensus Race for the Card. After shooting -5 in the second and third rounds of the Epson Tour Championship, she is T10 and projected to jump one spot in the rankings. While she tries not to think about it on the course, Ruffels knows what she needs to secure a coveted LPGA card and has no intention of giving up the fight.
“I need a pretty good finish to be able to jump inside that top 10 and avoid Q-Series,” Ruffels said. “I’ve been just going for it this week. It’s a birdiefest out here, you have to be aggressive, you have to go for it.”
Jillian Hollis, ranked 12th coming into this week, has a different perspective. After spending the last few weeks obsessing over that ranking and stressing herself out, Hollis has given up worrying about getting into the top 10.
“I was thinking about it a lot the last couple weeks,” Hollis said after ending the third round of the championship 9-under par. “That doesn't help. Like if I'm on the bubble or not on the bubble I'm still going to try to play my best, so thinking about that is just wasted energy. I'm just going to think birdies tomorrow.”
Besides the three players who have already clinched their cards, the rest of the top 10 will have to fight to keep their spots. As the Epson Tour Championship leaderboard currently stands, Pano is projected to fall out of the top 10 and Gina Kim – 9-under par and T29 through 54 holes – will fall two spots to No. 9.
Kim is unbothered by the potential reshuffling, but she has reasons to be relaxed. She’s top 10 on the Ascensus Race for the Card but only played half the Epson season, spending the other half on the LPGA.
“The fact that I'm in the top 10, even up until this last week, that's got to mean something,” Kim said. “That means something is working, so I'm just going to try to play a stress-free round tomorrow.
“I don't really have to chase anything. I've just got to keep doing what I've always been doing. I think having that comfort is probably more an advantage in my position.”
Kiira Riihijarvi is even more relaxed. At 14-under par, she’s tied for 10th and projected to keep her spot on the money list at No. 8. She defended her position easily so far and has no plans to let up now.
“It's definitely in the back of my mind and I know I have to keep playing well, but it's a little bit easier that I've been doing well the past three days,” Riihijarvi said. “There is a lot of birdies out there, so people can go really low, we're going to do the same game plan we had and hope for the best.”