Florida’s Natural Charity Classic is the first tournament of the 2022 Epson Tour season and first under new tour entitlement sponsor Seiko Epson Corporation. On Friday at the Country Club of Winter Haven, Republic of Korea-native Min-G Kim jumped out to the 18-hole advantage thanks to a bogey-free effort of 5-under par 67.
Kim practices at Laughlin Ranch Golf Club in Bullhead City, Ariz., which made windy Florida conditions look mild by comparison.
“This was actually tame compared to where I practice. It was a nice little breeze today, not too bad,” Kim said. “I’ve been practicing at a very windy course. It has really helped me focus better in wind, so I think I had a major advantage. I knew how my ball would react to the wind.”
Entering her seventh year on the Epson Tour, Kim was reluctant to pick the clubs up again after a tough finish at LPGA Q-Series last December. But the backing of Laughlin Ranch was the boost she needed.
"Last year, I believed that would be my last one. I finished one stroke short of getting LPGA status and I was like, 'That's it. I'm done,’” said Kim. “I have a major support team over at Laughlin Ranch Golf Club and they told me that I was too good to quit, how much they appreciate the game more. That made me think about how privileged I was to keep playing this game.”
Three players carded 4-under 68 in the first round including Frida Kinhult, Gabby Lemieux and Nishtha Madan. Lemieux managed to record five birdies in front of good friend and mentor Notah Begay III, a four-time PGA TOUR champion who visited Winter Haven ahead of his afternoon duties with NBC Sports at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
"Thanks to Notah for coming out and showing support. I did not think I was going to be 4-under finishing 18. The first seven holes were pretty rough, and I had five sand saves on the day,” Lemieux said. “I was feeling like the putter was getting hot and chipping definitely my strong. Out here you need a good short game. I think it's really challenging with the wind and tough greens [at Country Club of Winter Haven].”
Tiffany Chan and Weiwei Zhang share fifth at -5, while Windermere, Fla. native and University of Florida alumna Samantha Wagner closed her 1-over par first round with a birdie on the par-5 18th. A total of 65 players are +2 or better after 18 holes.
“A little bit of a drive home to come back early, but it's nice to stay at home and have my family here,” said Wagner. “A lot of people are cheering for me and it's just nice to hear out on the golf course. I had a couple people come up to me in the pro-am that knew me and it's cool to see people around you don't normally see. It happens a couple other times a year when we play in the Orlando area, but it's nice."