Kristen Gillman Comes Up Clutch to Regain LPGA Tour Card for 2024

Meet 2023 Epson Tour Graduate Kristen Gillman

Kristen Gillman knew pars weren’t going to cut it.

She had entered the week at the Epson Tour Championship at 13th in the Epson Tour’s Race for the Card, three spots outside of the top 10 that would earn LPGA Tour Membership for the 2024 season, and it seemed like it would take at least a top-three finish for the 26-year-old to even have a sniff at full-time LPGA Tour status next year.

And that slim chance was good enough for Gillman, who made the most of the opportunity coming down the stretch at LPGA International.

She played some solid golf over the first three days of the Epson Tour Championship in Daytona Beach, Fla., carding rounds of 70, 68 and 67 to sit in a tie for 18th at 11-under heading into the final round. But Gillman would need to put the pedal down and go deep in the red on Sunday if she wanted to have a shot at getting back to the LPGA Tour.

“I (thought) if I get top three, then I could have a good chance. So, I was like, if I don't get top three, it doesn't really matter what place I finish. It was either all or nothing that week,” said Gillman. “Saturday afternoon after the round, when you go on the website, you can look at the projected points. I saw I was projected like 11th or something like that. And then I was looking at it a little bit, and I was like I could actually do this if I have a good round.”

With that in mind, Gillman came out swinging on Sunday, making three birdies in her first nine holes to get to 14-under, a start she knew she would have to improve upon on the back nine if she wanted that top-three finish. She found two more birdies on Nos. 11 and 14, but with four holes left to play, Gillman knew she was running out of time.

After a par on 15 and a lip-out for birdie on 16, she let herself peek at the leaderboard to see where she stood with two holes to play. Ultimately, there was still work to do, and Gillman resolved to be as aggressive as possible on 17 and 18 to – at the very least – put herself in the best possible position to eke inside the top 10 come the end of the day.

The par-3 17th hole was playing 175 yards in the final round, and Gillman easily birdied it, hitting a 6-iron to 10 feet and confidently knocking in her putt for birdie. Now, with only the par-5 18th hole left, Gillman had to take full advantage.

She found the fairway off the tee, hitting her drive far enough to allow herself to go for the green in two, a risk she needed to take with so much on the line. Gillman had been short of the green in each of the first three rounds, so when she was in between yardages on her second shot, the 26-year-old opted for the longer of the two clubs, determined to have an eagle putt instead of a pitch shot, the former of which should have guaranteed her at least a birdie.

Gillman swung her hybrid and the ball shot into the air, landed on the green and ran up to the hole, settling just inside six feet and setting up a more-than-makeable eagle try that would move her well inside the top 10 on the leaderboard. She again stroked it confidently, and when the ball found the bottom of the cup, a cheer went up from the crowd behind 18.

Gillman had pulled off the improbable on her last two holes at the Epson Tour Championship, finishing birdie-eagle to fire an 8-under 64 and vault into the 10th spot in the Race for the Card, regaining LPGA Tour status for the 2024 season.

“It (was) really nerve-wracking. I knew I did everything I could, played as well as I could have, but it was kind of out of my control at that point, so just watching the leaderboard was very nerve-wracking,” said Gillman after the card ceremony at the Epson Tour Championship. “I’m excited to get back out (on the LPGA Tour). I feel like my game has improved a lot, and I've learned a lot as a player, so I'm excited to go out there and put into play what I learned and see how it compares against them again.”

Gillman first became an LPGA Tour member in 2019 after a stellar amateur career boasting several incredible achievements. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in both 2014 and 2018, the former of which saw her defeat 13-time LPGA Tour winner and two-time major champion Brooke Henderson and the latter of which saw her trounce her fellow 2023 Epson Tour graduate Jiwon Jeon 7 and 6 in the finals.

She was a standout in her two seasons at the University of Alabama, earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2017, being named to the First Team All-SEC in both her freshman and sophomore seasons and earning WGCA All-American honors in 2017 and 2018. Gillman played on the United States Curtis Cup team in 2018, going undefeated to help her country to victory, and then finished T13 in the inaugural LPGA Q-Series later that same year, earning LPGA Tour status for the 2019 season.

With that kind of an amateur resume and plenty of LPGA Tour starts already under her belt because of her U.S. Women’s Amateur victories, it looked like Gillman’s transition to the biggest stage in women’s golf would be an easy one.

And it was – at first.

Her rookie year saw Gillman make 22 cuts in 26 total events, earning four top-10 finishes, including a tie for sixth at The Chevron Championship, and finishing 35th in the Race to the CME Globe, one of just four rookies to qualify for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship that November. She played solidly again the next year, making 12 cuts in 15 events during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and earning two top-20 finishes, one of which was a tie for 11th at the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon.

Things seemed to be going well for Gillman, but golf – as it’s often wont to do – got hard for the young professional in her next couple of seasons on the LPGA Tour.

“I started struggling with ball striking in 2020 and 2021 especially so I feel like I lost a lot of confidence those years, and I think that was the main thing holding me back,” said Gillman, who missed 11 cuts and finished outside the top 100 in the Race to the CME Globe in 2021. “2022 was kind of a hard year because I had half LPGA (status), half Epson (status), and you just never know where you're playing the next week until like two days before you're supposed to travel there. That was kind of a hard year to mentally have a schedule because I'm a very big planner.”

So, Gillman made a decision in 2023, a choice that could’ve been considered risky by some of her peers but one that was necessary if she was going to find her way back to the LPGA Tour.

“Going into 2023, I knew (that) I'm playing all the Epson events, and that's the only events that I'm playing,” said the JLPGA winner. “I think that helped me to feel peace of mind and not have to stress out about where I'm going to be the next week. Being on Epson, I was able to see my friends. It was more of a set schedule. I knew what my schedule was going to be for the whole year, and so I knew how to prepare for each event.”

While she didn’t know it until the final putts dropped on Sunday at the Epson Tour Championship, that choice proved to be a fortuitous one as Gillman ultimately earned four top-10 results during the 2023 Epson Tour season, including her tie for fourth at LPGA International, making enough money to slide into that last spot in the Race for the Card top 10 at the end of the season.

Now, Gillman is eying her return to the LPGA Tour, and while she will be leaning on the experience and knowledge she gained from her accomplishments on the Epson Tour over the course of the last year, she will also be looking to emulate the success that some of her fellow 2019 rookies – players like major winners Jennifer Kupcho and Lilia Vu – have had in recent seasons.

“I know that I can be just as good of a player as they have and so I feel like that's definitely motivating,” Gillman said. “Especially with Lilia (Vu), I know, she kind of struggled there a little bit her rookie year and second year out as a professional. I feel like just seeing her then succeed, that gives you a little bit of hope and confidence as you go through a slump that you can get it back and kind of go back to your roots and have the same mindset as you did when you're an amateur and have that confidence.”

Confidence will be a key word for Gillman as she looks ahead to 2024, as it’s something that has waxed and waned for the 26-year-old throughout her last few years as a professional golfer. But now, Gillman has created a firm foundation of self-belief derived from not only coming up clutch at the Epson Tour Championship but also her resilience in the face of adversity in recent seasons.

And it’s a foundation that she will build upon next season as she works to rekindle the success she found in her first year on the LPGA Tour, a challenge that Gillman is more than ready to tackle with a fresh, renewed, self-assured mindset that she hopes will propel her upward.

“I got my confidence back this year. I think that was the main thing that I've been lacking the last couple of years, and so just getting the confidence back and getting some good finishes definitely helped,” said Gillman. “I'm really excited to get back out (on the LPGA Tour). I've done a lot of work with my mental game and my golf game. I'm gonna be in a very good place to be out there again and have that confidence.

“I feel like you can get so wrapped up in results to where sometimes when you're out there, you don't enjoy it as much as you should. So, I think my goal is to not put too much emphasis or pressure on yourself and enjoy all the little aspects that come with professional golf.”