Szokol in richest ever women's tourney -- CME Group Tour Championship
The golf season has a series of climax events these days. The PGA Tour had its season climax in either September, when the FedEx Cup Playoffs concluded, or October, when the Ryder Cup ended. Take your pick.
The PGA Tour Champions concluded its season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs last Sunday when Phil Mickelson won the last tournament and Bernhard Langer captured the series title for the sixth time.
That leaves only the last of the "climax" events -- this week's CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla. With a $5 million purse and $1.5 million to the winner, it's the biggest money event in the history of women's golf. Elizabeth Szokol, the Chicago area's only LPGA player, will be right in the thick of it.
Szokol, 27, qualified for the event for the first time. Created in 2011, it's limited to the Top 60 players and ties in a season-long point race. Szokol, in only her second LPGA season, missed the cut in last week's regular season finale -- the Pelican Championship -- but it didn't keep her out of the big-money wrapup. She was a comfortable 44th in the standings going into Pelican and safely into the Naples shootout that begins Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club's Gold Course.
Chicago golfers have found it tough to break into the LPGA over the last three decades. Other than Szokol the only one to do it was Berwyn's Nicole Jeray, who starred at Northern Illinois University before spending a long career on the LPGA and its satellite tour.
Jeray, though still competing on the LPGA's Legends Tour for senior members, has taken on a heavy teaching load at Mistwood in Romeoville. Szokol's road to the LPGA was similar. She was a high school star at New Trier, then spent two seasons at Northwestern before concluding her collegiate career at Virginia.
She turned pro in 2017, won an event in her second year on the LPGA's Symetra Tour and gained LPGA membership in 2018 with four Top-10s in her last five starts. Her rookie LPGA season in 2019 was somewhat of a struggle but she improved in 2020, making seven cuts in 14 starts and earning $110,873.
The improvement was much more dramatic this year when she had three Top-10s in 21 starts, the last coming in October -- a third-place finish in the $3 million Founders Cup in New Jersey. It earned her a $198,627 paycheck, a big factor in the $515,640 she has earned for the season. That figure could grow in a hurry, given the money on the line this week.
While Szokol's missed cut last week was a disappointment, her time spent at Pelican -- a Donald Ross design that opened in 1925 -- may have played a positive part in her strong 2021 showing. Szokol had her best finish (11th) of 2020 in the Pelican. It was a new event then and was played without spectators because of pandemic concerns. This year she is spending more time at the Pelican club because her swing coach, Justin Sheehan, is the director of golf there.
Here and there: Michael Feagles, a stalwart on the University of Illinois teams the last four years, is guaranteed 12 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022 thanks to his tie for fifth place finish in the final stage of the circuit's qualifying competition. The Illinois Open champions of the last two years, Bryce Emory and Tee-K Kelly, aren't guaranteed any starts but do have conditional status on the circuit for next season because they made it through all three stages of qualifying. ... The Illinois PGA had three of its members qualify for last week's PGA Assistants Championship in Florida but only Kevin Flack of Mauh-Nah-Tee-See in Rockford, qualified for all 72 holes. He tied for 42nd. ... All the Chicago area gang -- Kevin Streelman, Luke Donald, Doug Ghim, Nick Hardy and Dylan Wu -- will play in the last full field PGA Tour event of the year, this week's RSM Classic in Sea Island, Ga. ... Bernhard Langer will have knee surgery in Germany this week and won't hit a golf ball for at least six weeks. The 64-year old star plans to be a full-time player on the Champions Tour in 2022.
• Illinois Golf Hall of Famer Len Ziehm co-hosts the "Ziehm & Spears Golf Podcast Series" on social media. Past columns are at lenziehmongolf.com.