Mike Nichols, the man who transformed the Epson Tour, is leaving the LPGA

Purse sizes have drastically increased under Nichols’ leadership.

Mike Nichols is leaving the LPGA after 16 years of leadership, Golfweek has learned. As chief business officer of the Epson Tour for the past decade, Nichols transformed the LPGA’s qualifying tour in substantial ways.

Nichols joined the LPGA in 2006 and served as vice president of tournament business affairs with oversight of the LPGA schedule until being named chief business officer of what was then known as the Symetra Tour in July 2012.

In 2013, the qualifying tour’s season had 15 events and $1.6 million in prize money. This year, players will compete in 21 events for $4.5 million.

Earlier this year, Nichols oversaw the five-year title deal that brought on Epson as the tour’s title sponsor. The level for minimum purses was raised to $200,000 while player-entry fees were lowered by 10 percent per tournament (as much as $1,000 per player for the year). In addition, the yearly Epson Tour Ambassador Program grants $10,000 to each of the 2021 Epson Tour graduates to help aid their move to the LPGA.

Even Shaquille O’Neal took part in promoting the new Epson sponsorship.

“I knew that it was time for me to hand the ball to someone new once we onboarded Epson,” Nichols told Golfweek. “They are a tremendous partner, and we are only just scratching the surface on what their involvement will mean for this tour and our members over these first five years.”

Rachel Rohanna and NBA star Shaquille O’Neal team up to take part in a promotion for the Epson Tour. (courtesy of Epson)

Nichols, who is leaving the golf industry for the corporate world, joined the LPGA after serving as championship director of the 2005 U.S. Senior Open at NCR Country Club in Dayton, site of this year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

“I don’t think people understand how much Mike has done for the developmental tour of the LPGA,” said veteran player Kim Kaufman. “We are often talking about the growth of the LPGA but forget about how this tour has grown as well. I played in 2013 and came back in 2020 and I couldn’t stop telling people how much better the courses and the purses were. I know the team at the LPGA will find someone great to replace him, but they are going to have very big shoes to fill.”

Last week, LPGA rookie Sophia Schubert nearly won the Amundi Evian Championship, finishing one stroke behind Brooke Henderson. Schubert was one of 10 players who earned her LPGA card via the Epson Tour money list last season.

“Mike’s been great,” said LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan.

“He’s been really awesome for the Epson Tour, and we’ll build on that for sure.”

Lucy Li of United States tees off on the 15th hole during the third round of Honda LPGA Thailand at Siam Country Club Pattaya Old Course on March 12, 2022 in Pattaya, Thailand. (Photo by Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images)

This week’s Epson Tour event, the FireKeepers Casino Hotel Championship, is in Battle Creek, Michigan. Former child prodigy Lucy Li, now 19, leads the money list with $107,241.

“I’m so proud of the progress we have made as a team with an incredible group of partners who bought into our vision,” said Nichols.

“In my first full year, the leading money winner on tour made less than $50,000 for the season.  Next week in French Lick, the winner will take home more money in four days than the top player did in the course of 15 events in 2013. You don’t make that kind of progress without the commitment and belief of a lot of people with a common goal.”

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Lucy Li, 19, wins again on Epson Tour, virtually locks up LPGA card for 2023 season

Lucy Li won again on the Epson Tour, virtually locking up her LPGA card for 2023.

Lucy Li’s second victory of the season on the Epson Tour doesn’t yet technically make her a mathematical certainly for the LPGA, but it certainly looks good for the one-time prodigy.

Li’s wire-to-wire triumph at the Twin Bridges Championship gives her $107,241 for the season, $36,669 ahead of second place Linnea Strom. The top 10 players on the money list earn LPGA cards for the 2023 season.

Li shot 66-68-69 at Pinehaven Country Club to win by four over Strom.

“Having the support of your family, for me was huge,” said Li. “I can say that they never stopped believing in me, even when at some points it feels like you stop believing in yourself.”

Li, 19, burst onto the golf scene in 2014 when she became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open at age 11. She turned professional at age 17, and has played the last three seasons on the Epson Tour.

Li currently leads the tour in scoring (69.39), rounds under par (27) and birdies (143).

“It’s a journey,” said Li. “And it’s different for everyone. But it’s important to boil it down to why you love playing this sport and focus more on that. I transformed my practice to focusing more on that enjoyment of the game.”

In keeping with that theme, Li said she might go to the Dave & Busters near her hotel after the victory.

“I have a ton of points I haven’t used,” she said with a smile, “so I hope they don’t expire.”

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Players who miss the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles will receive $8,000, double what was given last year

A full purse breakdown isn’t yet available, but it’s safe to say this will be a game-changing week for many financially.

One of the biggest storylines heading into the 77th U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles is the historic $10 million purse. The 2022 winner will receive $1.8 million. While a full purse breakdown isn’t yet available, it’s safe to say that this will be a game-changing week for many financially.

Benefits of a purse that size extend throughout the whole field, however, even to those who don’t play the weekend. This year, professionals who miss the cut will receive $8,000, double what was given last year at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. The men who missed the U.S. Open cut at Torrey Pines last year received $10,000.

There are 19 players on the Epson Tour who qualified for Pine Needles. The 50th-ranked player on that tour has earned less than $10,000 all season. To know going into the event that no matter what happens, money won’t be lost, is a big deal.

“If I have one outrageous, spectacular week,” said Epson Tour player Gabby Lemieux, “that could make or break my entire season. It could be something along the lines of me running out of money at the end of the season maybe. Just good week could mean all the stress is gone. I don’t have to worry about having to eat McDonald’s. I could go out and have a steak if I want.”

Epson Tour player Gabby Lemieux (courtesy Epson Tour)

Lemieux, 25, who will make her major debut at Pine Needles, said she spends roughly $1,200 per week on a hotel on the Epson Tour. She has her husband, Jared, on the bag but said caddie fees on tour range anywhere from $700 to $1,200.

All players at the U.S. Women’s Open will also receive a Lexus courtesy car. They also receive discount cards for local restaurants, though free hot food in player hospitality runs until 8 p.m. each night.

There are physical therapists on hand, massage therapists, chiropractic care as well as a hyperbaric trainer and Normatec compression recovery.

Every perk adds up to a special week and profitable week. Last year’s purse at The Olympic Club was $5.5 million. There are plans to increase the purse to $12 million over the next five years.

“I think ultimately it takes the pressure off to go out there and make money,” said Lemieux, who has made $5,075 so far this season.

“Obviously our first goal should be to go out there and win. But ultimately I feel like there’s this pressure behind the scenes that girls feel that not many get to see.”

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Epson Tour announces Ascensus as new Race for the Card sponsor through 2025

Notable Ascensus Race for the Card or Epson Tour alumni include Nelly Korda, Inbee Park, and Lorena Ochoa.

The Race for the Card has a new name, as Ascensus has signed a three-year agreement with the Epson Tour. This marks the first sports sponsorship for the financial services company. The Ascensus Race for the Card awards LPGA membership to the top 10 players on the Epson Tour’s money list at season’s end.

The partnership extends through the 2025 calendar year.

South Korea’s Kum-Kang Park currently leads the money race with $47,083. Lucy Li, who burst onto the golf scene as an 11-year-old at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, ranks second on the list while former Stanford standout Andrea Lee is third.

“The talented athletes competing in the Ascensus Race for the Card—and the drive and determination they demonstrate—are great examples of never giving up on your goals and being willing to do the hard work to get there,” David Musto, president and CEO of Ascensus, said in a statement. “We’re proud to champion these outstanding individuals on their journey to the biggest stage in women’s professional golf, and we look forward to watching their success for years to come.”

Notable Ascensus Race for the Card or Epson Tour alumni include former No. 1s Nelly Korda, Inbee Park, and Lorena Ochoa.

The 2022 season includes 21 tournaments, including this week’s Inova Mission Inn Championship at Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida. The Ascensus Race For the Card top 10 will be finalized at the conclusion of the Epson Tour Championship on October 6-9 at LPGA International in Daytona Beach.

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Kelly Whaley, still feeding off a record stretch of eight consecutive birdies in Saudi Arabia, heads to U.S. Women’s Open qualifying with mom Suzy on the bag

“My mom is really good at bringing me back to the present, whether that’s in a nice way or not so nice way.”

Kelly Whaley was back home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, chasing after two 9-month-old black Labs named Gracie and Lulu, when she picked up the phone. She’ll soon be off to Fort Myers, Florida, with her mother, Suzy, for U.S. Women’s Open qualifying May 4 at The Forest Country Club.

Suzy, the first female President of the PGA of America, qualified for her first U.S. Women’s Open in 1986 at age 19 and will caddie for her youngest daughter this time around.

Kelly, now 24, would love to make her first USWO appearance this year at Pine Needles, site of her U.S. Kids Golf World Championship title. It would be a dream, she said.

“My mom is really good at bringing me back to the present, whether that’s in a nice way or not so nice way,” said Kelly. “She knows when to give you a kick in the butt or say it’s all good. That’s what I really love about her caddying.”

Kelly Whaley with the family’s newest set of sisters, Gracie and Lulu. (Photo: Kelly Whaley)

It has been a year of firsts for Kelly, who competed overseas for the first time in March at the Aramco Saudi Ladies International. While there she set a Ladies European Tour record of eight consecutive birdies in a final-round, course record-tying 63 at Royal Greens that put her in the top 10, giving her a spot in the next week’s field in South Africa.

“When I was leaving for Saudi,” said Kelly, “I did not expect to jet off to South Africa right after. That was a blast.”

Kelly Whaley during the final round of the 2022 Aramco Saudi Ladies International. (Photo: Tristan Jones/LET)

There are five more events on Golf Saudi’s Aramco Team Series schedule this year and on Sunday, Kelly heads to Bangkok for the next installment.

Competing in events backed by Golf Saudi is a controversial topic, of course, particularly when it comes to human rights issues and the arrival of a rival league in the men’s game. Kelly said she approached the event as an opportunity and “wasn’t really taking account into what was going on outside.”

She also wanted to check out the Ladies European Tour, and what she found in Cape Town, South Africa, was particularly appealing with new friends, stunning ocean views and beautiful vineyards.

“I’m so thankful I did go because it’s opened many doors for me,” said Kelly, whose sixth-place finish in the Joburg Ladies Open earned her a spot in the Investec South African Women’s Open, where she tied for 26th.

Kelly, who like her mother played for North Carolina, has missed the cut in her last two Epson Tour events, but she tries to channel the feeling she had in the final round in Saudi Arabia every time she tees it up.

That birdie run started on the fourth hole and ran through the 11th, a stretch that included two par 5s. Her longest birdie putt was from 25 feet on No. 7 and her shortest was an inch on the 10th, where she stuffed a wedge from 105 yards.

“It’s almost like you have this confidence that just overcomes you,” she said, “and you can’t miss.”

Kelly Whaley at the 2022 Aramco Saudi Ladies International at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Tristan Jones/LET)

Prior to Kelly’s eight-birdie run, the LET record of seven in a row was shared by Linda Wessberg, Marine Monnet-Melocco, Nicole Garcia, Kristie Smith and Stacy Lewis.

“That round has really kept me going this year,” said Kelly, who had her high school coach on the bag in Saudi Arabia. She would like to secure more invites to LET events this season but will mostly compete on the Epson Tour.

Kelly and her mom have the same competitive spirit. They strategize in similar ways too, and Kelly’s green-reading skills have improved since she started caddying at Seminole Golf Club during the offseason. Kelly, who is naturally more introverted, likes the enthusiasm mom brings.

“My mom is super energetic,” said Kelly. “There’s never a moment of silence, which is what I need.”

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Fatima Fernandez Cano captures Epson Tour’s Carlisle Arizona Women’s Golf Classic

One day after a record 61, Fatima Fernandez Cano cruised to victory on the Epson Tour.

Fatima Fernandez Cano set a course and career low in the third round of the 2022 Carlisle Arizona Women’s Golf Classic with a 61.

Sunday, a steady 2-under 70 was enough to seal the deal at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona, winning for the second time on the Epson Tour, the qualifying circuit known as the “Road to the LPGA”.

For the second day in a row, Fernandez Cano eagled the par-5 ninth hole. She collected three birdies but also had three bogeys Sunday but it was enough to hold off the field for a three-shot victory.

Laura Restrepo gave chase but could only manage an even-par 72 on the final day. A bogey on the last hole dropped her back into at three-way tie for second, along with Dani Holmqvist , who shot a final-round 66 to get to 14 under, and Sofia Garcia, who closed with a 68.

Kum-Kang Park, Lucy Li, Weiwei Zhang and Sophie Hausmann finished in a four-way tie for fifth at 13 under.

Defending champion Ruixin Liu could only manage a pair of even-par rounds of 72 over the weekend and finished tied for 19th. Liu has full-time status on the LPGA and said before the tournament that this would be her only Epson Tour event the season.

Fernandez Cano’s 11-under round Saturday was the best round of the week by three shots after Park closed with a 64 on Sunday.

Fernandez Cano, also a member of the LPGA, pockets $37,500 for the win.

The final round was suspended by inclement weather for almost an hour, as there were some lightning in the area.

This was the second event on the Epson Tour’s 2022 schedule. The circuit heads to Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Beaumont, California, later this week for the IOA Championship where Fernandez Cano is the defending champion.

In January, the LPGA announced a five-year deal with Epson to make the tech company the title sponsor. Now in its 42nd season, the Epson Tour will award LPGA membership to the top 10 players on the Race for the Card money list at the end of each season.

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Fatima Fernandez Cano shoots a 61, ties mark for lowest score in Epson Tour history

The 61 is a course record, a personal best and it ties the lowest score in Epson Tour history.

Fatima Fernandez Cano birdied her first three holes Saturday at the 2022 Carlisle Arizona Women’s Golf Classic. A bogey on the fourth was the only blemish on her scorecard. She made the turn with an eagle on the ninth. Then notched another eagle and four more birdies on the back nine at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona.

In the end, Fernandez Cano signed for an 11-under 61 in the third round, setting a course and career record. Oh, it also happened to tie the lowest score in Epson Tour history.

“It’s my lowest score ever, I think even in practice to be honest,” she said after a round that included 16 greens in regulation. “Just had it going out there. A really good day and go into tomorrow with a good mindset.”

Michaela Finn shot a 61 in the first round of the 2021 season finale.

Fernandez Cano’s theatrics also shot her to the top of the leaderboard at 15 under. She’ll sleep on the 54-hole lead by a shot over Laura Restrepo and by two over Haylee Harford. Alana Uriell and Sophie Hausmann are tied for fourth at 12 under.

Defending champion Ruixin Liu is among a group tied for 10th at 9 under.

After her front-nine 31, Fernandez Cano stepped on the gas pedal on the back nine. She birdied the 10th before consecutive pars on Nos. 11 and 12. She then holed out for eagle on the par-4 13th before tacking on three more birdies.

“She was on a different level,” her caddie James Longman said.

“I’m happy with the fact I stayed aggressive,” Fernandez Cano said. “No. 13, had a bad lie in the fairway. Luckily, we had a really good club at it and good shot from 145 yards. Then No. 15, had an eagle putt lip out and that’s when I knew this round was getting close to a number in the very low 60s.”

This is the second event on the Epson Tour’s 2022 schedule. In January, the LPGA announced a five-year deal with Epson to make the tech company the title sponsor of the “Road to the LPGA” qualifying tour, formerly known as the Symetra Tour.

Now in its 42nd season, the newly-named Epson Tour will award LPGA membership to the top 10 players on the Race for the Card money list at the end of each season.

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