'You're always trying to improve and move your game to the next level,' said Courtney Wood of Brentwood, Tenn., a tournament winner in 2004 who enters her first full Futures Tour season this year. 'In junior golf, you're trying to work your way up to college. Then you go through college golf trying to be the best there before you have to work your way up again as a professional. And as a professional, you're still trying to climb to the next level. It never stops.'
But for many former college standouts, the 2005 Futures Tour season is where their professional careers begin. It is the beginning of what they hope will be a long accomplished career full of highlights and milestones played at the highest level. But all know that their first steps as new professionals will be taken when the Tour kicks off its season this week at the Lakeland Futures Golf Classic in Lakeland, Fla.
'I just want to play solid, consistent golf,' said Sarah Huarte, 23, of Shingle Springs, Calif., who was the 2004 individual NCAA Women's Golf champion while at the University of California at Berkeley. 'My expectations for my first year as a pro are to keep my bad rounds to a minimum and to be able to go low every now and then.'
'I expect to see a lot of the same faces that I played junior and college golf with, only now, at a different level,' said May Wood, 21, of Signal Mountain, Tenn., who joins former Vanderbilt University teammate Courtney Wood (no relation) on the Futures Tour this season. 'I'm trying to get more competitive experience because I didn't get serious about golf until I was a high school sophomore. Playing on the Futures Tour this year is exactly what I need and I'm really excited about the season starting.'
For some of the top rookies, the season won't begin until their collegiate tenure ends in May. But while the transition of moving from the NCAA Championship one week to a professional tournament the next might seem daunting, it also is a debut that carries an 'everything-to-gain, nothing-to-lose' attitude by the incoming rookies. Case in point: At last year's tournament in Merrillville, Ind., three players straight out of college wound up among the event's top five finishers. Malinda Johnson, who played at Wisconsin, finished second in her professional debut and ultimately earned one of the Tour's five automatic exempt LPGA Tour cards at the end of the season. Ohio State's Allison Hanna, the 2004 Big Ten Player of the Year, finished third in Merrillville, while Allison Fouch, of Michigan State, tied for fifth. Duke University's Virada Nirapathpongporn tied for 14th. It was as if the rookies were reminding the rest of the field that they were ready to play.
'When you turn pro, it's all new and you have to prove to yourself that you can play at this new level,' said Courtney Wood, 22, who tied for 18th at the 2004 NCAA Championship in May, then won her first professional title by early August. 'So much of being out here and having success is about confidence.'
It's also about utilizing one's own talents at opportune moments and 'setting realistic goals every week,' added Meaghan Francella, 22, of Port Chester, N.Y.
'There are at least 30 Futures Tour players who can win every week,' said Francella, who tied for fourth individually in the 2004 NCAA Championship as a member of the University of North Carolina team. 'No lead is safe and you can't get ahead of yourself out there. Everybody is capable of doing what you can do and maybe even doing it a little better.'
In late June last season, Francella played the first of her seven tournaments. The rookie soon discovered how much she had to learn about the rules of tournament golf. She was slapped with a two-shot penalty when her caddie jumped on a golf cart for a ride to a restroom. Then, the rookie received a $25 Tour fine because her caddie wore spikeless golf shoes, rather than the required flat-soled athletic shoes for caddies.
'That was my first week and I learned pretty quickly that by the rules, the caddie is considered as an extension of the player,' she said. 'But it's good that I learned it then. What if I were leading an event and that had happened? Now I know.'
UCLA's Charlotte Mayorkas, who tied for fourth with Francella in the 2004 NCAA Women's Golf Championship, will join the Futures Tour following the 2005 NCAA Championship this spring -- likely at the Merrillville tournament. The college senior says she has taken the necessary steps in junior, amateur and college golf and is looking forward to making 'the next big step.'
'It will be completely different than the college team atmosphere, plus soon, I'll be playing for a pay check,' said Mayorkas, 21, of Murrieta, Calif. 'But that will be just another incentive. It's still golf and you still have to get the ball in the hole.'
University of Tennessee senior Jessica Shepley of Oakville, Ontario, also plans to make her professional debut in Merrillville in late May. She knows that her days of acceptable college scoring are over.
'Those scores of 74 and 75 aren't going to cut it anymore,' said Shepley, 21, who tied for 10th at the 2004 NCAA Championship. 'My goal is to use this season to consistently shoot even-par or better every round and give myself a chance to compete. For me to call my first professional season a success, I'd like to make every cut in the tournaments I play and have a top-15 finish every week.'
'It's a lot about staying patient,' added May Wood, a 6-foot-2 long-hitter who averages around 285 yards off the tee. 'Golf is such an intense game of good misses.'
For rookies, some of their biggest lessons this season will come in balancing tournament travel, managing personal budgets and knowing when to take a week off.
'You learn pretty fast that it's tiring and the travel is tough,' said Francella, who is recovering from wrist surgery last December. 'I signed up for 16 events this season, but I know I'll have to take some time off.'
Huarte plans to carpool with some of her friends from college golf in an attempt to 'spend wisely.' She is curious about how the weekly pro-am tournaments operate and how much golf she can play before her performance falters.
'A lot of this year will be about finding out what my limits are,' said Huarte. 'There's no other way to learn that than to experience it.'
Courtney Wood traveled with former college teammate Sarah J. Graham last season and the two discovered that the highway travel didn't seem quite so grueling if they built in an afternoon each week to 'do touristy things' in such places as Boston and New York City. They also tried to learn about the respective cultures of the international players with whom they competed week after week. And Wood made it a point to 'eat more vegetables' while in the company of the health-conscious Graham.
From highway to fairway, Wood believes she is better prepared this season. And like the rest of the Tour's members, she will be focused on earning one of the five LPGA Tour cards for 2006.
'I feel like I have so much more experience after last year,' said Wood, who played in 13 of the Tour's 18 events in 2004. 'I watched Jimin Kang and Lindsey Wright practice and win all season and saw them move on to the LPGA Tour. The experience you get from competing is incredibly valuable and the depth of talent here is much greater than you'd ever expect it to be. If you can compete here, I really think you can move to the next level.'
And as if she needs to be reminded, with each year's new addition of young players from around the world, Wood's competition just gets tougher and more determined to prove themselves among the very best.