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C. Woods' road to LPGA begins on Symetra Tour

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Rickie Fowler of the United Ststes tees off on the 15th hole during the First Round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Hosted by the Rory Foundation at Royal County Down Golf Club on May 28, 2015 in Newcastle, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)  - 

Cheyenne Woods is giving the Symetra Tour’s season opener a bonus billing.

It’s also now Cheyenne’s homecoming.

After a big breakthrough winning the Australian Ladies Masters two weeks ago, Woods comes home to tee it up in Friday’s start of the Visit Mesa Gateway Classic, the launch of the Symetra Tour’s new season. The developmental tour is known as “The Road to the LPGA,” and that’s exactly where Woods hopes her commitment to the Symetra Tour leads.

Woods, 23, couldn’t ask for a better place to start the journey. She grew up in Phoenix, just down the road from Mesa’s Longbow Golf Club, home to this week’s event. She has her own apartment in Phoenix. Her mother, Susan, picked her up at the Phoenix airport Monday afternoon after a 22-hour, two-legged flight back from Australia. Friends were waiting for Cheyenne when she got to her apartment.

“It was so exciting,” Woods told “Everyone was so excited, and it was nice to see that.”

The only time Woods got emotional in her media interviews immediately after her win Down Under was when she thanked her family back home. She choked up.

“Growing up, my family was so supportive,” Woods said in a telephone conversation Wednesday with “They were my No. 1 fans. My mom was everything, in terms of taking me to golf lessons, supporting me at junior events. She made sacrifices to get me where I am today. I got emotional because my family wasn’t able to travel with me to Australia, and they didn’t get to enjoy that moment with me after all the hard work we’ve all put into my game.”

Photo gallery: Cheyenne Woods through the years

Woods is niece to Tiger Woods. Her father, Earl Jr., is Tiger’s half-brother, born into Earl Woods Sr.’s first marriage. Cheyenne’s parents divorced when she was young. Both Susan and Earl Jr. will be following Cheyenne at Longbow this week. So will lots of other family and friends. Cheyenne has two older half-brothers.

“My family doesn’t get a lot of chances to see me compete,” Woods said. “They don’t travel a lot. Some haven’t seen me play since high school. Some have never seen me compete. For them to be able to come out this week, it will be special.”

While Woods’ victory at the Australian Ladies Masters earned her a two-year exemption on the Ladies European Tour, it did not gain her any status to play the LPGA, and that’s the destination Woods is working toward. That’s why she’s making the commitment to the Symetra Tour. She plans to play some more LET events this year, too, but it won’t be her primary focus.

“I’m going to focus on the Symetra Tour,” Woods said. “As of today, my plans haven’t changed. I think long-term, that’s the best decision for me. I’m able to play their entire season, with a chance to earn my LPGA tour card with a top-10 finish on the money list. I also have European Tour status, and I’ll play there when I can, but for now my plan is grinding out here on the Symetra Tour.”

Woods is also planning to play the Volvik Championship next week at Industry Hills Golf Club’s Eisenhower Course outside Los Angeles. It will mark Woods’ fifth consecutive tournament. That’s a long haul given three of those events were international.

“I took a day to rest when I got home,” Woods said.

Woods credits her breakthrough Down Under to the work she did on her short game with her long-time coach, Mike Labauve.

“In the offseason, we didn’t really focus on much other than wedges and short game,” Woods said. “That’s something that I think really made the difference for me.”

Woods failed in her first two attempts to get through LPGA Q-School in 2012 and ’13, but she went overseas and earned a spot on the LET, playing it as a rookie last year. With the Symetra Tour expanding opportunities this year, Woods could get up to 20 starts on that tour. The Symetra Tour schedule was boosted from 15 events a year ago.

While the Aussie Ladies Masters triumph might not have gained Woods an LPGA tour card, it did enhance her attractiveness as a draw for LPGA tournament directors with sponsor exemptions to fill. Woods played the LPGA co-sanctioned Women’s Australian Open on a sponsor’s exemption last week, tying for 23rd, her best finish in seven LPGA starts as a pro.

Woods is represented by Mark Steinberg, also Tiger’s agent at Excel Sports Management. His team is helping her sort through opportunities, including a likely flood of sponsor invites.

“We’ve received a tremendous amount of interest in Cheyenne,” said Andrew Kipper, Woods’ day-to-day manager at Excel Sports Management. “We’re evaluating the best path.”

As an LPGA non-member, Woods is allowed to accept six sponsor exemptions this year. Her win Down Under also gets her into the Women’s British Open and the Evian Championship through LET eligibility criteria. Those starts won’t count against the five sponsor invites Woods has left this year. Also, she plans to try to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. If she does, that also won’t count against her limit of sponsor invites. That’s nine potential LPGA starts in 2014.

Basically, there are four ways Woods can earn LPGA membership, but only one way she can earn status to play that tour as a member this season:

• By winning an LPGA event this year, Woods would gain a two-year exemption as a tour member. She could accept immediate membership, or defer membership until the start of next year.

• By accumulating non-member winnings that are the equivalent of top-40 money on the final LPGA money list, Woods could claim LPGA membership for 2015. Non-member money winnings only count in events with a cut.

• By finishing among the top 10 on the season-ending Symetra Tour money list, Woods would earn LPGA membership for 2015.

• By advancing through LPGA Q-School’s final stage at season’s end, Woods would earn membership for 2015.

Wherever Woods path leads, she starts with terrific momentum from her LET victory.

“It was a huge accomplishment for me,” Woods said. “I just gained so much confidence in my game and my ability.”