ORLANDO, FLORIDA | Last week was about fun. Yes, there was official money on the line, and a win is always a win. But the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions – a two-in-one event at Lake Nona in which LPGA Tour winners paired with celebrities who were playing in their own Stableford competition – remained the perfect way to dip a toe back into LPGA Tour play after a break going back to Thanksgiving.
You had Danielle Kang, the tournament leader at the time, betting country music star Lee Brice $100 that he couldn’t hit a green from 150 yards. You had newsman Bret Baier explaining to his group how he would leave the course at 2 p.m., take a quick shower and host his show Special Report on Fox News at 6 p.m. from the back of a van that’s been customized into a mobile studio. You had LPGA winners giving baseball Hall of Famers chipping lessons, and famous actors inviting players to stay in their homes whenever they come to Los Angeles. Those things, along with a gaggle of adult autograph seekers carrying bags full of baseballs and photographs to be signed, made the week different and fun.
There also was a heartwarming story in the midst of the hoopla. One of the players in the celebrity division garnered zero attention from the autograph hounds. In fact, at least once she was mistaken for a standard bearer. And why not? At age 15 and still in braces, which were visible every time she flashed her broad smile, Yana Wilson (above) looked like she should be carrying the signboard, not have her name on it.
For this young lady, the week was more than fun. It was an experience that could shape her future.
Wilson got into the celebrity field at the last minute. A late withdrawal opened up a spot, and tournament director Aaron Stewart (son and spitting image of Payne Stewart with a voice that sends a chill up the backs of anyone who knew his father), made a call to a Lake Nona resident with an idea.
“Annika (Sörenstam) not only lives here but is a brand ambassador with Hilton Grand Vacations,” Stewart said. “So, this year we’re thrilled to partner with the Annika Foundation and have them as our tournament beneficiary. One of the cool things that we’re allowed to do with this event is advance amateurs from the pro-am into the main (celebrity) event. Because we had this opening, we decided to take the winner of the Annika Invitational, an AJGA event that was played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday prior, and advance them into the main field.
“Yana won in a playoff.”
The event, held at Eagle Creek, just a few miles from Lake Nona, was a barnburner. Wilson, from Henderson, Nevada, shot 12-under and tied second-round leader Anna Davis from Spring Valley, California. On the first hole of sudden death, Wilson jarred a 70-yard wedge for eagle to win in walk-off fashion.
“I thought it was going to get me into the qualifying,” Wilson said. “I didn’t know that someone had pulled out and that I was actually in the field until after the playoff. After I made my shot, one of the AJGA workers came up and told me. It was exciting.
“It’s really cool being out here,” she said of her first LPGA Tour experience. “I normally don’t play with crowds, so it’s really nice having people out here cheering. I hope to learn a lot from it.”
Wilson learned early on that there is a massive cavern between being one of the best juniors in the world and making it on the LPGA Tour. Wilson’s opening round was with 2020 U.S. Women’s Open champion A Lim Kim.
“I’ve never played with a major champion before and A Lim was great,” Wilson said. “She was really fun to watch. I think the biggest thing I learned from her was to play safe. I recognized that I tend to be more aggressive. I guess as a junior golfer, you can get away with playing more aggressive. But out here where the yardages are longer and the greens are firmer, you can’t be so aggressive. You have to pick and choose, and a lot of the time you have to hit in the middle of the greens, be more conservative. That was new.”
As mature and balanced as Wilson sounded – which has become the norm for top-level juniors who have, as a practical matter, been on one tour or another for most of their lives – there were moments when she was still a wide-eyed kid. When asked what her favorite part of the week had been, she said, “I really like the buffet upstairs.” Then she caught herself and added, “I also love the course conditions. I don’t think I’ve ever played a course this pure before.”
“What a nice young lady,” Stewart said. “She’s one of the top juniors coming through the AJGA, class of 2024, so she’s still young. But it’s such a pleasure having a young person with that kind of talent out here. We’re thrilled to be able to do it.”