The LPGA Experience

Pictured: Professional Golfer Gina Piller is one of 144 women competing in the third annual Meijer LPGA Classic. Photo courtesy Getty Images.
Pictured: Professional Golfer Gina Piller is one of 144 women competing in the third annual Meijer LPGA Classic. Photo courtesy Getty Images.

by Kayla Tucker

For professional golfer Gerina Piller, her love for the sport wasn’t one that started immediately. “I grew up playing little league baseball with the guys, and while I was playing, there was a couple that wanted to teach me to play golf, so my grandparents bought me golf clubs,” Piller said.

The couple never taught her, but at age 13, Piller’s mom made her quit playing baseball. “When I was about to go to high school my stepdad suggested, ‘Why don’t you try golf?’” Piller said. “I wasn’t very excited about it, but I tried it and I really liked it.”

Piller is one of 522 members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and one of 144 players that compete weekly in tournaments. After playing through high school, Piller, 31, landed a scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso. She joined the LPGA in 2010. “It’s just something that I’ve always done,” Piller said. “I’ve always played a sport and so to be able to do it for a living, it’s pretty cool.”

The LPGA was founded in 1950 and contains some of the top female golfers in the world. Tournaments are broadcasted to over 170 countries each week.

An average week for Piller is a packed schedule. Monday is travel day, whether it is from state to state or out of the country. Tuesday is practice day and Wednesday is a pro-am (professional-amateur) day, where the women play with professionals and amateurs. The tournaments start on Thursday and go through Sunday, and then the schedule is repeated.

Although she loves the game, Piller is a tad disappointed touring takes away spending time with her husband, Martin Piller, who is also a professional golfer. “It sounds crazy that we both do the same thing, and you would think we’d never see each other,” she said. “But it’s actually pretty cool because we understand to the tee what each other goes through and what we do.”

Neither Piller plans to retire soon, so their lives will continue to mesh and mix when possible. According to Matt Haas, coordinator of tour media, there isn’t a general time that women tend to retire from the game of golf.  “It really is a player by player thing, as it is on the men’s side,” Haas said. “It’s a pretty wide range as to how long they want to play it.” Currently, the LPGA’s youngest player is Pannarat Thanapolboonyaras at age 19, and the oldest is Juli Inkster at age 56.

One of the pressures for all women is feeling like they must choose between working and having children, or tackling both simultaneously. Piller said it’s harder for a professional female golfer to balance both roles, but the LPGA (and PGA) both offer childcare on tour, so she finds good in that. “With pregnancy, you don’t know if you’re able to play or what happens to your golf game after you have a kid,” Piller said. “There are a lot of unknowns that it kind of just depends on the situation.”

This month, Piller will be one of 144 top golfers worldwide competing in the third annual Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give in Grand Rapids. This year’s purse (total prize money) is $2 million, with the winner taking home around 15 percent of that number.

“We’re bringing world class golf to Grand Rapids, but more importantly, the community is really banding together to help feed hungry families.”

The tournament will be held June 14-19 at Blythefield Country Club (5801 Northland Drive). General daily admission is $10 and weekly is $25. Kids ages 17 and under receive free admission with a ticketed adult. All proceeds from the tournament will go to Meijer’s simply give program, which began in 2008. “It’s the hallmark of all of our hunger relief efforts,” said Meijer Spokeswoman Christina Fecher. “We are able to work with the customers and incredible team members to help food pantries in each of the communities that we serve stock their shelves.”

At certain times during the year, customers can purchase $10 Simply Give cards at Meijer, and all the proceeds go to a local food pantry. Each of the 223 Meijer stores across six states are assigned one each year. This year’s spring campaign will go through June 19. “We’re bringing world class golf to Grand Rapids,” Fecher said. “But more importantly, the community is really banding together to help feed hungry families.”

Combined, the last two Meijer tournaments have raised over $1.3 million. “I played well there last year,” Piller said. “I really like the golf course, the community is great and is very supportive of our tour and our events. It’s a first class event. They treat us awesome and I can’t think of one thing they could do better.”

For those who may not be avid golf fans, Piller said there still are reasons to come to the tournament. “The women are very nice. They’re very welcoming,” Piller said. “You can walk right beside them on the fairway, and these are top golfers in the world. There are not many other sporting events at which you can do that.”

In the week leading up to and during the tournament, Meijer is hosting numerous events for every member of the family. “Meijer has really worked hard to make it an event for families,” Tournament Director Lesley Baker said. “There literally is something for everyone.”

One of the biggest events this year is the three-day Grand Tasting event, where local restaurants and breweries, including Bell’s Brewery, Blue Dog Tavern, Honey Creek Inn, and many more, will offer samples of their products. These tickets include tournament access and cost $25. (Get yours now because they sell fast!)

Meijer will also bring in celebrity chefs for the weekend. Friday, guests can enjoy the cooking of the “Father of Southwestern Cuisine,” Chef Dean Fearing, and Saturday, Chef Carla Hall from Bravo’s Top Chef will take over the kitchen. On Sunday there will be a Father’s Day Brunch with Chef Marcus Samuelsson from Chopped. These events, and the tournament, will be held at the Blythefield Country Club in Belmont.

Baker said there is also room for volunteer opportunities, as the tournament recruits about 800 volunteers each year. The job comes with a $55 fee, but includes two golf shirts and meals provided each shift (volunteers are required to work a minimum of three). There are 25 different areas to get involved including driving around players and executives, marshaling a hole, or working in the tournament office. “It’s a fun way to get involved in the community and support a great cause,” she said.

Piller reinforced that the game of golf is welcome to anyone who is interested. Regardless of your age or ability, everyone can play, and it’s easy to continue to stay active on the course for the rest of your life. “It teaches you life lessons,” she said. “There aren’t many games that you call the penalty on yourself. You have to be patient; you have to strategize. There’s so much that you can learn from golf.”

Tickets for all events and the tournament can be found at meijerlpgaclassic.com.

LPGAClassicPreview
Below: A fraction of the LPGA Classic audience in 2015.

Kayla Tucker

Kayla Tucker is a journalism student at Grand Rapids Community College and editor-in-chief of The Collegiate newspaper and website.

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