Making the Rounds: Folsom’s Briana Mao goes from uninterested to LPGA Tour

Briana Mao
Briana Mao

Golf has a way of chewing players up and spitting them out.

Then sucking them back in.

It’s done both to Folsom’s Briana Mao, and she’s just 22.

Mao and golf have been lovey-dovey lately. A tie for 26th in the third and final stage of the LPGA Tour qualifying grind, completed Sunday in Daytona Beach, Fla., perpetuated the loving feeling.

Mao earned conditional LPGA Tour membership for 2016 with a final round of 4-under-par 68, the second-best score among 73 players at a cold and windy LPGA International. After months of qualifying-stage paring, with only the best players advancing, Mao delivered.

33 Places Briana Mao rose in the final round of the third and final stage of LPGA Tour qualifying

With the top 20 players earning fully exempt LPGA status and spots 21 through 45 gaining conditional status, Mao started the final round tied for 59th.

“I knew I had nothing to lose,” she said. “Before I knew it, I was 4 under. Then I started thinking I had something to lose.”

Not only did she hang on, her five-round total of 2-under 358 missed fully exempt status by just two strokes. One of those strokes came via penalty during an earlier round when her caddie dropped a club on her ball.

It was an impressive performance for a player who burnt out on the game and its travel demands as a teenager and said she accepted an athletic scholarship to Virginia to finance her college education.

“I know that sounds terrible,” she said.

Late in her sophomore season, Mao won a tournament. Her coach at Virginia, Kim Lewellen, was a constant source of positive reinforcement. Gradually, the love she had for the game as a youngster returned.

“I started wanting to spend more time on the course rather than the library or studying,” she said. “I started finding myself practicing on off days, which was odd for me.”

Mao earned a degree in cognitive science with a concentration in cognitive psychology. Always an eager student, she said her ultimate golf epiphany came in one of her first rounds after graduation. She was in Minnesota.

“I had nothing else to worry about other than golf,” she said. “I was truly able to be 100 percent on the golf course and I loved it.”

Mao, a St. Francis High School graduate who turned pro in August, spent Monday in rookie orientation. She was told she can expect to get into at least 11 of the LPGA’s 34 tournaments next year, not counting potential sponsor’s exemptions and successful Monday qualifying forays.

She also was educated about health care, travel and banking and taxes. Grown-up stuff, in other words. Bad guys, too.

“They freaked us out about creepy stalkers out there,” she said. “That part was pretty disturbing.”

68 Briana Mao’s final-round score in the third and final stage of LPGA Tour qualifying

Mao said she plans to give the LPGA her full attention early in the season in an attempt to gain traction. She will play on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s feeder tour, if that doesn’t happen.

Demi Runas, a former UC Davis player, tied for 32nd.

Status quo at Empire Ranch

When you hear the same rumor from enough people, you start to wonder if there’s fire where there’s smoke.

The notion that Empire Ranch is going to be the latest area course to close and the property be developed seemingly has no merit, however.

“That’s absolutely crazy,” said Jeff Wilson, who oversees Empire Ranch for course owner Chris Steele. “I would be the first one to know, I think.”

Folsom city manager Evert Palmer said he hasn’t heard the rumors or information that suggests its origination.

Wilson said Empire Ranch is on property required by the city to be a public golf course, it’s ideally located away from competition, a huge asset to the community, and it’s profitable.

Craig Oliver, president of Empire Ranch’s men’s club, said the club has an active membership of more than 600, which puts it among the largest in Northern California.

When Empire Ranch was conceived (it opened in 2002), there was a proposal to build a private course not far away.

With the market becoming saturated, a builder couldn’t be found and the city omitted the plan.

▪ Wilson, also the general manager of Catta Verdera, earned the Northern California PGA’s Bill Strausbaugh Award for mentoring and inspiring other PGA professionals. Other NCPGA winners: Granite Bay’s Matt Dillon, Superintendent of the Year; Empire Ranch’s Will Robins, Player Development Award; and Haggin Oaks’ Tom Morton, Horton Smith Award for contributions to professional education for PGA professionals.

Steve Pajak: 916-326-5526, @Steve_Pajak