Madeleine Sheils began her quest to play on the LPGA Tour with a four-year plan — complete with 48 months of funding.
On Sunday, four days into the 48th month of that plan, she qualified for the LPGA Tour for the first time.
Sheils, a Bishop Kelly High graduate, tied for 21st at the LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in Florida. The top 20 received full status on tour for 2017; the next 25 received conditional status, with Sheils grabbing the top spot in that group.
She expects to get at least eight starts on the LPGA Tour next season, with more possible if she posts a strong finish or two.
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“It’s so funny that it worked out that I got my card this December,” said Sheils, 27. “It’s kind of crazy how perfect, I guess, that (plan) was. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen if I didn’t make it through, but it certainly would have been time to re-evaluate in some capacity. Deep down, I wasn’t ready to give it up. But the thought of going another year without an opportunity on the LPGA Tour would have been devastating. I’m awfully glad I don’t have to make that decision.”
Sheils, who played college golf at Nebraska, began her pro career on the Symetra Tour in 2013. She sold shares in herself that would guarantee her four years of tour life without having to stress about money — and potentially provide a return on the investment if she became a successful LPGA Tour player.
Now that she knows where she’ll be playing in 2017, she needs to find sponsors again. She had decided to wait until after Q-School to start that process.
“It could have dominated my thinking and probably changed the outcome for the worse,” she said, “but I put it in the very back of my mind. It probably fueled the fire — there was no safety net at the end of this anymore. There was one option, is kind of how I went into the week feeling.”
Because she holds conditional status, she can’t set a schedule for the season and sometimes will have to travel on nine days notice or less. She’ll get into tournaments when enough of the players higher on the pecking order decline to play.
Based on past history, she expects to make her LPGA Tour season debut April 10-15 in Hawaii. The Feb. 13-19 event in Australia also is a possibility, she said.
She plans to seize any opportunity she gets, even if the last-minute travel is a challenge. She has played in one LPGA Tour event in her career.
“One great week out there can change your year,” Sheils said, “and one great week on the Symetra is not good enough.”
The Hawaii event, for example, has a $2 million purse. The Symetra Tour event held that week last year paid $200,000.
Just like the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour changes its priority list during the season based on earnings. So if Sheils plays well when she gets into the field, she can earn more starts.
“A lot of girls have said it’s one of the hardest places to be, where I am, where you’re hopping between both tours rather than fully committing to Symetra,” Sheils said. “But I don’t care. I’ve also had friends who have been in this same exact position, played well in one or two chances, and they’re off, they’re set. It will definitely be a new challenge, but I’m welcoming it.”
Sheils is coming off her worst season on the Symetra Tour. She finished 62nd on the money list as a rookie in 2013, 40th in 2014 and 17th in 2015 (including a win) before slipping to 98th in 2016. She missed the cut in five of her last six events.
The struggles led to changes. She hired a new coach, who helped her fix some flaws without overhauling her swing; rebuilt her chipping game; and started using a new putter.
“It was a really tough season,” Sheils said. “... I started to see progress in October, when I made it through the second stage of Q-School. It wasn’t quite all there yet. I wasn’t taking it all from practice into playing. I put in a lot of practice over the last five weeks to get ready. Every part of my game was a lot sharper.”
Q-School is a 90-hole grind. Sheils shot a 2-under 70 in the first round, then carded scores of 73, 70, 73 and 71 for a 3-under total.
She double-bogeyed her first hole in the pressure of the last day but birdied two of her last three holes. She finished knowing she had secured conditional status and hoping she could sneak into a playoff for one of the last exempt spots. Exactly 20 players finished 4-under or better, leaving her a shot short.
Of the 20 players who earned exempt status, only four beat Sheils in the final round.
“It’s certainly just the next stepping stone,” Sheils said. “It isn’t the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to be winning on the LPGA Tour. You have to get there in order to start winning. I just felt utter joy and relief, I would say, to know that I was doing the right things and that I have an opportunity out there next year to start working toward winning there.”