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Thibodeau playing with the pros as Symetra Tour comes to Stonebridge

  • Lauren Thibodeau, 14, takes part in a putting challenge, sponsored by New Era hats, during a recent AJGA event. Thibodeau will be playing in the Symetra Tour event beginning Friday at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown.

    Lauren Thibodeau, 14, takes part in a putting challenge, sponsored by New Era hats, during a recent AJGA event. Thibodeau will be playing in the Symetra Tour event beginning Friday at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown.

  • Lauren Thibodeau

    Lauren Thibodeau

  • Molly Aronsson, of Shelburne, Vt., is returning to New England to play in the Symetra Tour's stop at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown beginning Friday.

    Molly Aronsson, of Shelburne, Vt., is returning to New England to play in the Symetra Tour's stop at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown beginning Friday.

  • Lauren Thibodeau, 14, takes part in a putting challenge, sponsored by New Era hats, during a recent AJGA event. Thibodeau will be playing in the Symetra Tour event beginning Friday at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown.
  • Lauren Thibodeau
  • Molly Aronsson, of Shelburne, Vt., is returning to New England to play in the Symetra Tour's stop at Stonebridge Country Club in Goffstown beginning Friday.

In 2011 and 2012, Lauren Thibodeau traveled from her home in Hampstead to watch the Symetra Tour tournaments at Beaver Meadow Golf Course in Concord.

The Symetra Tour event, part of the LPGA developmental circuit, won’t be at Beaver Meadow this year. It’s moved to Goffstown, has been renamed the New England Charity Classic and begins today at Stonebridge Country Club. And Thibodeau, now 14, won’t be watching. Instead, she’ll be playing.

“It was really shocking when I found out I got the exemption,” said Thibodeau, who will be a freshman at Pinkerton Academy this fall. “It took a while to sink in. Even now it still doesn’t make any sense. I went (to Stonebridge) on Tuesday to register and hit some golf balls and it was still like, ‘What? You’re playing in this event?’ ”

While it’s certainly exciting for Thibodeau to be in the field of 144 that will tee off today in Goffstown, it also does make sense. She won the New Hampshire Women’s Golf Association Junior Championship as an 11-year-old in 2011 and has won that event every year since. Just this week, she finished second in the NHWGA State Amateur Championship at her home course, Windham Country Club. And for the last three years, she’s been making a name for herself on the national junior circuit where she recorded three top-10 finishes in her first three American Junior Golf Association tournaments.

Megan Khang of Rockland, Mass., also received an exemption to play in the event. The 16-year-old is currently ranked No. 35 in the latest World Amateur Golf Rankings.

“After searching New England for two exemptions for the New England Charity Classic, both Lauren and Megan not only represent the game with skill and passion, but had very strong roots here in New England,” said Jason Jozokos, the tournament director and general manager at Stonebridge. “We are extremely excited for them both.”

Thibodeau will tee off today at 12:45 p.m. with Allie White of Lancaster, Ohio, and Jamila Jaxaliyeva of Almaty, Kazakhstan, one of 51 international players from 25 different countries who will be in the field.

“I’m going in with no expectations, but it would be cool to make the cut and play on Sunday,” Thibodeau said. “But it’s going to be really tough competition.”

The top 10 money winners at the end of the Symetra season get a year exemption to the LPGA Tour. Nine of the current top 10 will be in the field at Stonebridge, the only exception being No. 3 Cindy Feng. The rest of the top 10 are Min Seo Kwak ($64,650), Marissa Steen ($56,912), Wei-Ling Hsu ($44,434), Kendall Dye ($41,634), Sadena Parks ($36,615), Jackie Stoelting ($35,780), Lee Lopez ($32,069), Mallory Blackwelder ($29,696) and Min Lee ($29,522).

Thibodeau is the only player from New Hampshire in the field, but she’s not the only one representing northern New England. Molly Aronsson, who is from Shelburne, Vt., will be teeing off in the group directly behind Thibodeau. Aronsson didn’t play in last week’s event in Syracuse, N.Y., because she was attending her sister’s wedding, but she is ranked 21st on the money list ($21,287) and notched a Symetra win on June 30 in Michigan.

“It’s really great to be close to home and be able to have family come out,” Aronsson said. “I feel like when you’re from the Northeast, all of New England feels like home. Every state has some similarities, they’re beautiful and peaceful and the people are friendly. It’s really nice to be back here and to be able to show the girls a little bit of where I’m from. And everyone that’s been driving through Vermont and New Hampshire has been commenting on how beautiful it is up here.”

Other players of interest include Cheyenne Woods, the niece of Tiger Woods and currently 52nd on the money list, and Brittany Altomare, a Shrewsbury, Mass., native who recently won the Massachusetts Women’s Open and currently ranks 12th on the money list. Woods will be teeing off at 12:15 and Altamore at 8:35 a.m.

This will be the second big event of the year at Stonebridge, which hosted the men’s State Amateur Championship in July. The greens, like most around the state, were not in pristine condition due to the long, snowy winter, but none of the State Am players complained about the greens and the consensus was the course was in great shape.

“It seems like it’s a very fairy course, but there are a few placement holes, so it’s going to favor someone who is accurate,” Aronsson said. “I think the person who is putting the best will probably win. I know people say that every time, but I think it will be true this week.”

Mo’ money, mo’ money

The Symetra Tour has grown this year, expanding from 15 to 20 events. The total purse also has increased to $2.25 million, the largest in the tour’s history.

That extra money has already led to some impressive numbers on the money list. No player earned more than $50,000 during the entire 2013 season, but three golfers already have eclipsed that mark this year – Kwak, Steen and Feng ($50,392). Kwak has become the first player to break $60,000 in a season since 2010.

Alumni news

Last year’s Symetra event in New Hampshire, the Northeast Delta Dental International at Beaver Meadow, was won by P.K. Kongkraphan, who beat Michelle Shin in a playoff.

Kongkraphan finished first on the Symetra money list in 2013 and is now playing full time on the LPGA Tour. She has two top-10 finishes this year and has earned $122,310. Shin is playing on the Symetra tour again and is in the field this week.

Another player who also won a Symetra event at Beaver Meadow, Mo Martin, is having an even better LPGA season. Martin, who won the USI Championship in Concord back in 2008, won the RICOH Women’s British Open in July and has earned $615,806 this season.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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