KINSTON, N.C. – The Epson Tour, the official qualifying group for the LPGA Tour, is in Kinston this week, participating in the Carolina Golf Classic at Kinston Country Club.
The 144-player field for the third annual Carolina Golf Classic began play Thursday and will continue the tournament through Sunday. Individuals will compete in a 72-hole, stroke-play format for $200,000 and a winner’s share of $30,000. A cut will be made to the top-60 competitors plus ties after 36 holes.
Of the 144-player field competing this week, seven earned entries through sponsor exemptions. In its fifth year of supporting women chasing their dreams of playing on the LPGA Tour, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina prioritized giving opportunities to those who attend colleges and universities in North Carolina. By providing these sponsorship exemptions, Blue Cross NC hopes to inspire women in sports and foster the next generation of North Carolina leaders. This week’s exemptions represent five schools from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA).
Duke University will have two players representing the blue and white in Kinston. Former Blue Devil, Miranda Wang, will make her third Epson Tour appearance for the 2022 season. Wang was a member of Duke’s 2019 NCAA Championship team and turned professional upon graduation in 2020.
“Blue Cross NC is a very familiar institution for me, because when I was a student at Duke I had their student insurance,” said Wang. “Having them sponsor this tournament and invite me to play in this tournament is an honor, and I think they’re doing a really good thing for female players.”
Current Blue Devil, Erica Shepherd, also earned an exemption. The junior is a two-time All-ACC member and was named Golfweek Player of the Week, as well as ACC Golfer of the Month in 2021. Shepherd ended her 2021-2022 season with a career-best 72.24 stroke average and four top-five finishes.
“It’s such an honor every time I get to represent Duke,” said Shepherd. “To be here, competing with the pros is a great opportunity for me, and hopefully I can make Duke proud.”
Like Duke, the North Carolina A&T Aggies will have multiple golfers representing this week. Christyn Carr and Vileska Gelpi earned spots in the field as part of Blue Cross NC’s initiative. Carr, a senior, has four career top-five finishes, as well as a different appreciation for the sponsorship.
“Some people may or may not know that I graduated with a nursing degree, so I know all that Blue Cross NC does in the state of North Carolina and the country, so that definitely means a lot,” said Carr. “Also, for me wanting to play professional golf and having just graduated from school, it’s awesome to have another opportunity to play at this level with such a great sponsor.”
Gelpi, a freshman at NC A&T, calls the experience Blue Cross NC is providing for her a dream. Golf in North Carolina is something she’s had fun with and has been getting used to in the past year.
“It is an amazing feeling that someone even gave me this opportunity,” said Gelpi. “I don’t know how to express in words my gratitude.”
Adding to the ACC representation is Kayla Smith, a University of North Carolina Tar Heel and North Carolina native. Smith earned a spot on the 2022 All-ACC Women’s Golf team and recorded six top-20 finishes in the 2021-2022 season.
“Being from North Carolina, I’m familiar with Blue Cross NC,” said Smith. “I’m very grateful that they’re sponsoring this and for everything they’ve done to make this happen and support women’s golf.”
Isabel Amezcua will tee it up in red and white this weekend, representing North Carolina State University. During the 2022 season, Amezcua earned her first top-10 finish and shot a career-low round of 68.
“Everywhere I go, it’s a representation of NC State,” said Amezcua. “To do it at one of the biggest tours and stages is just an honor.”
Rounding out the exemptions is Wake Forest graduate student, Virunpat Olankitkunchai. Her 2022 season concluded by earning medalist honors at ACC Championships with a T3 finish. The Carolina Golf Classic will be Olankitkunchai’s debut event as a professional.
“Blue Cross NC is providing a great bridge for me to transition from college student to professional golfer,” said Olankitkunchai. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity that I have here.”