As LPGA Tour fans return in full force, MSU alum Sarah Burnham looks forward to home game

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

This week marks the first LPGA Tour tournament to be held without fan restrictions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic early in 2020.

And it just so happens to be a home game for Sarah Burnham, the former Michigan State star who's teeing it up in the Meijer LPGA Classic just northeast of Grand Rapids.

"So, the U.S. Open had a few fans and that was kind of a big difference from last year. It was so quiet," Burnham said earlier this week, as she prepared to take on renovated Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, along with 143 of her fellow golfers. "So, just remembering to stay focused and not let some little noises bother you that weren't there last year, but now they're there.

Michigan State alum Sarah Burnham is playing in this week's Meijer LPGA Classic.

"I'm really excited to have fans, because if you can't see a shot like up to the pin or on the green and you get some claps, you're like, 'OK, that must be good.'

"That's always fun to have the fans cheering."

Burnham, 25, got to hear the cheers at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco earlier this month.

In super-tough conditions in Round 2, on Friday, Burnham shot a 66, the best round of the day — a shot better than eventual champion Yuka Saso. She faded over the weekend with rounds of 78 and 79, but still tied for 57th, her best finish in a major in her young career as a professional.

In seven events this season, she's made three cuts, with a best finish of tied for 27th back in April.

Burnham is a Minnesota native, but now calls Michigan home, living in Howell. That keeps her close to Michigan State, where she can still use the world-class golf facilities. She remains close to MSU head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll, whose husband, Jim, caddies for Burnham on the LPGA Tour.

This marks her third appearance in the Meijer LPGA Classic. She was given a sponsor's exemption in 2018, when she still was in college. She missed the cut that year, but tied for 33rd in 2019.

"Knowing the Midwest area is always fun just to be home," said Burnham, who made headlines last March when she was playing mini-tour events amid the LPGA Tour shutdown — winning one for $2,800 plus a supply of toilet paper (remember that craze?). "We travel so much, so it means a lot just to be back."

Back, also, is the Meijer LPGA Classic, which was postponed early in the pandemic to October 2020 but then eventually canceled when it became clear it wouldn't be able to have fans.

The pandemic did allow the membership at Blythefield Country Club to undergo a $3.7-million renovation that included expanding greens with additional false fronts, reshaping bunkers and replacing the sand, as well as some tree removal.

But the course still figures to be a scorer's paradise, with its reachable par 5s and some short, risk-reward par 4s. The winning score in the six previous tournaments was 21 under (twice), 18 under, 17 under (twice) and 14 under the inaugural year.

"I think it's a good challenge," said Burnham, a two-time Big Ten player of the year whose best LPGA Tour finish was a tie for sixth, last season. "I think it's more challenging around the greens. … The tee shots, I mean, bunkers are definitely in play, but it makes the shot look pretty out there.

"I think it will be a good test."

Also in the Meijer LPGA Classic field this week via special invitations are Michigan State's Valery Plata, who advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Women's Amateur in 2020, and Lapeer native Kris Tamulis. Plata is the lone amateur in the field.

Meijer LPGA Classic

► When: Thursday through Sunday

► Where: Blythefield Country Club, Belmont

► TV: Thursday-Friday — 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Golf Channel; Saturday — 3-6 p.m., Golf Channel; Sunday — 2-4 p.m., CBS

► Purse: $2 million (winner: $300,000)

► 2019 champion: Brooke Henderson

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984