Ladies European Tour Player Katja Pogačar Shares Her Story of Playing Two Tours and Dealing with the Coronavirus Layoff.
Having grown up in the national capital of Lubljana, Katja Pogačar calls Slovenia home. As such, her path to professional golf is a little out of the ordinary as Slovenia has not traditionally been a nation known for its golfers, but if Katja has her way, she is determined to help put golf on the map in her home country.
Katja Pogačar is currently playing on the Ladies European Tour (the “LET”), after having secured her status in 2019. In fact, her 2019 season was one of the busiest seasons yet, as she played both the LET and the Symetra Tour (the LPGA’s developmental tour). Playing two tours though, kept her busy playing golf all over the world, juggling commitments for both tours as she tried to secure a spot on the main LPGA tour. While she did not make it through to the LPGA for 2020, she played well enough to earn full status for this season in Europe.
With the added security of having a “home tour”, Pogačar entered the 2020 season with both confidence and ambition to match. She started the season in Australia, enjoying the warm February climate that the host nation has to offer. The LPGA’s ISPS Handa Vic Open (the “Vic Open”) and the ISPS Handa Australian Women’s Open (the “Australian Women’s Open”) were the first two events on her calendar. The Vic Open is best known as one of the few sanctioned events where both professionals from the Men’s and Women’s game compete.
Unfortunately for Pogačar, she was not as sharp as she would have liked, missing the cut, posting scores of 74 and 71. While not what she had hoped for, she was in good company as other established players such as former World No.1 Jiyai Shin, former ANA Inspiration winner, Pernilla Lindberg, and LPGA winner Haru Nomura also missed the cut — a testament to the course’s difficulty.
Next up was the Australian Women’s Open hosted at Royal Adelaide. Pogačar posted rounds of 75 and 76 to miss the cut again; obviously, it was not the start to the season that she had hoped for, but in hindsight, it served her well as she was able to gain some competitive rounds of golf under belt.
With the two LPGA events completed, the next two events for Pogačar were the LET’s season opening events — the Australian Ladies Classic Bonville and the Women’s New South Wales Open. First up for her was the Australian Ladies Classic sponsored by Geoff King Motors, hosted at the Bonville Golf Resort in New South Wales. Her play rebounded from the previous two events as Pogačar finished the event at T27, posting a score of -2 after the four rounds. While the finish was still not quite what she wanted, the event did have a big upside for her.
Pogačar had been going through a club fitting for her 2020 clubs, but after a second round 74, she decided to switch out her clubs, replacing her irons, “I was fitting for clubs on Saturday (before her round) ... I switched my clubs, I just said, I am going to go for it and switched them out ... and then I played the best round of the year so far . . . then everything just opened up when I went into the next event” . The result left Pogačar with lots of confidence as she carded a 66 ( - 6) for her third round and her lowest round of the season.
The confidence carried over for Pogačar as she played well in the “Women’s New South Wales Open” that followed. Hosted by the Dubbo Golf Club, Pogačar played well, eventually finding herself sitting in 4th place after the third round, having posted another sub-70 score of 68. Another first for both Pogačar and the LET was that her fourth place standing placed her into the penultimate group for the final round on Sunday – but, what was a first was that Pogačar found herself playing with another player from Slovenia —16 year old Pia Babnik. Apparently, it was the first time that two Slovenian players found themselves in the same group during a professional event.
Despite playing in the penultimate group, Pogačar could not make up any ground on the leaders, posting a very respectable even par 72, but finishing a solo 6th place. The event was won by Sweden’s Julia Engstrom, who shot a 68 to win the event by 2 strokes over Belgium’s Manon De Roey in second and by 8 – shots over Pogačar. Nonetheless, it was her best finish of the young season and Pogačar was brimming with confidence when she headed back to Europe.
Unfortunately, the very next event that Pogačar was scheduled to play was the Saudi Ladies Championship hosted at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club as the event was cancelled because of the coronavirus and Covid19.
“I was so looking forward to Saudi a lot . . . and I was set to go a few days before my flight and then it just took a big turn (with the suspension from the coronavirus), so we went from being in-form back to basic training, working on form and technique – it was a little shock, especially as everything closed down in Slovenia so I did not have my access to my golf course or to my fitness . . . I brought my old weights, elastic bands, medicine balls with a hole in it ... so every morning I would workout on zoom (with my fitness trainer), I moved the car to different spots so I could use the parking lot (for her training)” she says before adding that “it was like an off-season; I hadn’t had an off-season for years, so it was good that way.”
While the forced suspension in the season created some individual challenges for players, there was another “silver lining” for Pogačar. It provided her with some needed rest having injured her wrist at the outset of the suspension. She picked up an “over use” injury from hitting so many golf balls during her practice, “We have been fixing that (the wrist injury), and now it’s getting better” says Pogačar. She also muses that it was somewhat fortunate that this injury, the first that she experienced in 10 years, occurred during the suspension, saying that “it was the best time to get injured ... everyone has been saying that to me.”
In professional golf, players generally have to earn a minimum amount of “tournament winnings” or “official money” in order to maintain their playing privileges for the following season.
For example, on the LPGA tour, players that finish within the top 80 in terms of “official earnings or money” receive an exemption for the following season. In Pogačar‘s case, it means that she did not lose any playing opportunities to other LET players so she can resume play without having to play catch up to other players as no player earned any “official money” during the suspension.
As we continue our conversation, the subject turns to Pogačar‘s home country, Slovenia, and golf. She acknowledges that golf is not a popular sport in Slovenia, but as the country grows, there seems to be more and more people playing, particularly amongst the junior ranks.
She also opines that golf is a natural sport for her fellow Slovenians as her compatriot’s often lead active lives outdoors, “I have a better perspective on Slovenia in the past few months having been home ... they were saying that golf was flourishing here ten years ago and what I am proud of is that there are lots of women golfers — it’s not like England where it is being said that women are not playing at all, Slovenian culture is very active anyway so for women to do sports is not unusual and that includes golf . . . the only sad thing is that there is a gap in the people playing. It is young people and people over 45 (that are playing golf) there is not much in between so that part is sad.”
So how did a young woman from Slovenia make her way to professional golf? She did it by playing her way through collegiate golf, having secured an athletic scholarship at Ohio State University. As a member of the Buckeyes women’s team, Pogačar was a consistent first team player while she earned her degree in Mathematics and Biology. When asked about her degree, she informs me that it was an applied mathematics program with a course track in biology, noting that “I studied mathematics with the track in biology because I really wanted to do that ... I really enjoyed that ... if I was not doing this (professional golf) I would probably be in the informatics world, but I would be sitting behind a computer and I prefer being outdoors.”
For Katja Pogačar, she is no exception. She considers herself fortunate to have local and regional sponsors such as Cubo Hotel & Golf Course in her hometown of Lubljana, Triglav Zavarovalnica ( a regional European insurance company in Slovenia) and Prva Liga (local golf shops).
Upon graduating, Pogačar hit the trail in pursuit of a professional golf career, attending the LPGA Q-School program, competing on the Symetra Tour and on the LET. It is daunting under normal circumstances, but there is an added dimension when it comes to the women’s game. While the women’s tours have initiatives or support programs in place, their effectiveness varies. The significant issue is that women’s professional golf only has a fraction of the prize money available compared to the men’s game.
The reality of this is that the women struggle to pay their bills, travel to and from various events, and cover the costs of entrance fees, equipment, accommodations, and apparel. It sounds like an experience more reminiscent of the Hogan, Nelson and Snead era, when they played through the Great Depression, struggling to keep the tour and the game alive. For the vast majority of today’s women, there are no big monied sponsorship's that defray their costs, allowing them to travel and compete in tour events and pay a living allowance. Today, many women are considered lucky if they have an equipment sponsor that provides them with equipment at no cost.
For Katja Pogačar, she is no exception. She considers herself fortunate to have local and regional sponsors such as Cubo Hotel & Golf Course in her hometown of Lubljana, Triglav Zavarovalnica ( a regional European insurance company in Slovenia) and Prva Liga (local golf shops). Her equipment sponsors in the past have included both Titleist and Footjoy. She now sports different clubs and apparel, such is the life of a professional women’s golfer. Nonetheless, the sponsor support has meant that Pogačar has been able to successfully compete on the LET.
Our conversation gradually shifts towards golf in Europe and the changes in women’s professional golf in particular. In 2019, the LPGA, the world’s leading professional women’s golf tour, acquired an interest in the LET, which had been struggling in recent years to put together a solid tour schedule for its players. The impact of the LPGA and its partners in the European Tour and the R & A, has been immediate. “Yes, this year was looking pretty good” says Pogačar, “the schedule this year was much better than last year and 2018, there were lots of tournaments this year . . . we had some support from Sweden with two new events; there has been a better, stronger approach to sponsors and potential promoters from the LET, they are learning to promote better and use the players to help promote . . . it looked like a really good schedule this year and then this happened” she says in reference to the coronavirus suspension.
Having been home now for the past several months, Pogačar is well rested and ready for the tour to resume, “the LET Access event in July will probably be my first event (in the Czech Republic), then it will be the Scottish Open in August .. that’s a big one and then the British Open right after.” I ask her if she is feeling the effects of being home for such a long stretch of time, “oh yeah, I am so eager to play again” she says.
On the topic of the Tokyo Olympics, Pogačar shares that she had believed for the longest time that the Games would continue, “yeah, I honestly believed that this (Olympics) was still going to happen; I didn’t believe that it would not happen right up until they cancelled it.” As the top ranked Slovenian player in women’s golf, she is looking forward to the opportunity to represent her country in the Olympics, “after I missed the Mediterranean Games as an amateur, I really wanted to represent Slovenia, in professional golf you don’t really get to represent your country, so I am looking forward to 2021.”
When the Games finally do commence, Slovenia will have a worthy representative in the women’s golf event. For what it is worth, my impressions of Katja Pogačar is that she is a hardworking player dedicated to her craft and in being the best player that she can be. But, more than that, she is a great ambassador for the game.
Listening to her speak about her desire to grow the game of golf in her native Slovenia, I sense a real passion as she tells me that one of her goals is to demonstrate that golf in Slovenia is not a sport reserved for the “upper class”, but is accessible to Slovenia’s growing middle class. With her commitment and passion, I firmly believe that Pogačar can reach her goals, and with her leading the way, we could be witnessing a new era for golf in the Balkans.
Lightning Round Q&A
Q1: What is your “hometown”?
A — Lubljana, Slovenia
Q2: What University/College did you attend and what was your major?
A — Ohio State University, Mathematics and Biology
Q3: What is your best golf memory? (Amateur or Professional)
A — Scoring a "Hole in One" at the World Cup of Golf (amateur) in Turkey
Q4: What is your favourite fitness activity? (gym or training wise)
A — Medicine Ball Slams, plus I like some hiking too
Q5: What is your favourite course that you have played?
A — I have a few: Kingsbarns in St. Andrews and the Royal Bled in Slovenia
Q6: Who is your favourite person to play a round of golf with?
A — Astaha Madan, an LET player from India
Q7: Who is the toughest competitor in women’s golf today?
A — I'd say its Jin Young Ko (World No.1) and Shinako Hibuno (2019 WBO Champion)
Q8: What is your most memorable golf shot or putt?
A — In Australia, my ball was in the water's edge, I took my shoes off, hit the pitch from the water to the green, made the putt and saved par!
Q9: If you could win one event – which would it be?
A — the British Women's Open
Q10: You get to form a foursome for a round of golf. Besides you, who would you like to play with (past or present / alive or deceased)?
A — Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak
WITB - What's In the Bag for 2020?
Driver: Taylormade M6
Hybrid: Callaway Epic Flash
Irons: 5i-PW New Level
Wedge: New Level
About Katja Pogačar
Video - Practice Session (Backyard)
Backyard Practice Facility -- Katja Pogačar at her home in Slovenia, working on her swing during the coronavirus suspension