LPGA Tour sophomore Alexa Pano is playing with the poise of a veteran thus far at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, backing up her first-round 69 with a 2-under 70 on day two at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club.

The 2023 LPGA Tour rookie raced out of the gate early, making birdies on the par-5 2nd hole and par-4 3rd hole to move to 5-under overall. She picked up another birdie on No. 5 to get to 6-under and then birdied again on the par-4 7th hole to move to 7-under, grabbing one last birdie on the ninth hole to turn in 31 and sit at 8-under with nine holes to play.

Pano stumbled a bit on the back nine, making bogeys on holes 10, 14 and 17 to erase some of the work she did on the front. But the 19-year-old hung on tight and ground out her 2-under round, a good enough effort to sit in a tie for fifth through 36 holes in her tournament debut at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.

“It was a really fun day getting to play with those guys. I had a blast out there,” said the 2023 ISPS Handa World Invitational winner. “I was lucky to make a lot of birdies. The greens are quite brutal (at Lake Nona). I hit a lot of putts that I think are going right, and they’re not. It’s a challenge. I do really like it. I love a ball-striker’s golf course, and I feel comfortable out here having played it a decent bit.”

But Lake Nona isn’t the only place where Pano is feeling comfortable. Entering her second season on the LPGA Tour, the young talent says she is more at ease than she was in her rookie year now that she knows a few more people out on Tour and knows what to expect week in and week out when competing against the world’s best.

A lot of that confidence came from her win in Northern Ireland last August, but Pano also thinks that her week at the Mizuho Americas Open over the summer also did a lot for her comfortability on the LPGA Tour, particularly because one of her closest friends, Rose Zhang, ultimately earned membership with her victory.

“I was kind of a mess when I first started as a rookie last year, and I feel a lot more comfortable and got a good handle on things,” said Pano. “I worked really hard this off-season to be ready for this. I think this is the fun part, getting to see it all come to fruition. I started having a lot more fun after the victory, but things started shifting for me a little earlier.

“I had a great week at the Mizuho (Americas Open), getting to hang out with some old friends, seeing one of my best friends in the world win, and having (Rose Zhang) on Tour with me. The game always felt like it was trending. Once the win came, I had more fun with it and some good finishes, and now feels like home out here.”

As the weekend at Lake Nona looms large, Pano will have some ground to make up as she trails the leaders by three shots, but that task no longer feels as daunting as it once did. After finding plenty of success during her rookie season, Pano now knows she is just as capable of winning any event as everyone else around her and has proven that she more than belongs – front and center – on the biggest stage in women’s golf. 

“I think I always knew my golf game belonged,” Pano said. “I turned pro for a reason, that I belonged out here and wanted to be out here. But it’s proving that you belong out here that, I think, can be tough. There are so many great players out here. You really got to prove yourself. I feel like I’ve done that, so I feel like now it’s just continuing to do that.”

By Nadeem Faisal Baiga