MANATEE -- Ericka Schneider has dreamed of playing professional golf for a long time.
So after receiving a sponsor's exemption into this week's LPGA Symetra Tour event at Sara Bay Country Club and with her graduation from Ole Miss looming, it made perfect sense for the Lakewood Ranch High alum to mark the 2014 Guardian Retirement Championship as her pro debut.
"I couldn't ask for a better way to start off my professional golf career," Schneider said. "Being at home with all the people that have supported me throughout the years, there's nothing better than this."
The Symetra Tour event is in its third year at Sara Bay. The 54-hole tournament begins with opening tee times at 7:45 a.m. Friday. It concludes Sunday.
Schneider didn't begin playing golf until she got to Lakewood Ranch. She wanted to play a varsity sport and
hockey, which is what she had played until that point, wasn't available.
The professional game was a far-off dream at that point.
But success in high school, including a victory in the prestigious Donald Ross Memorial Invitational at Sara Bay Country Club, led Schneider to Daytona State and the University of Mississippi.
The time at Daytona State, where her team won back-to-back national titles and she was a two-time junior college All-American, is where that dream of becoming a pro turned into a realistic vision.
"I started to believe in the fact that I could play professionally," Schneider said. "Because there were girls that I wasn't going out and playing ... (who) were at four-year universities and are currently playing professional. I was like, 'Hey, I've beat them before.' So I know I can do this."
Now Schneider, who exhausted her collegiate eligibility after the 2012-13 season and will wrap up her academic career at Ole Miss in a few weeks, is celebrating with an early graduation gift: playing on a sponsor's exemption in her hometown.
"It's a good opportunity for her," said swing instructor Jon Bullas, who is based in Lakewood Ranch and has three students in this week's field. "If she plays well, she can get into some future Symetra Tour events this year."
Schneider said her game is strong, and her putting has improved. Schneider changed up her setup a more than a month ago because she wasn't making a lot of putts.
The move has paid some quick dividends.
"I was missing them right, I was missing them left," Schneider said. "There was just no consistency in the direction of which I was missing the putts. ... I try to think about it as little as possible. Because the more you think about it, the more it comes into play."