Looking ahead to the LPGA season — Upcoming events, predictions, players to watch, more

Looking ahead to the LPGA season — Upcoming events, predictions, players to watch, more

The 2023 LPGA Tour season tees off at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in Orlando, Florida, this week.

From now until mid-November, golfers will compete in 33 events in 11 U.S. states and 12 countries. They’ll play for a record purse of $101.4 million, including $9 million at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club and $10 million in the first U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

In late September, the U.S. team will try to end the European team’s recent dominance in the first Solheim Cup played in Spain.

There were 11 first-time winners on the LPGA Tour in 2022, and there are plenty of rising stars joining the circuit as rookies this year, including Lucy Li, Hae Ran Ryu and Alexa Pano.

Will world No. 1 golfer Lydia Ko’s career resurgence continue? Will Nelly Korda regain No. 1 after missing four months in 2022? Can Lexi Thompson finally win another major?

Here’s what to watch on the LPGA Tour this season:

What’s next on the LPGA

Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, Orlando, Florida

Defending champion: Danielle Kang

Purse: $1.5 million

Three storylines to watch

Kang’s defense: Kang opened up the 2022 schedule with a 3-stroke victory over Brooke Henderson at Lake Nona. It would be her only win of the season. Her brother revealed at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst in early June that she was playing with a spinal tumor. She took 10 weeks off before returning in late August.

Kang posted top-15 finishes in four of her past five starts, including a runner-up at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G. Kang has a new perspective and a new caddie — she parted ways with longtime looper Olly Brett — heading into her title defense attempt this week.

Kang said her injury made her realize that she didn’t have to play golf everyday. She also went on a safari in Kenya, where she said “giraffes are like dogs,” witnessed a lion hunt a zebra and was chased by a rhino.

“I’ve hit low points, but I feel good and learned a lot of things.” Kang said. “I think people that struggle with whatever it is, it’s all relative. You’ve just got to find out why you’re going through what you’re going through, and all I can tell people is that they can make it out and they can figure it out and use it to their advantage.”

Star players are missing: Only three of the top 10 players in the women’s world golf rankings — Korda, Henderson and Nasa Hataoka — are in the field this week.

Golfweek reported that top-10 players — reigning U.S. Women’s Open winner Minjee Lee, and Jin Young Ko, face potential $25,000 fines from the LPGA for failing to satisfy the 1-in-4 rule, which requires players in the top 80 of the CME points list to compete in a tournament in America once every four years. LPGA VP of tour operations Tommy Tangtiphaiboontana told Golfweek that the players can appeal the fines.

The next LPGA event, the Honda LPGA Thailand, isn’t until Feb. 23-26. Then there are scheduled events in Singapore and China. Lee, from Australia, and Ko, from South Korea, might figure it’s better to rest than make the long journey for one start in the U.S. The LPGA doesn’t return to the U.S. until the LPGA Drive On Championship in Gold Canyon, Arizona, from March 23 to 26.

“It’s kind of tough,” Korda said. “You have one week and then four weeks off. It’s kind of hard to get in the swing of things.”

There is still plenty of starpower in Orlando this week. Among the famous athletes and actors competing in the pro-am and celebrity tournament are Vince Carter, Larry Fitzgerald, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Emmitt Smith, John Smoltz, Annika Sorenstam and Larry the Cable Guy.

Korda’s big switch: Korda, the No. 2 player in the world, missed four months last season after she was diagnosed with a blood clot in her right arm. She returned in June and tied for eighth in the U.S. Women’s Open. She won the Pelican Women’s Championship in November and regained the No. 1 ranking for a couple of weeks.

The 24-year-old is implementing quite a few changes heading into the 2023 season. She’ll be wearing Nike apparel and using TaylorMade equipment and golf balls. She was previously part of Titleist’s staff. Korda said she played TaylorMade clubs growing up and started testing the new equipment in October.

“Obviously, it was a lot of extensive testing because to make the switch I wanted to be 100 percent sure,” Korda said. “Everything, honestly, went really smoothly. I was hitting every club really well. The technology is so good in every company, I just thought TaylorMade was the best option for me going forward.”

Korda played in the QBE Shootout with Denny McCarthy in early December and then the PNC Championship with her father, Petr.

“I’m feeling good,” Korda said. “I didn’t have too much of an offseason. I took like a week off.”

Korda said she has a greater appreciation for golf after she was forced to sit last season.

“I think I was just a little bit more grateful to be playing, to be traveling, to be doing what I love,” Korda said. “Obviously, appreciation grows for it when it’s kind of taken away from you. For sure, I think I’ve just grown to appreciate it a little bit more, just the simple things like getting to go on the range and hit some balls and hit some putts and traveling.”

It’s Lydia Ko’s world

World No. 1 Lydia Ko, who won three times last season, picked up the richest purse in women’s golf by claiming the CME Group Tour Championship. However, she is also not in the 29-player field at the Tournament of Champions. There’s a good reason: She was married in South Korea last month and was taking time off for her honeymoon.

Ko hasn’t put down her clubs completely. While playing with her husband, Chung Jun, she carded a hole-in-one on the par-3, 182-yard second hole at Tara Iti Golf Club in Mangawhai, New Zealand, according to published reports there.

Ko will reportedly make her season debut at the Aramco Saudi Ladies International on Feb. 16-19. She won the event in 2021.

Predicting the majors

The Chevron Championship

When: April 20-23

Where: The Club at Carlton Woods, The Woodlands, Texas

Defending champion: Jennifer Kupcho

Purse: $5.1 million

Who’s going to win: Nelly Korda

What to know: The Chevron Championship, formerly known as the ANA Inspiration, left its longtime home at Mission Hills Country Club in California to be closer to its title sponsor in Texas. As a result, Korda won’t get to jump into Poppie’s Pond when she captures her second major. She tied for second in the event in 2020 and for third in 2021. There will be an adjustment with her recent equipment switch to TaylorMade, but that sweet swing is still so good.

KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

When: June 22-25

Where: Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, New Jersey

Defending champion: In Gee Chun

Purse: $9 million

Who’s going to win: Atthaya Thitikul

What to know: Baltusrol’s Lower Course will host its second women’s major championship and the first since the 1961 U.S. Women’s Open. Thitikul, who became the youngest golfer ever to win a professional tournament at age 14, will pick up her first major in her ninth start in one as a pro. She was LPGA Rookie of the Year and finished in the top 10 in three of five majors in 2022.

U.S. Women’s Open

When: July 6-9

Where: Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, California

Defending champion: Minjee Lee

Purse: $10 million

Who’s going to win in 2023: Lexi Thompson

What to know: Women’s golf’s most prestigious championship is finally headed to Pebble Beach for the first time. The iconic California course will also host the event in 2035, 2040 and 2048. It seems only fitting that the golf gods will finally shine on Thompson, who has three top-five finishes in her past five U.S. Open starts.

Amundi Evian Championship

When: July 27-30

Where: Evian Resort Golf Club, Evian-les-Bains, France

Defending champion: Brooke Henderson

Purse: $6.5 million

Who’s going to win in 2023: Lydia Ko

What to know: At 25, Ko is on the doorstep of earning induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame. The 19-time LPGA winner needs just two more points to reach 27, which is required for induction. She can do it by winning two more LPGA events or one major. She won this event in 2015 and finished in the top 10 in four of her past five starts there, including a tie for third in 2022.

AIG Women’s Open

When: Aug. 10-13

Where: Walton Heath Golf Club, Surrey, England

Defending champion: Ashleigh Buhai

Purse: $7.3 million

Who’s going to win in 2023: Minjee Lee

What to know: It’s only a matter of time before Australia’s Lee picks up her third different major title at the AIG Women’s Open. She captured the 2021 Evian Championship and 2022 U.S. Women’s Open. In nine starts in the Women’s British Open, she has seven top-25s, five top-10s and three top-5s. She tied for fourth at Muirfield last year.

Rookies to watch

Lucy Li

Li, 20, was the youngest-ever qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Amateur at age 10; won her age division at the first-ever Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National Golf Club; and was only 11 when she competed in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst. After turning pro, she won twice on the Epson Tour last season and had the 54-hole lead at the LPGA Tour’s Dana Open before tying for fourth.

Haeran Ryu

The 21-year-old South Korean took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series. She has won five times on the LPGA Tour of Korea and has previously competed in six LPGA Tour events, including a tie for 13th at the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open and a tie for seventh at the 2021 BMW Ladies Championship.

Alexa Pano

Pano, 18, was featured in the 2013 Netflix documentary “The Short Game,” which followed a group of junior golfers. She was the first three-time national finalist in the Drive, Chip and Putt competition and was the youngest player in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. She skipped college and turned pro in April at age 17. Pano is the first women’s golfer to be sponsored by an NFL team; the Massachusetts native has the New England Patriots logo on her polo and bag.

Bailey Tardy

The former University of Georgia star came painfully close to earning an LPGA Tour card for three straight seasons and ended up back in Q-Series last year after finishing 11th on the money list, only $2,303 short of earning automatic membership. She signed up for Q-Series only after her coach told her not to give up. She fired a 7-under 65 in the final round to do it.

Ines Laklalech

Laklalech, who is from Morocco and played at Wake Forest in 2015-16, is the first LPGA Tour member from North Africa. She advanced through all three stages of LPGA qualifying school. In September, she won the Lacoste Ladies Open de France on the Ladies European Tour to become the LET’s first Moroccan, Arab and North African winner.

Minami Katsu

Katsu became the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour of Japan Tour when she finished first as an amateur in the 2014 KKT Cup Vantelin Ladies Open at age 15. She has won eight times on the JLPGA overall, including major victories at the 2021 and 2022 Japan Women’s Open Golf Championship. She tied for 22nd at the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open.

Solheim Cup update

The Solheim Cup, the biennial team competition between the U.S. and Europe, will be played in Spain for the first time on Sept. 22-24. The tournament, which will be held at Finca Cortesin in Casares Andalucia, will take place the week before the Ryder Cup in Rome.

The Europeans have won four of the past six Solheim Cups, including a 15-13 victory at Inverness Club in Ohio in 2021. U.S. team captain Stacy Lewis will try to turn things around. Norway’s Suzann Pettersen is the European captain.

Heading into the 2023 LPGA season, there are seven Americans in the top 30 of the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, including five in the top 20. Six of them were players on the 2021 U.S. roster. There are six Europeans in the top 30, three in the top 20.

The top seven players in the Solheim Cup points list at the end of the qualifying period (after the CP Women’s Open on Aug. 24-27) will make the squad, as well as the two highest players in the Women’s World Golf Rankings who haven’t already qualified. Lewis will also have three captain’s choices.

Players earn points for top-20 finishes, points are doubled for the five majors and points will increase by 50% because it’s a Solheim Cup year.

Thompson, Nelly Korda, Kang, Kupcho, Andrea Lee, Lilia Vu and Megan Khang are currently in the top seven in the U.S. team standings, while Jessica Korda and Ally Ewing would be the two qualifiers from the world rankings.

A new points structure will be in place for the 2024 Solheim Cup, which will be played at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia. Players who finish in the top 40 of official LPGA events will earn points. The qualifying period for 2024 starts with this week’s tournament at Lake Nona.

Sweden’s Maja Starks, Linn Grant, Madelene Sagstrom, Anna Nordqvist, Ireland’s Leona Maguire, France’s Celine Boutier and England’s Charley Hull and Georgia Hall would earn automatic spots if the European team were picked today. Pettersen will make four captain’s picks.

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