What to watch for at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

What to watch for at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

The second LPGA major of the year returns to a course that the women’s game hasn’t been to since 1961. Baltusrol’s Lower Course in Springfield, New Jersey, was the site of the 1961 U.S. Women’s Open, where Mickey Wright won a prize of $1,800 with a score of 5-over that beat the field by six shots.

But Baltusrol’s history with the women’s game goes even further back to 1901, when it hosted the seventh-ever U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. A lot has changed since 1961 and even more since 1901. Case in point: the winning prize money this week at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is 5,000 times more than Wright won 62 years ago.

This year’s field is also one of the deepest and strongest the tournament has ever had — a reflection of where the sport stands at the moment. It also makes this tournament one filled with a plethora of storylines that range from Rose Zhang to Nelly Korda to Lexi Thompson and even the course itself.

Here’s what to watch for this week.

Can Zhang keep making history?

The Rose Zhang hype train arrives in Baltusrol this week for Zhang’s first major appearance since she turned professional just a few weeks ago and won her first LPGA event at the Mizuho Americas Open. No big deal.

All eyes will be on Zhang as she tries to not only follow up that historic finish but also simply enjoy the excitement and expectations that surround her given her incredible amateur career. Her pro career isn’t off to a bad start, but like any great golfer knows, success is often measured by the number of majors one can accrue.

The KPMG presents Zhang’s first shot as a pro, but not her first major experience. She’s competed in eight major championships since 2018 — her best finish was a T11 at 2020 Chevron Championship — but she’s never teed it up at a PGA Championship. And while conventional wisdom says there’s no way she wins at her major pro debut as well — even if this course also sets up well for her precise ball-striking and consistency — it’s hard to doubt Zhang after everything she has done.

“I think it’s going to be really good for women’s golf,” Korda said this week of Zhang’s rise. “Hopefully we have some great battles coming down the stretch over the years.”

Korda returns (again)

One month after withdrawing from the Mizuho Classic at Liberty National before the tournament started with a back injury, the second-ranked player in the world is back on a major stage. Korda said Tuesday at the tournament that her back is good to go, noting that she wouldn’t be playing in this year’s KPMG PGA Championship if she wasn’t feeling 100 percent.

“There’s a lot of torque in the golf swing, so I feel like I’m not the only golfer that kind of struggles with the low back,” Korda said. “Also when you’re traveling four weeks in a row, different beds, flying out right after your round. Sometimes you just tweak it and you just need to take a rest.”

The PGA has been an all or nothing tournament for Korda over the course of her career. Her best finish was first in the 2021 version of the tournament at Atlanta Athletic Club, which still remains her only major win. Last year, however, she finished tied for 30th at Congressional Country Club, and in the past she has finished tied for third, tied for 20th and tied for 40th.

Korda hasn’t won on the LPGA Tour this year, but she is coming off a third-place finish in the Chevron Championship. If it feels like she’s due for a second major given her track record and talent, it’s because she is. Last year, Korda finished in the top 10 at two of the sport’s five majors (U.S. Open and Evian Championship) but also outside the top 25 at two of the other majors.

Heading into this week, Korda said being away from the game for a bit because of the back injury was a nice reprieve, but now that she’s back she’s “a little bit more hungry” for a win.

“I think all the momentum that you had kind of goes away because I didn’t touch a golf club for two weeks,” Korda said. “It’s like going to the gym after a really long time. The first week is kind of tough, but then once you get into the groove of things, you kind of get it back.”

The ‘best player in the world’ against a deep field, tough course

Both Korda and Lilia Vu — who won the year’s first major — were asked this week who they thought the best player in the world was right now. Korda meandered her way through an answer before landing on one name. Vu said that same name right away: Jin Young Ko.

“I played with her at Founders, and she didn’t even come close to missing a single shot,” Vu said of Ko. “Putting, ball-striking, off the tee, just amazing. It was really cool to see — just to see her go on and win that week, too.”

Ko has won twice this year on Tour — at Founders Cup and at the HSBC Women’s World Championship — and remains the top-ranked player in the world. She has now held that spot for 158 weeks, which ties a record.

“I feel like it’s hard to say on the women’s side because people really heat up,” Korda said. “But the person that’s playing the best would be the No. 1 player in the world, and that’s Jin Young, so I would say Jin Young.”

The two-time major winner from South Korea has finished inside the top-10 in three of the past four majors, but she hasn’t won since 2019. Though she arrives at Baltusrol as one of the favorites, the path to win this week won’t be easy.

The field features 43 of the top 50 women in the world rankings, including the aforementioned Vu (who is the only other player besides Ko with multiple wins this season) as well as third-ranked Lydia Ko, fifth-ranked Minjee Lee and sixth-ranked Atthaya Thitikul among plenty of other players who could easily win this tournament.

The task at hand is no small feat, either. For four days, the women will have to traverse a course that features plenty of challenges, starting with tough tee shots that Vu referred to as “target golf,” thick rough and fast greens.

“I think it’s going to be challenging for everyone,” Vu said. “The greens are firm already, so just putting yourself in a good position on the fairway is really important to these pins.”

Vu says she likes this style of golf because it allows her to simply focus on each shot the course asks you to make. The women’s game is already far more accurate than the men’s, and this course should put that on full display.

It was perhaps one of the most tense moments in women’s golf last year. Lexi Thompson, coming down the stretch at the 2022 KPMG PGA, looking for her first major win since 2014, with a 2-stroke lead and only five holes left.

It all looked to be building up to a win until Thompson proceeded to not only bogey three of her last five holes on her way to coughing up the lead and the championship, but she also did it by seemingly losing her way on and around the greens. A bladed short chip on the 16th hole went off the green where she then putted and slammed it past the hole before missing the comebacker for par and making bogey. It was the kind of meltdown that leaves scars.

Thompson comes into this tournament not exactly playing her best golf, either. She missed the cut at this year’s first major and hasn’t won on the LPGA Tour since 2019. She always seems to find her way into competition at most majors but can’t seem to close the deal. Since her sole major win in 2014, she has 11 top-five finishes in majors, and four of those were runner-up finishes too.

Thompson’s talent, and her ability to get in the mix at these tournaments, feels like it should be enough to get her another major victory sooner or later, but the odds this week don’t seem to favor her. She’s a long shot to win (66-to-1) heading into the week.

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