The LPGA Tour’s new season begins Thursday with the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando, Florida. And while the season-opener is an official event that comes complete with all the trappings of competing in an LPGA event, it also feels like a quasi-tune-up for next week’s full-field event in Boca Raton.
That said, the TOC, which is exclusive to winners from the past two seasons on the LPGA Tour, is the most fun event of the year. With a limited number of players, who play alongside celebrities that range from Ben Higgins of “The Bachelor,” to country music’s Colt Ford, to current and future sports’ Hall of Famers, this takes the award for most unique event of the season. Danielle Kang summed it up best last year, saying, “I looked at this tournament as more of a fun one and a pre-season starter. It's like there is no better way to kick off the season than with this event, so I'm really just excited to be here.”
Nelly Korda returns as LPGA’s “It Girl”
As the calendar flipped to 2022, the woman to watch, and to beat, remained the same: Nelly Korda. Coming off a major victory, a gold-medal performance in Tokyo and four victories in ‘21, Korda enters the season ranked No. 1 in the women’s game. It’s a position she has held for 28 consecutive weeks, which is more than any other American since the rankings were established in 2006.
While Jin Young Ko gave Korda a run at the end of the season by winning five times in a nine-event stretch to wrestle away the Player of the Year title, Ko’s health is in question as we start the new year. She dealt with a nagging wrist injury throughout last season, which limited her ability to practice during the final two events. Korda, on the other hand, has remained in playing form during the time off, competing alongside her father, Petr, at the PNC Championship. If Korda’s success in ‘21 is any indication of what she could deliver in ‘22, what she told me at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship could serve as a warning call to the rest of the players on Tour. “If I set my mind to it,” she said, “I can do anything.”
Brooke Henderson can’t get enough of celebrity golf
There isn’t a player who has competed more often in the celebrity-infused event, that has evolved into the LPGA’s season-opening Tournament of Champions, than Brooke Henderson. Prior to becoming an official LPGA Tour event in 2019, it was part of the PGA Tour Champions’ schedule. It was the same fun format with celebrities but alongside, primarily, the 50-and-older set. Henderson competed in the event twice alongside the men, and in 2018, was the low finisher among the four LPGA Tour pros in the field – beating more than half the men competing.
Since the tournament became a part of the LPGA’s schedule, the Canadian has finished inside the top 10 every year. But the secret to Henderson’s success in the event will be tested this week as the tournament moves from Tranquilo Golf Club to Lake Nona for the first time. Is it the course that the Canadian so loves? Or is it the fun of competing alongside the stars of field and screen that inspires Henderson’s great play? This weekend will tell the tale.
Lydia Ko is back
If 2021 was the comeback year for Lydia Ko, expect 2022 to be the season she firmly cements her place, once again, near the top of the women’s game. Thursday, Ko returns to the Tournament of Champions field for the first time since ‘19. She earned her way back in the field with her first win in three years at the Lotte Championship. Ko continued her comeback with a win on the Ladies European Tour and captured the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average of the season.
Look for Ko to build on the success she found last season as she continues her work with instructor Sean Foley, who has been instrumental in helping Ko rediscover her game as much as her confidence. Ko is also playing with a new sense of balance in finding happiness in a new relationship away from the golf course that will certainly continue to bleed into her success on the course. Ko’s decision to compete in the season-opener was an easy one with her home away from home being based at Lake Nona.