It’s October, and still golf major season. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the LPGA Tour shifted its schedule — including when and how many majors will be played.
The major schedule was condensed to four tournaments, compared to the regular slate of five, with the third major of the season taking place this week. Competing for the $4.3 million purse, 132 players will tee it up on Thursday at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
In the eight tournaments since the tour’s return in July, there have been veterans like Americans Danielle Kang and Stacy Lewis hoisting up trophies. Two trophies, to be exact, if you’re Kang. But, there have also been a few first-time winners — like AIG Women’s Open winner Sophia Popov from Germany and ShopRite LPGA Classic winner Mel Reid from England.
This season alone, both major winners (Popov and Mirim Lee at the ANA Inspiration) were first-time champions. In the last nine major championships, eight of the winners had never won a major before. The only exception being Jin Young Ko, the current No. 1 player in the women’s world ranking, who won two majors last year. But due to COVID-19, Ko chose to remain at home in South Korea instead of returning to the tour for the remainder of the season.
So, this week, who will claim victory? A newbie with no career wins? A veteran with a stacked trophy case? The possibilities are endless. And, just like the unpredictability of this year, the LPGA season’s winners remain unpredictable.
Here’s what to watch for in this week’s LPGA major:
Riding major momentum, Sophia Popov looks for title No. 2
Last year, Popov lost her LPGA membership after battling complications of Lyme disease for nearly five years. When she tried to win it back at the LPGA Q-Series in the fall of 2019, she fell short by one shot. Playing on the Symetra Tour, Popov got into the Marathon Classic in August after the LPGA was unable to fill the field due to the pandemic. After she tied for ninth, she gained a spot at the Women’s Open.
Going into the week at Royal Troon, Popov held the No. 304 position in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. Heading into the final round, Popov held a three-stroke lead. It wasn’t until the final hole that she realized what was about to happen.
As she marked her ball just a few inches from the 18th hole, she began to cry in the arms of her caddie. Shortly after, she tapped in her putt and claimed the title.
“For me, obviously it was an unexpected win,” Popov said during a press conference on Tuesday ahead of the KPMG.
Although her win took many by surprise, Popov included, she admits that each week presents some level of surprise due to the depth of talent and the unpredictability of this season.
“The surprise factor is always going to be there, but I’m not surprised about any of the girls winning this week,” Popov said. “On any given week a girl that’s ranked 200 or 300 can play her best golf and win.”
As for her own game, Popov plans on channeling that newfound momentum right into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
“I’m a pretty confident person off the golf course, and then when I’m on the golf course … I know what I’m capable of, but it was just believing in the fact that I can go out and shoot low,” Popov said. “I can just go out and shoot low any day and be in the mix at any tournament now.”
Nelly Korda looks to claim first major
At the ANA Inspiration in September, all eyes were on Korda.
It looked like the 22-year-old was going to win her first major in a battle against Brooke Henderson. Korda knew it wasn’t over until the last putt on 18. In a wild turn of events on the back nine, Mirim Lee holed two chip shots and landed herself in a three-way playoff with Korda and Henderson. On the first playoff hole, Lee holed a five-foot birdie putt and won the major.
The current No. 2 in women’s world golf rankings, Korda, has not missed a cut this season and has four straight top-10 finishes. Since her 2017 rookie season, Korda claimed three victories on tour.
Competing in her third KPMG Women’s PGA Championship with a best finish tied for third last year, Korda is going into this week like any other tournament.
“It’s a good test of golf, and I feel like a lot of people put a lot of pressure on themselves during a major week, instead of just going out and just kind of trusting your game and playing some good golf,” Korda said during a Tuesday press conference.
And right now, with the No. 1 spot looming over her head, Korda wants to keep her focus on smaller goals.
“I’m not thinking about it too much,” Korda said. “Obviously it is a goal of mine. … But honestly, I feel like if you set smaller goals, you’ll eventually get to the bigger goals. I’m just focusing on the smaller goals.”
Can Lydia Ko score a comeback?
At just 18 years old, Ko won consecutive majors and was ranked No. 1 in the world for the second time in her career after capturing the 2015 Evian Championship and 2016 ANA Inspiration. She is the last woman to do so on the LPGA Tour. Since then, the 23-year-old has only won three times — the last being in 2018.
“I think when I was No. 1 at that first time [in 2015], I think there was a lot of pressure that I had built up in myself and how others perceived me and kind of the thought that if you’re No. 1, you should be always in contention,” Ko said at a Tuesday press conference. “Or you should win all the time, but that’s really not the case. It’s the person that puts themselves in contention and is consistent.”
Currently No. 38 on the Rolex rankings, Ko makes her ninth start of the season this week and her eighth appearance at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Four years ago, Ko was the runner-up.
In her sixth year on tour, Ko said she is just trying to focus on her own game and compete against the world’s best players.
“I’m just trying to put in the time to kind of keep up with the field,” she said. “I think every year people are getting better and better and better, and you think, how can they get better from there, and the players do.”
Ko added that despite her search for her 16th tour victory and third major, the trophy is up for grabs this week.
“People don’t realize the amount of talent that is on the LPGA and just in golf in general,” Ko said. “And it is that much harder to win and to play great week in, week out, and to those players that have been doing that, I think it just shows how well they’re playing, how well they’re prepping. It’s all thumbs up to them.”
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