by Rick Woelfel
The LPGA’s 68th season commences this week with the playing of the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic. A field of 108 professionals will be on hand at the Ocean Club Golf Course at Paradise Island.
Lydia Ko, the top-ranked player in the world, is bypassing this event but second-ranked Ariya Jutanugan need take a back seat to no one. The 22-year old Jutanugarn is coming off a monster 2016 season, one which saw her win five times while also finishing atop the money list and earning Rolex Player of the Year honors. She also represented Thailand at the 2016 Olympics in Rio but was forced to withdraw because of injury.
Lexi Thompson headlines the American contingent. Thompson, who is ranked fifth in the world, has been a fixture on the golf scene for so long it’s sometimes difficult to remember how young she still is; she won’t turn 22 until February 10. Thompson is seeking her first win since February. Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller, who like Thompson competed at Rio last summer, are also in the field.
Another Olympian, eighth-ranked Brooke Henderson of Canada, who recorded two wins in 2016, including the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, is also on hand.
There are also 14 rookies in the field, including Ladies European Tour veteran Mel Reid, who has represented England in both the Solheim Cup and the International Crown. Another rookie, Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden, set a single-season earnings record on the Symetra Tour last year.
Hyo Joo Kim of South Korea arrives in the Bahamas as the defending champion. The 21-year old won the Evian in 2014 before she was actually a member of the LPGA Tour; she earned her tour card in Q-School later that fall before going on to win the JTBC Founders Cup in March of 2015. She has won nine tournaments on the KLPGA Tour; the first of those victories came in April of 2012 while she was still an amateur.
Despite her successes, Kim says she’s still evolving as a player. “I joined the LPGA a little bit earlier than I had planned emotionally,” she said through an interpreter, “and I think even in terms of you were kind enough to say that my game is there, but even in terms of my game, I still feel like I’m not quite there yet and I’m very, very slowly walking up a very steep hill.”
This year’s schedule is the most lucrative in the LPGA’s history; 35 official events for a record 67.35 million dollars in purses. There are four new events and 11 of the 30 returning tournaments will have increased purses.
The modern incantation of the LPGA is truly global in scope. The 35 tournaments on the schedule will be staged in a total of 16 different nations, including the Bahamas, Canada (two events), Mexico, Scotland (2), Australia, New Zealand, China (2), Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, France, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and of course the United States.
The roster of LPGA players is as diverse as the schedule. The list of the top 30 players in this week’s edition of the Rolex World Rankings includes players from no less than 13 different nations; New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, China, Canada, Sweden, England, Australia, Norway, Japan, Spain, and Taipei, in addition to the United States.
In 2016, 17 different women from 11 different nations won LPGA events. Thompson and U.S. Women’s Open champion Brittany Lang were the only American winners.