PREVIEW: LPGA in Australia for ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open
By Rick Woelfel
For the seventh consecutive year, the LPGA Tour is making a stop in Australia. This week’s venue is the Royal Adelaide Golf Club in Grange, and the event is ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. This tournament was already a fixture on the Ladies European Tour before it became an official LPGA event in 2012
Haru Nomura of Japan is the defending champion. Her win here last year was her first on the LPGA Tour.
A lot of attention will be focused on the anticipated battle between the two top-ranked players in the world. Lydia Ko has spent 69 weeks ranked number one. The 19-year old New Zealand native has won 14 LPGA events but won on tour since last July. She won this event in 2015 and placed second to Nomura a year ago.
Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand, at age 21, is second in the world rankings. The reigning LPGA Player of the Year won five times in 2015.
The American contingent will be headed by rookie Nelly Korda, Austin Ernst, Marina Alex, Katie Burnett, and Megan Kang. All five finished in the top 16 at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic two weeks ago. The most eye-catching performance might have been Korda’s, who was making her LPGA debut in the Bahamas.
Michelle Wie is also in this week’s field. She struggled most of last year and is looking forward to making a fresh start. “I think last year I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said, “and this year I’m trying not to do that. Like I said, I kind of want to go out there and have fun, get some good pairings, get some good banter out there. That’s when I play my best, that’s when I played my best in 2014 and that was when I was out there smiling, having a good time and just really enjoying the game.”
Eighth-ranked Brooke Henderson of Canada comes into the 2017 season surrounded by high expectations. The 19-year old was a model of consistency last season. She recorded two wins, including the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and recorded 15 top-10 finishes in 31 starts (48 percent). She was second on tour to Jutanugarn in that category.
“I think the expectations have definitely grown,” Henderson said, “but my expectations have too and last year was an awesome year. It will definitely be really hard to repeat, but I’ll try and repeat and it and hopefully do a little bit better.”
Without question, the most celebrated player in this week’s field will be Karrie Webb, one of the most revered figures in the history of Australian sport. She has won this tournament five times, most recently in 2014.
The 42-year old Webb has won 41 LPGA tournaments, which ties her for 10th on the all-time list. Seven of those wins are major championships. Her last victory came almost three years ago at the JTBC Founders Cup in Phoenix.
This week, she’s returning to the venue where she made her professional debut 23 years ago; the memories endure. “I’d played in professional events as an amateur, but having your name on the bag and all of that, that was the part of the week that I remembered the most because I think that was the exciting part for me. I was actually doing it, I was playing for money.”
Webb failed to qualify for the Olympics last summer. In the wake of that disappointment, she was forced to re-accesses her priorities. “I’m playing a full schedule this year and I did have to re-assess,” she said. One of the things that I had to re-assess was that I didn’t go to the Olympics, which was really disappointing, and really it took me a while to work out what I wanted to do.
“The game has been so good to me and that’s what we’ve been talking about. I couldn’t let not making an Olympics bring all of that down. So, I’m committed to playing a full year this year and then we’ll just see. I’m just going to play it year by year.”
All told, there are 23 Australians in this week’s field.