The first of the LPGA’s five major championships, the ANA Inspiration gets underway at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California tomorrow morning Australian time, where the world’s leading women golfers will compete for a share of the US$2.7 million prizemoney on offer.
First played in 1972 when known as the Colgate Dinah Shore, the event became a major championship in 1983 and has been known as both the Nabisco Dinah Shore and the Kraft Nabisco Championship before its most recent name change to the ANA Inspiration in 2015.
The Rolex Rankings number one, New Zealander Lydia Ko, will defend the title she won in dramatic fashion twelve months ago, as the world watched the talented Thai player Ariya Jutanagarn crumble under the enormous pressure of attempting to claim her first LPGA title and major championship.
Many worried that the disappointment of losing the tournament in such dramatic fashion may be the end of the impressive youngster, however the 21-year-old year old showed her class and mental strength by bouncing back to win five LPGA events in 2016, including her first major championship at the Ricoh Women’s British Open and also capturing the prestigious LPGA Player of the Year award.
The world number two has started solidly in 2017, and for the first time this week can capture the coveted world number one title if the cards fall her way.
Ko meanwhile has made a bucket full of changes in the off-season, including firing both her coach David Leadbetter and caddie Jason Hamilton, and last week as defending champion at the Kia Classic the youngster went on to miss just the second cut in her illustrious LPGA career.
While Ko’s missed cut last week was certainly a shock to many, the young Kiwi has mental toughness in bucket-loads and the fact that she already has three top ten finishes in 2017 would indicate that the swing changes that she made in the off-season have bedded in well. Write off Lydia Ko at your peril!
Other recent winners of the event, aside from Ko, are Brittany Lincicome (twice), Lexi Thompson, Inbee Park, Sun Young Yoo and Stacy Lewis.
Korean So Yeon Ryu leads the money list in 2017 after two runner-up finishes and two other top tens in four starts, but despite her amazing consistency has not found herself in the winner’s circle since her win at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in 2014. The South Korean, a former US Women’s Open winner, has finished runner-up in this event previously and appears a likely challenger to the two top ranked players, as is compatriot and also former US Open Champion In Gee Chun who has three top ten finishes from four starts so far in 2017.
South Korean Rookie sensation Sung Hyun Park has been touted as a potential world number one since bursting onto the scene on the Korean LPGA Tour in 2016 winning seven tournaments. The youngster has had a fantastic start to her LPGA rookie season with two top four finishes in three starts, and finished 6th on debut in this event when not an LPGA Tour member in 2016. She will rightly start as one of the favourites this week and could prove hard to beat now she has settled in as an LPGA member with the assistance of experienced LPGA caddy Colin Cann, who was Annika Sorenstam’s first tour caddy in the US before going on to work with Paula Creamer for thirteen years. Park finished third at the US Women’s Open and second at the Evian Championship in 2016 so is no stranger to be in contention at the bigger events.
Former world number one Inbee Park can never be ruled out, especially in major championships. She is a winner of this event back in 2013 when she captured three major championships and finished sixth last year despite battling injury. Since her return to tournament golf a month ago in Thailand she has been in fine form and a repeat win for the Olympic Gold Medallist would be no surprise.
While there is sure to be South Korean representation on the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon, the American players have a much better record in this championship than in any of the other majors having won five of the last ten championships held at Mission Hills. Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson will be hoping that trend will continue and look the be best of the American hopes this week.
Another player to watch this week is Swede Anna Nordqvist, winner of the Bank of Hope Founders Cup two weeks ago in Phoenix. The 29-year-old is swinging the club as well as ever and will be determined to capture another major championship after her devastating loss to Brittany Lang at last year’s US Women’s Open.
Australians in the field include the two-time winner Karrie Webb, who holed a pitching wedge at the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Lorena Ochoa in 2006, which she would go on win and claim her seventh and most recent major championship win.
It has been a tough season to date for the 42 year old with a best finish of 48th in five outings. Looking at the Queenslander’s stats it seems she is again struggling on the greens in 2017, however she knows the Mission Hills course as well as anyone so look for an improved performance this week.
Minjee Lee will play this event for the fourth time with her best finish being a tie for 24th as a 17-year-old amateur back in 2014. The West Australian began the season well with an impressive 3rd place at the Australian Women’s Open in Adelaide but she has struggled since and comes into this tournament off the back off two missed cuts in Phoenix and San Diego. Lee has a solid if not unspectacular record in the major championships, having recorded eight top-twenty-five finishes and just the one top ten coming at the 2015 Ricoh Women’s British Open.
Victoria’s Su Oh will play just her second ANA Inspiration having finished 56th when playing as an amateur in 2014. Oh’s progress on the LPGA Tour so far has not been as spectacular as her former Australian team-mate, but she has shown signs that the belief is coming back after making some fairly substantial swing changes with Jordan Speith’s long-term coach Cameron McCormick. After an up and down week at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open where she played in the final group on Sunday afternoon the 20-year-old has played solidly without setting the world on fire since. She is coming off a solid week at the Kia Classic, and if Oh can putt well this week she has the game to contend on a course that rewards good ball striking.
Sarah Jane Smith, the “quiet achiever” of Australian women’s golf is undoubtedly the biggest improver amongst the Australians on the LPGA Tour in the past twelve months. A decision to return to her former coach Sean Foley has seen both her game and her confidence grow in leaps and bounds in recent times. She recorded her best season on the LPGA Tour in 2016 and she has again impressed in 2017, finishing second at the RACV Gold Coast Challenge followed up by a tie for third at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. If the Queenslander can string four solid rounds together she could well find herself in contention to win her first major championship come Sunday.
You can watch the tournament live on Fox Sports Australia from 3:00am AEDST on Friday morning.
Live scoring can be found at lpgascoring.com
Follow ALPG on Twitter @ALPGTour Instagram alpgtour and Facebook Australian Ladies Professional Golf