LPGA season begins with myriad storylines

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2014, 9:08 pm

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Stories can grow larger than life in the Bahamas.

Somewhere beneath the sapphire seas hugging this collection of islands, The Lost City of Atlantis hides, according to local legend. This is also where Blackbeard and Calico Jack and some of the most notorious pirates of a bygone era hoarded stolen treasures. And it’s where mythological, forest-dwelling elfin creatures known as Chickcharnies like to hide, casting charms, both good or bad, to folks who see them.

So it seems a fitting place for LPGA pros to seek to start an enchanting season.

With the new Race to the CME Globe beginning with this week’s season opener on Paradise Island, the first steps will be taken in what could be a magical season for some player.

The Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic initiates the tour’s new season-long points race, a competition that could potentially end in the biggest payday in the history of women’s golf.

A $1 million paycheck awaits the winner of the race at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla. There’s also a $500,000 first-place check up for grabs at the Tour Championship. That means somebody could walk away with $1.5 million in Naples. While $1 million paychecks have been issued on the LPGA’s tour before, nobody’s ever claimed $1.5 million at a women’s event.

“Nothing is guaranteed with this new system,” Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park said. “This new race is going to make everyone on our Tour work a little bit harder because the payoff is so big.”

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, the first of 32 official LPGA events, is scheduled to begin Thursday at the Ocean Club Golf Course. It’s the earliest start to an LPGA season in 13 years.

With LPGA commissioner Mike Whan rebuilding the tour from its anemic 23-event schedule just three years ago, optimism abounds with the new year’s start.

“I’m excited,” Whan said. “I think we’re finally in a spot where we can dream big.”

The Race to the CME Globe isn’t the only new competition woven into this season’s start. There’s also the new International Crown, a mid-season Olympic-style team competition that will pit eight countries against each other at Caves Valley Golf Club outside Baltimore, Md. While the eight teams have already qualified, jockeying to earn roster spots within those teams intensifies.

This isn’t the LPGA’s first foray into the Bahamas. Pure Silk made its debut as a new title sponsor last May, but torrential Caribbean rains almost wiped out the event, flooding the course and forcing the LPGA to play three 12-hole rounds on the driest holes available. Ilhee Lee won the shortened event. She said she barely recognized the place in her return here Tuesday.

The move to January promises better weather, with highs in the 70s and lots of sun forecast all week.

Park won’t be here. Neither will No. 2 Suzann Pettersen, who withdrew from the event on Monday, but four of the top 10 in the world will be looking to get a head start on them this week. No. 3 Stacy Lewis leads the field with No. 4 Lydia Ko adding intrigue in her first start as an LPGA rookie. The 16-year-old is coming off a victory last month, her first as a pro.

Here’s a look at some of the storylines to watch for with the ’14 season about to begin:

The Big Three, Chapter II

Park, Pettersen and Lewis dominated the 2013 season, combining to win 13 of 28 events and all the major championships while bolstering their rankings as the world’s No. 1-2-3 players, respectively.

Who will draw first blood in ’14? Lewis gets the first chance as the only member of the Big Three teeing it up in the Bahamas. Lewis ended 2013 on a hot streak, with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes. Over the last two seasons, Lewis has won seven titles, the Rolex Player of the Year award (2012) and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average (2013).

Pettersen ended the year with a chance to overtake Park as world No. 1 in the season-ending CME Group Titleholders. After withdrawing from the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, Pettersen now plans to make her 2014 start at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open in two weeks, where she will begin a run of four tournaments over four consecutive weeks. Three of those will be in the Far East, where she has a formidable record. She plans to play the Honda LPGA Thailand, the HSBC Women’s Championship in Singapore and the Mission Hills World Ladies Championship in China. Pettersen has six professional titles in Asia, five of them LPGA events.

Park will be looking to follow up a record-setting season when she makes her start at the Women’s Australian Open, or possibly in Thailand next month. She left her mark on the majors last year, becoming the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1950 to win the first three majors of the year. Her reign as Rolex world No. 1 now stretches to 38 consecutive weeks.

Ko-mania officially comes to the LPGA

Ko, the 16-year-old phenom from New Zealand, will make her debut as an official LPGA rookie member in the Bahamas this week. She showed she isn’t fazed playing for money now that she’s a pro, winning the Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters in Taiwan last month in just her second start since turning professional.

It’s a big couple months for Ko. She will be the focus of much attention Down Under in February, when she will defend her title in her Kiwi homeland at the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open, Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Two weeks after that, she’ll tee it up at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, a co-sanctioned LPGA and Ladies European Tour event.

Lexi Thompson’s growing up fast

Thompson is barely a teenager anymore.

The big-hitting American will turn 19 on Feb. 10.

With two victories late last year, Thompson climbed into the top 10 in the Rolex world rankings, leaping over every American other than Lewis, who calls Thompson one of the best ball-strikers in the women’s games. A couple more wins puts Thompson in the hunt for No. 1.

Will Shanshan Feng make it the Big Four?

Feng won two of her last four LPGA starts last season, including the season-ending CME Group Titleholders. She finished second and tied for eighth in those other starts. Her ball-striking rivals Thompson’s.

Kerr and Creamer looking for new balance  

Cristie Kerr had a baby, Paula Creamer got engaged.

For the longest time, these two players took turns as the highest-ranked Americans in the game.

As their personal lives evolve, we’ll watch to see how they meet new challenges.

Kerr will tee it up for the first time this year at the Honda LPGA Thailand next month. She will do so for the first time as a mother. Kerr shared with the world her joy when a surrogate gave birth to her son, Mason Kerr Stevens, last month. She tells GolfChannel.com that her life is changing dramatically with mommy instincts kicking in, something she’s relishing after wondering if she’d ever have a child. With a physical condition challenging her desire to have a child, Kerr and her husband, Erik, considered adoption before choosing to have the baby with a surrogate mother carrying their child.

Kerr turns 37 later this year, and there will be challenges balancing competition and motherhood.

Creamer, 27, will be looking for her first win since she claimed the U.S. Women’s Open in 2010. She’ll do so with a fiancé and evolving priorities, and there will be challenges in that, too.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.