Park to return as part of loaded field in Thailand


Buckle up, LPGA fans.

The new season is already underway, but next week’s Honda LPGA Thailand will feel like the first elite event of 2017 with the strongest field of the new year converging at Siam Country Club in Chonburi.

The field’s commitment list includes 14 of the top 15 players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, including the highly anticipated return of LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park, who is expected to make her first start since winning the Olympic gold medal six months ago.

Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko is in the field, but the real headliner will be No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn, who promises to draw the largest galleries of the week as she tees it up in her homeland. She'll get a hero’s welcome returning to Thailand after winning her first major championship last year and then winning the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year Award at season’s end.

Rolex world No. 3 In Gee Chun, No. 4 Shanshan Feng and No. 9 So Yeon Ryu will be joining Park in making their first starts of the new season. No. 5 Lexi Thompson will be back in action after a strong start in the season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, where she lost to Brittany Lincicome in a playoff. Thompson is the defending champion in Thailand. Lincicome, by the way, is also scheduled to play. So is Stacy Lewis, who finished third in the Bahamas.

South Korean rookie Sung Hyun Park is the only player among the top 15 in the world who isn’t in the field. She wasn’t high enough on the priority list to qualify for the limited-field event and didn’t get one of the 10 sponsor exemptions. Inbee Park will actually be playing on a sponsor exemption, as last year’s injury-shortened season left her 69th on the money list.

Just four of the top 10 in the world rankings played in the season opener in the Bahamas, with Ko and Jutanugarn among four of the top 10 in Australia this week.

Inbee Park won Olympic gold playing through the pain of an injury to the ligament in her left thumb. She hasn’t hit a shot in competition since leaving Rio de Janeiro in August. Park missed several starts in the spring because of injury and then shut down her season after the Olympics. She spent a month in a cast after the Olympics and didn’t hit a ball for four months, until returning to begin practice in December.

“I’d like to come back in a really nice form,” Park told last month. “Obviously, that’s what I am aiming for. I may be a bit rusty, but once the season starts and I go through a couple of tournaments, that shouldn’t be a big problem. I think the key is to stay healthy and play in a good condition throughout the season.”