NAPLES, Fla. – The LPGA ended a remarkable season Sunday at the CME Group Titleholders, one that has its best players highly motivated to pick up where they left off when a more robust 2014 schedule begins in nine weeks.
Rolex No. 1 Inbee Park, No. 2 Suzann Pettersen and No. 3 Stacy Lewis waged a terrific battle for supremacy of the women’s game this year. They combined to win nearly half the tour events (13/28) and all the majors. Park made a historic run at a Grand Slam after winning the year’s first three majors. Pettersen and Lewis responded with hot second halves.
The trio expects their clashes for the game’s big prizes to continue into next season. They also expect the challenges Shanshan Feng and Lexi Thompson mounted, with strong late-season finishes, to continue into 2014. There also will be more of Lydia Ko to contend with as a pro, and the comeback of Ariya Jutanugarn, a giant talent who looked poised to make a run at the world’s best before injuring her shoulder in June.
Actually, the season isn’t officially over for Park and Lewis.
Park, 25, is scheduled to play in the Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters in Taiwan in two weeks. That’s a co-sanctioned Taiwan LPGA and Korean LPGA event. Lewis will play in the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters the same week. That’s a Ladies European Tour event. Pettersen is taking the rest of the year off.
“I think it’s just going to be a continuation of this year,” Park said of the pressure she expects Lewis and Pettersen to apply trying to take her No. 1 ranking in 2014. “I think a lot of players are going to be competitive next year, but I think Suzann and Stacy are going to be very competitive.”
After Swinging Skirts, Park will take a long break back home in South Korea before embarking on a new preseason preparation plan. She will head to the Gold Coast of Australia a few weeks before the start of the 2014 LPGA season to begin training for the new year. In the past, she has flown to Los Angeles to train. She expects she will skip the LPGA season opener in the Bahamas and make her first LPGA start at the ISPS Handa Australian Women's Open in February.
Park won a tour-best six LPGA titles in 2013, including those three majors. Even with that year, Park felt Pettersen and Lewis stepping up the pressure on her in the second half. Watching Park win the U.S. Women’s Open in June sparked something in Park’s strongest rivals. Lewis won the next major, the Ricoh Women’s British Open. Pettersen won the last major of the year, the Evian Championship. All the while, Park cooled off, decompressing from all the pressure that built up in a Grand Slam quest.
Can Park top 2013?
“I thought I probably wouldn’t be able to play as well as I did last year, but I played better this year,” Park said. “There is definitely room to improve next year. I probably have a little more pressure on me next year, but I think I had a lot of pressure this year, so I think a little bit more doesn't really make a difference for me. I think as time goes by, I'm going to be a little bit more used to it and a little bit more mature.”
Lewis, 28, said she definitely wants to take a couple weeks away from her golf clubs, but she’s eager to build on what’s working with her game. She won three times in 2013, including her second major. That’s one less victory than she recorded winning the Rolex Player of the Year title last year, but she believes she’s a better player now.
“When I look back, I think this year was a better year than last year,” Lewis said. “It’s just Inbee and Suzann played unbelievable.”
Lewis recorded a staggering 19 top-10 finishes this season, up from 16 a year ago. She won the Vare Trophy with a scoring average almost a full stroke better than last year. She believes she’s a better driver today than a year ago, but she would like to become more consistent with her putter.
“I’ll definitely take a couple weeks off, but I don’t think I’ll take as much time off as I did last year, just because I’m excited where my game is at,” Lewis said. “I feel like if I can shore up a couple things, I’ll be right where I need to be.
“It’s been a great season, but I can also look back at points where I can be better. That’s what’s exciting to me. I can have a good year like this and still have things to work on, and ways to improve. So, I’m looking forward to next year and trying to do it again.”
Pettersen, 32, is intent on gaining the No. 1 ranking for the first time in her career. She’s within striking distance.
“If I never thought I was going to become the world No. 1 player, I don't think I would be sitting here today,” Pettersen said last week. “I think I would have quit a long time ago. That is what keeps me going. I'm probably now more keen and eager to get up in the morning to do the stuff that I know is needed to get there. But, like I’ve said, this is not a short-term goal. I know I'm going to get there, eventually, but I just don't want to get there and disappear, I want to get there and dominate.”
Consider the gauntlet thrown down for 2014.