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LPGA opener boasts Olympic-like leaderboard heading into weekend

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – LPGA commissioner Mike Whan likes to say every week is an Olympic event on his tour.

You can see what he means going into the weekend at the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.

Inbee Park, who won the gold medal in golf’s return to the Olympics four years ago, shares the lead with Canadian Brooke Henderson at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando. Park put up a 3-under 68 and Henderson a 66 on Friday to move to 9 under. They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Gaby Lopez (69) and two ahead of Japan’s Nasa Hataoka (69) and South Korea’s Sei Young Kim (69).

Hataoka and Shibuno breeding Olympic rivalry

Leading up to the Olympics in Tokyo later this year, Japanese golf fans would love to see a rivalry between Nasa Hataoka and Hinako Shibuno.

American Danielle Kang (73) is just three back.

Players from six nations hold the top seven spots in an event that helps shape the road to Tokyo and this year’s Olympics.

In the celebrity pro-am competition, Chad Pfeifer, a military veteran and U.S. Disabled Golf Association pro, is tied for the lead with defending champ John Smoltz and Mardy Fish. They’re at 74 points in the Modified-Stableford format.

Golf Channel’s Blair O’Neal is tied for sixth, eight points back. She’s playing six months pregnant.

Pregnant O'Neal in contention at Diamond Resorts TOC

Pregnant O'Neal in contention at Diamond Resorts TOC

For Park, there’s a chance to win for the first time in almost two years.

“I really love where I’m positioned for the weekend,” she said.

Park, 31, doesn’t get an automatic invite to defend her gold medal in Tokyo Aug. 5-8. She has to play her way on to the South Korean team, the most difficult team to make in the women’s game. She’s currently sixth in the Korean Olympic qualifying ranking, with four players likely to make the team.

A victory this week would do a lot to help Park’s cause.

Park typically doesn’t start the year this early, but her Olympic push has motivated her to play a lot at season’s start. She got her preseason training started early as she plans to play the first four events of the season.

“When I was practicing in the offseason, I was hitting the ball good, and I felt like I was putting a little better,” Park said. “I didn’t know when it was going to come together. The first two days has been very satisfying.”

Full-field scores from the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions

Fellow competitors know what can happen when Park’s game comes together, especially her putting.

“She’s a special talent,” said Angela Stanford, who is four shots back after a second-round 72. “There’s a God-given gift there, but she obviously works at it.

“No disrespect at all, but I don’t think people fear her because of her ball striking. I’d be OK if people didn’t fear me for my ball striking if I made everything I looked at.”

Park has won 19 LPGA titles, seven of them major championships. She won three in a row in 2013, but she was winless on tour last year. A victory would catapult her up the Olympic rankings in her bid to make it to Tokyo.

“But we still have 15, 20 events before the cutoff date for the Olympics,” Park said. “So, we’ve got a lot of golf to play.”

Henderson, 22, is seeking her 10th LPGA title. She has won in each of the last five years, going back to when she was a 17-year-old pro, before she was even a tour member. She eagled the 17th Friday, knocking a 3-wood from 230 yards to 4 inches.

Henderson (66) tames wind in Round 2 of TOC

Henderson (66) tames wind in Round 2 of TOC

“It's a little bit more of a relaxed week in a way,” Henderson said. “You're talking a little bit more and just enjoying the crowds, but definitely was coming in here trying to compete. So, I'm excited I'm in contention coming into the weekend.”