LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – On the eve of the LPGA’s 71st season, there’s a sense of momentum as the tour begins a new chapter in its storied history.
Fresh off a year in which the LPGA and so many other organizations wanted merely to get by, the tour discovered not just how to survive but found an opportunity to thrive like never before in 2021.
Last year’s schedule was reduced from 33 to 17 events, after the coronavirus pandemic affected the world. While COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, the LPGA optimistically announced a full slate of 34 official worldwide event and a record $76.45 million purse for this campaign.
The tour kicks off the new season with the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, a limited-field event with just 25 players comprised of winners from the last three seasons. It’s an opportunity for players to try and continue or reestablish momentum. Brittany Lincicome, who also missed much of ‘19 because of the birth of her daughter, Emery, is hoping for the latter after two years of stops and starts.
“It was kind of two weeks [on], week off, two weeks [on], you know. It was just hard to get in a rhythm really,” Lincicome said Tuesday, regarding last season, in which the tour held 13 events following a 5 ½-month break. “Towards the end of the season, [I] obviously had a few more tournaments under my belt. Kind of seemed to start coming together, and then unfortunately the season was over. Hopefully, we can pick up on that quickly again and get right back into it.”
After this week’s event, the Tour takes four weeks off. The LPGA would normally play in Australia and Asia in February, but not during a global pandemic. Instead, it will next play back-to-back events in Florida at the end of February and beginning of March.
Danielle Kang will appreciate the break. Because of the unusual 2020 schedule, the final event of the season was played the week before Christmas, which left just three weeks before the tour’s first event of 2021. Kang – and many of the top-ranked players who opted not to compete this week because of the short offseason and quarantine policies – is looking to late-February as the unofficial start to the new season.
“[I’m] pacing myself to have the Florida tournaments [as] my goal to be ready,” said Kang, who won the tour’s first two re-start events last year and is in the TOC field. “If I'm not, then I'll use this tournament as kind of a building step as well. Then I have another two weeks until the Kia Classic. Technically I got at least eight to nine weeks, so got enough time.”
Kang and Co. will need to conserve their energy. Gone are the two- and three-week breaks which dotted the LPGA’s spring schedule in years past. Starting in April, the tour begins a stretch of 14 consecutive events which pauses only to make time for the Summer Olympic Games in August.
Thereafter are events in Scotland – including a major – and Canada, before September’s Solheim Cup at Inverness in Ohio.
With so many tournaments, and so few bye weeks, the LPGA’s best will have the opportunity to shape their schedule and select the events they want to play – and not just play at every opportunity – a common practice on the PGA Tour. Gaby Lopez, defending champion at the Diamond Resorts TOC, plans to cater her entire schedule around the Olympics.
“That’s my ultimate goal, being able to peak at that week,” Lopez said about the Games. “It’s a little overwhelming to have so many tournaments, which is good news for us. The best tournaments and golf courses that I like the most are the ones I'm gonna play.”
For many, the major championships will take priority. There will once again be five majors this year, after the Evian Championship was removed from last year’s schedule because of the coronavirus. Madelene Sagstrom, a first-time winner in 2020, is prepared to make some tough decisions in order to play her best and maintain her energy throughout the season.
“You want to come fresh into a major. You want to make sure your head is there and that your body isn't too far behind,” Sagstrom said Tuesday. “I'm really going to have to just pace myself and be like, ‘OK, I'm going to have to take this week off,’ even though I might not want to, just to make sure I stay fresh at the end of the year.”
As 2020 taught us, it’s tough to look too far ahead – and the end of the season is a long way off. There’s certainly a lot that can happen between now and November as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic. With that in mind, Brooke Henderson, a player who has kept one of the busiest schedules in years past, is taking the 2021 season week to week.
“You never really know what's going to happen with COVID. God forbid it got worse or something,” Henderson said at the TOC. “You have to be a little bit prepared to maybe take some events off that you don't want to. At the same time, right now we have a game plan, and I'm looking forward to playing this week and the two events back in Florida in about a month or so and take it from there.”
The LPGA handled everything thrown its way last year. The latest curveball came in January with Mike Whan’s announcement that he’ll retire as commissioner after 11 years. The LPGA is entering into a new era, but one that Whan has helped paved for success. And one with ever-increasing momentum.