NAPLES, Fla. – The CME Group Tour Championship may not be a major championship, but it felt like one to players stepping to the first tee Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club.
“Got off to kind of, maybe, a nervy, shaky start,” Marina Alex said.
There were 1.5 million reasons for Alex and every other player to be nervous.
That’s the record number of dollars that will go to this year’s winner, the largest in the history of women’s golf, three times what the winner received last year.
“Yes, yes, the 1.5 is a huge, huge deal, but even before, the first-place check here was quite a big check, pretty on par with the majors,” Alex said. “So, I think everyone comes into this week a little bit edgy.”
Sei Young Kim may be the best player in the women’s game who hasn’t won a major, but she moved into early position to claim the next best thing to a major.
With a 7-under-par 65, Kim took the first-round lead.
A couple major championship winners are on her heels.
So Yeon Ryu, Georgia Hall and Nelly Korda are two shots back.
Alex, Brooke Henderson, Lizette Salas, Caroline Masson and Nanna Koerstz Madsen are three back.
Defending champ Lexi Thompson is five back.
With a new format, the winner’s jackpot is available to all 60 players in the field this year. There’s no longer a $1 million bonus on the side for the season-long CME Globe points winner. The tournament winner will be the Globe winner now.
“I treat it as a major,” Salas said.
So does Jaye Marie Green.
“It kind of feels like the last major of the year,” Green said. “We have all the best players here, with the $1.5 million winner’s check adds to that feeling. It’s going to be a hard-fought event with everyone wanting to win, and I think it’s going to attract a lot of eyeballs.”
Kim took charge late in the first round with an eagle at the 17th hole. She took a two-shot lead there, pulling out of a three-way tie for the lead.
“Big momentum,” said Kim, who is already a two-time winner this year. “I got extra confidence.”
Kim, 26, is a proven winner who is only missing a major on her resume as an elite player. Her nine LPGA titles are fourth most among South Koreans. Only Se Ri Pak (25), Inbee Park (19) and Jiyai Shin (9) have won more.
Capable of some blistering runs, Kim has a reputation as a human fireworks show. She smashed the LPGA’s 72-hole scoring record winning the Thornberry Classic last year. Her 31-under total there was four shots better than the previous tour record, which Kim shared with Hall-of-Famer Annika Sorenstam.
While Kim didn’t set a record winning the Lotte Championship four years ago, she closed out in one of the more spectacular endings in tour history, beating her idol, Inbee Park, in a playoff. Kim holed out from 154 yards for eagle to win. She forced the playoff in dramatic fashion at the 72nd hole. That’s where she hit her drive in the water, took a penalty drop and then nearly hit her approach shot in the water again. On a grassy bank at water’s edge, she chipped in for par to join Park in the playoff. She once won a Korean LPGA event after making a hole-in-one on the event’s 71st hole.
“When she’s on, she makes things look easy,” said Paul Fusco, her caddie.