Sunday, March 26, 2017

LPGA's heavy-hitters set their sights on Founders Cup

PHOENIX – Cue the fireworks.

Marriott Wildfire Golf Club hosts the LPGA American home opener this week, the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, with the game’s top players looking poised to deliver another shootout in the desert.

Sei Young Kim was a human fireworks show here a year ago, winning with a 27-under-par total, equaling Annika Sorenstam’s record for the lowest 72-hole score in LPGA history.

Kim will be looking to repeat against a strong field, with nine of the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, and 16 of the top 20, in the field. Shanshan Feng is the only top-10 player who isn’t here.

“I have a new goal,” Kim said. “I want to shoot 28 under and break the record.

“I love this course. It’s going to be fun.”

The stakes are elevated with so many of the game’s best already rounding into form coming into just the fifth event of the year.

“It’s the same cast of characters that have started out playing so well,” said Judy Rankin, the Hall of Famer and Golf Channel analyst. “There are five or six, maybe eight players that kind of drive each other.”

Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko is looking to heat up after an offseason of sweeping changes, with No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and a host of other stars looking to challenge for the top spot. Ko’s reign at No. 1 has reached 73 consecutive weeks, but her once large margin at the top is beginning to shrink. Ko has lost almost six points off her world ranking average since her last victory eight months ago. She’s just 1.8 average points ahead of Jutanugarn this week.

There’s more than one player pressing to overtake Ko.

“There’s no Big Two or Big Three,” said Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz. “There are five to eight and maybe a few more capable of winning without their best stuff, and that’s pretty incredible.”

Ko is still adjusting to a new swing coach, new equipment and a new caddie. The year’s first major championship looms just two weeks away. Ko will be defending her title at the ANA Inspiration.

“If all these players stay in the mix, it could be one of the great major championships ever for the LPGA,” Rankin said.

Ko is looking for her first victory since the Marathon Classic last July, and she’s coming off a pair of top-10 finishes in Asia.

Jutanugarn finished second at the HSBC Women’s Champions in the last LPGA event, and she tied for third at the Women’s Australian Open last month.

Ha Na Jang won in Australia, her fourth LPGA title in 13 months.

Brittany Lincicome, a two-time winner of the ANA Inspiration, won the season opener in the Bahamas.

And then there’s Hall of Famer Inbee Park. She served notice she’s ready to challenge Ko again for the top spot after winning the HSBC Women’s Champions.

“Inbee at the top of the leaderboard and winning has given all of those other players, your Lydia Kos, your Ariya Jutanugarns, your Lexi Thompson, everybody, pause for thought: ‘Oh, she’s back! That’s the Inbee of old,’” Golf Channel’s Karen Stupples said. “It’s good to see that she’s healthy and back to full strength.”

Count Thompson, Feng, In Gee Chun and Brooke Henderson in this battle for No. 1. They’re all in the field this week.

And don’t count out Stacy Lewis, who got into contention in the Bahamas, finishing third. Lewis, 32, is just three years removed from sweeping the Rolex Player of the Year, Vare Trophy and money-winning title. Wildfire looks like a favorable place for her 12th LPGA title, her first in 33 months. She has a victory, two seconds and a T-4 in her last four starts on this course. She’s also proven at the ANA, where she won the first of her two majors in 2011.

Rankin sees the competition for the game’s biggest prizes only getting more interesting with players pushing each other to new heights.

“It’s impressive that they imagine getting even better than they were,” Rankin said.


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