June 20, 2019: The words held most dear don’t live in isolation but gain meaning from the surrounding world. Love, beauty, freedom are among those concepts that lack singular definition but are determined relatively. It’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing. Greatness is another such concept. And the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship could go a long way in setting the context for that standard on the LPGA.
To say that women’s golf is awash in talent right now is an understatement. The great Mickey Wright said: “Every star needs a chorus line.” What the LPGA has is not a chorus line in lowercase letters but rather the uppercase cast from the musical “A Chorus Line” where star turns abound.
Sorting out the favorites at Hazeltine National, a venue that is a star in its own right, is simultaneously simple and difficult. Many among the 156 in the field are playing well enough to win, which makes settling on one or even a few nearly impossible.
Consider this: It’s been two years and 10 tournaments since the LPGA has had a repeat winner in a major. Through 15 events this year there have been 13 winners with Jin Young Ko and Brooke Henderson the only two-time champs.
And since June 12, 2017, six players have reached No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings with 10 lead changes, Ariya Jutanugarn and Sung Hyun Park each holding the top spot three times. So Yeon Ryu, Shanshan Feng, Inbee Park and current No. 1, Jin Young Ko, have all reached the top. The math shows that seven players could emerge this week as Rolex No. 1
Ko, who hit No. 1 after backing up her victory at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup by taking her first major at the ANA Inspiration, now carries the burden of notoriety.
“Just one thing is change — many people’s notice me,” she said at Hazeltine. “I walk around on the road and many people oh, are you Jin Young Ko?” Then with a smile she adds: “Sometimes good, sometimes little bit tired.”
The KPMG Women’s PGA has its own microclimate within women’s golf. Since first played in 2015, there has yet to be a two-time winner with Inbee Park, Henderson, Danielle Kang and Sung Hyun Park taking the first four. But Inbee Park does have a shot at history.
Going back into its pre-KPMG Women’s PGA days, Inbee won three in a row beginning in 2013, matching Annika Sorenstam (2003-05). If Park wins, she’d match Wright as the only four-time champion. She’d also gain her eighth major, tying for sixth all-time with Betsy Rawls.
The two hottest players coming into Hazeltine are Henderson, who has won two of the last seven tournaments, picking up her ninth win last week at the Meijer Classic, and Thompson, who has finished second, first and second in her last three starts.
“I’ve been working really hard trying to be more consistent, working on my ball striking,” Thompson said at Hazeltine. “Just to see it pay off it means a lot to me and especially to have the finish at the U.S. Women’s Open and win at ShopRite, then finishing second last week.”
Thompson could reach No. 1 for the first time if she wins and there are scenarios in which she could finish as low as third and still make it to the top spot.
“To get to No. 1, I mean honestly I don’t think about rankings at all,” she said. “I know I’m No. 2 right now but I’m going into every event wanting to win. What I’ve been doing the best at is the focusing on my game and not trying to force anything or thinking of the outside picture or results or anything. So, I’m just focusing on myself and what makes me the happiest.”
Henderson comes in off a win in Michigan last week and an impressive track record on northern courses. Of her nine LPGA victories, two have come in Michigan, two in Oregon, one in Canada and one in Washington, where she won the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA at Sahalee.
“I think growing up in Canada the northern part of the United States, the golf courses have a similar feel, similar types of grasses, usually tree-lined,” Henderson said at Hazeltine. “So I feel like that kind of leads into my familiarity to when I was growing up back home.”
The last time a repeat name pops up as an LPGA major winner it’s Sung Hyun Park, who won the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open as well as last year’s KPMG women’s PGA.
“Last year right before the KPMG, it was a tough time for me as I didn’t make the cut at the U.S. Open,” she said at Hazeltine. “So the win at KPMG last year was like a present to me, and that’s why right after the game I burst into tears and hugged my caddie, and right now it’s so fresh in my memories.”
Set up at 6,807 yards, Hazeltine favors long hitters, which includes Sung Hyun Park, Henderson, Thompson, Jessica Korda, Carlota Ciganda and Nelly Korda, who are all in the top 15 in driving distance. Women’s Open winner Jeongeun Lee6 is No. 39 but at a robust 267 yards. Jin Young Ko is No. 66 at 261 yards, certainly long enough to be a factor here.
As at all majors, discipline and patience will be tested as thoroughly as ball striking. But this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA may also add some clarity toward defining greatness in the women’s game. That’s what majors are all about, serving as a final exam for the best in the world.