The LPGA is off this week but the Tour’s most famous 2014 rookie, Rolex Ranked No. 4 Lydia Ko will defend her title at the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open January 31 – February 2, 2014 at the Clearwater Golf Club, Christchurch, New Zealand. Ko will be playing on home soil for the first time since turning pro last fall, and this will be her only currently scheduled New Zealand appearance in 2014. Can she repeat her back-to-back 2012-2013 wins at the CN Canadian Women’s Open?
The Defending Champion
Ko played in the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic last weekend, setting the pace through the first round for the Tour’s season opener and sharing the lead going into the second round with South Korean Meena Lee. From that strong start she gradually dropped down the board, from a second round finish in 5th place to a 3rd round 8th place, and then ending the tournament at a very respectable -15 and sharing seventh place with Sandra Gal, Christel Boeljon, and PK Kongkraphan.
For 16-year old Lydia Ko, the Pure Silk-Bahamas was likely a season warm-up. Her swing leaves me breathless. Take a look:
Ko will face a full field of challengers to her title, including Australians Kristie Smith and Lindsey Wright. Smith took the New Zealand Women’s Open title in 2011 and Wright in 2012. Both are ready to reclaim it.
Smith, like Ko, is a member of the 2014 LPGA rookie class, although she has a bit more experience than Ko playing in the pro golf pressure cooker. She began her pro career on the LET in 2010 and earned victories that year at the Symetra Tour Daytona Beach Invitational and the ALPG Royal Canberra Ladies Classic. Like Ko, Smith has been working with the Leadbetter coaching staff and feels very positive about the swing changes she’s made coming into the New Zealand Women’s Open.
For the past five or six months I feel like I have been hitting it great – probably the best ball striking of my career and I am looking forward to some good results in 2014. If I can get the putter going I feel like I will be pretty competitive and contend for the title.
In contrast to rookies Ko and Smith, Lindsey Wright’s starting her 10th year on the LPGA Tour. She played collegiate golf at Pepperdine, turned pro in 2003 and qualified for the LPGA Tour in 2004. With 19 career top-10 finishes but no victories outside the 2012 New Zealand Women’s Open, Wright’s been discouraged about her game during the 2013 season.
My swing was all over the place, my pre-shot routine was out of whack and my putting was poor… it was awful really . . .
The New Zealand event will be Wright’s opportunity to reclaim a spot she visited briefly with her 2012 victory: “All it takes is for a couple good rounds to get the confidence and belief back and then you are away.”
Three top-ranked LET tournament winners are also in the field: Frenchwoman Gwladys Nocera, Scot Carley Booth, and Netherlands’ Christel Boeljon. All three consistently deliver highly competitive games. Boeljon shared Ko’s 7th place finish at the Pure Silk-Bahamas last weekend. None of them are going to let Ko walk away without a good old fashioned shootout!
In addition to Ko and Smith, two other near-rookies will attract some attention this weekend. England’s Charley Hull, the 2013 LET Rookie of the Year and darling of Team Europe at the 2013 Solheim Cup is going to put her skills to the test at the New Zealand Open and American Cheyenne Woods, who’s playing on the LET and working her way toward qualifying for the LPGA, is also in the field. I’m going to keep an eye on both of them.
All the youngsters will face England’s Laura Davies and Sweden’s Sophie Gustafson, who together bring more than 100 professional victories to the tee box!
There’s no US television coverage for the New Zealand Women’s Open but I’ll provide a daily wrap-up of the 54-hole event beginning Friday, January 31.