From Melbourne, Australia the LPGA Tour is continuing its swing through Asia at the Siam Country Club in Chonburi, Thailand for the Honda LPGA Thailand, Thursday, February 20 through Sunday, February 24. The field is star-studded and the stakes are high. Seventeen of the twenty top-ranked golfers in the world are in the field. In addition to a $1.5 million purse for this event, there are Race to the CME Globe points to be earned, and for players from the eight countries who will meet at the LPGA International Crown in July, there are team spots waiting to be claimed.
Inbee Park v Pettersen, Lewis & Ko
What a difference a year makes in the lives of individuals and in the dynamic on the LPGA Tour. Last year Honda LPGA Thailand defending champion Yani Tseng was sitting on the top of the rankings and seemed to have a solid hold on her position; and Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis were trading ranks back and forth, but appeared to be locked out of the top spot. This year Inbee Park is the defending champion, having dethroned first Yani Tseng and then Stacy Lewis to establish what’s now a 45-week reign at the top of the world rankings.
But Park’s reign is tenuous. She’s not won since her victory at the US Women’s Open last June and the Honda LPGA Thailand is her first 2014 event.
But Park knows the course and she’s ready to play it.
Siam Country Club has very tough greens so putting will be key . . . It’s also a tough second-shot golf course. It needs different types of shots around the greens so some creativity will come into play.
Stacy Lewis, Suzann Pettersen and Lydia Ko are all making a run for the top of the rankings. They’re all teeing off on Thursday and for the first time in the 2014 season we’ll see them pitted against each other.
When you do the math, Rolex Ranked No. 2 Suzann Pettersen is the most likely to take over the top of the world rankings but her first 2014 run at the top, at the Australian Women’s Open last week, fell short. While she briefly held the top of the leaderboard she couldn’t close the deal.
To be sure, it was her first event of the season, but her game was inconsistent and her +8 final round startlingly disappointing to Pettersen fans.
Stacy Lewis, America’s top-ranked golfer, looks good for a top-10 finish in Thailand. She’s made two starts and both times played consistent, competitive golf and finished inside the top-10.
Similarly, Lydia Ko has made a superb start on her rookie year, starting three times this season and finishing inside the top-10 three times. With such a strong start, could Ko end the season with both the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year and the Vare Trophy?
Either Lewis or Ko could claim a victory in Thailand, but that wouldn’t eclipse Park’s hold on the top rank.
The South Korean Challengers
In addition to Inbee Park, four of the seven other South Koreans ranked inside the top-20 players in the world are in the Honda LPGA Thailand field: So Yeon Ryu (#5), Na Yeon Choi (#7), Amy Yang (#15), and Hee Young Park (#17).
Thailand is Ryu’s first 2014 event. Choi had a top-10 finish and Yang finished well down the board at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic. Only Hee Young Park has played in both the Pure Silk-Bahamas and the Australian Open, and she finished both events outside the top-10. None of them appear at this point to pose a serious challenge to Inbee Park’s dominance among the South Korean players, although competition among the South Korean players to gain a spot on the country’s International Crown team will be ongoing and dynamic through the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April.
Thailand’s International Crown Team
Eighteen-year old Ariya Jutanugarn will return to the site of her heart-breaking finish at last year’s Honda LPGA Thailand when she triple bogeyed the 72nd hole to hand Inbee Park a one-shot victory. The teenager from Thailand was will try to redeem herself in front of her home country and also has something to prove.
In addition to Ariya, there will be plenty of Thai talent in action this week. The top-four Thai players in the Rolex Rankings are in the field and the foursome could be a sneak peak to the team that will represent Thailand in the inaugural International Crown in July. No. 30 Pornanong Phatlum, No. 81 and Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Moriya Jutanugarn and No. 111 Thidapa Suwannapura help carry the torch for Thai golf and will all try to become the first woman from Thailand to win on the LPGA Tour.
South Korean Chella Choi started the season at the Pure Silk-Bahamas with a 13th place finish and then played a very hot and competitive game at the Australian Open, finishing runner-up behind Aussie Karrie Webb. Choi’s due a win and it’s going to come at some point this season.
American Paula Creamer has had two starts and two top-10 finishes. Don’t count her out. She’s very much in the top-10 mix and Creamer has a well-seasoned, consistent game in her bag. She always plays to win and she’s also playing to secure her spot on the US International Crown team and collect some big Race to the CME Globe points.
Solheim Cup superstar Caroline Hedwall in coming into the Honda LPGA Thailand with 18 career top-10 finishes and still looking for her first victory. The Swedish power player started the Australian Open strong and then gave away that victory in the final two rounds of the tournament. Like Chella Choi, Hedwall’s due a win and if she can sustain a consistent game she’ll collect it.
The field for the Honda LPGA Thailand is deep and rich, and because the event comes early in the season there’s room for considerable action on the board. That always makes for an exciting competition!
Golf Channel will provide delayed coverage of the daily rounds: Thursday, February 20, 9am-12:30pm; Friday, February 21, 9am-1:30pm; Saturday, February 22, 2-6pm; Sunday, February 23, 1:30-6pm, all times ET and I’ll provide a daily update on each day’s round as well.