The LPGA Tour tees off Wednesday, April 16, at the Ko Olina Golf Club in Kapolei, Hawaii for the third playing of the 72-hole LPGA LOTTE Championship Presented by J Golf. While many parts of the mainland are still looking for consistent spring weather, skies will be fair, daytime temperatures will be in the low 80s, and the Pacific winds will hold at 15-20 mph so expect perfect golf conditions to prevail as 144 players chase the $1.7 million purse and 500 Race to the CME Globe points. Defending champion, Rolex Ranked No. 2 Suzann Pettersen, is still rehabbing a back injury and won’t play this event nor will three other top-ranked players who typically dominate the upper reaches of the leaderboard, Stacy Lewis, Karrie Webb and Lexi Thompson, winner of the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship. However, there’s a battle brewing among a group of contenders that could easily rearrange the world rankings. Let’s take a look at the field and the possibilities.
Who’s Hot At The Top?
Six top-ranked players are in the field: Inbee Park, Lydia Ko, So Yeon Ryu, Shanshan Feng, Paula Creamer, and Anna Nordqvist and they’re all capable of playing for the win.
Paula Creamer and Anna Nordqvist, both with 2014 wins on their resumes that have buoyed their self-confidence after long winless periods, are coming into the LOTTE Championship hot. Both of them have taken huge leaps up in the rankings and both are playing aggressively for another 2014 win. Look for Creamer and Nordqvist to play hard and reach for the top of the board this week.
Inbee Park and Lydia Ko are still looking for the game that took them to the top of the rankings in 2013. Park’s recorded four top-10 finishes out of the five events she’s played and she averaging 28.9 putts per round, just a bit better than her 2013 putting performance, but she hasn’t been able to close the deal on Sunday. Ko, who may still be seeking her balance as a young pro, finished in the top-10 in three of the seven events she’s played this year. She’s not yet the anticipated l’enfant terrible, however.
Shanshan Feng’s had one top-10 finish and So Yeon Ruy has collected two. Both are playing consistent golf and either could break through to claim the top of the board this week. Feng’s game looked especially good at the Kraft Nabisco.
Three Serious Contenders
Michelle Wie seems to have found her game! She’s entered six events this year and finished all of them inside the top-20. She was inside the top five finishers at the Honda LPGA Thailand in February and she pushed hard for the Kraft Nabisco Championship win two weeks ago. She’s playing with a level of confidence that casts an aura around her, and she’ll claim victory soon.
Lizette Salas and Gerina Piller are both looking for their first professional win and both are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.
Rolex ranked no. 14 Salas, who lost the LOTTE Championship to Suzann Pettersen in a playoff last year, has finished inside the top-5 at two events this year. She’s on the hunt for her first pro victory. Although she missed the cut at the Kraft Nabisco, I sense that outside factors were at play in the situation. She’s going to be coming into the LOTTE Championship with the intention of winning and she’s going to bear watching.
Look for Piller, with three top-10 finishes and a long, powerful drive, to also make a strong effort this week. Although her short game’s been holding her back, she’s been steadily improving in her play around the green. Rolex ranked no. 28 Piller’s going to collect her first win at some point this year and rocket on up in the rankings.
Another Teenager in the Mix
Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn will play on an LET Ranking Tournament Winner’s exemption and alongside her older sister, Moriya, at the LOTTE Championship. The eighteen-year old is bringing a powerful, aggressive game with her. Although a shoulder injury took her out of competition mid-way through the 2013 season, Jutanugarn already has a pro win on her resume and she finished in a fourth place tie at the 2014 World Ladies Championship.
The LOTTE Championship holds the promise of some interesting competitions within the tournament. Will Jutanugarn outplay Ko? Can Nordqvist pick up a third win and shoot past Creamer and Thompson in the rankings? Will Creamer put on a full-court press? Can Wie stay aggressive through the fourth round and claim the win that slipped through her fingers at the Kraft Nabisco? Will Salas redeem herself after her playoff loss to Pettersen last year?
Golf Channel will provide daily coverage during the LOTTE Championship from Wednesday, April 16 through Saturday, April 19, 6:30pm-10:30pm ET, and I’ll provide a daily wrap-up of each round as well.