Tucked between the US Women’s Open last week and the RICOH Women’s British Open in early July, the 54-hole WalMart NW Arkansas Championship may not have the glitter and hype of a major tourney, but it boasts a full, dynamic field, a hefty two million dollar purse, and a full complement of Ozark fun and frolic. Stacy Lewis is coming into the WalMart Championship holding the top of the world rankings for the fourth consecutive week and determined to repel all challengers, and Michelle Wie’s coming in fueled by her victory at the US Women’s Open last week. While it would be easy to start speculating about a Sunday Shootout between this pair, that would be a big mistake. This isn’t 2013 and the Tour’s not being dominated by one or two players this year. There are ten 2014 champions. Four among that group — Anna Nordqvist, Stacy Lewis, Jessica Korda and Michelle Wie — have nailed down double victories and they’re all in the field. But there are others in the field, still outside the ever-increasing circle of champions, who are also playing strong games and likely to make a charge for the top of the board in Arkansas.
I’m keeping a particularly close watch on six groups during Friday’s first round. They all have one or more players who are likely to play standout games at the WalMart Championship.
Gabby Lopez, Caroline Hedwall, Belen Mozo, 8:03am, Tee #10
Gabby Lopez, playing on a sponsor’s exemption, is a rising junior on the Arkansas women’s golf team, is coming off a First-Team All-SEC season. She played in the 2013 WalMart Championship but missed the cut, so she’s going to be eager to make a stronger showing this year. But she’s going to need to play some powerful golf to get ahead and stay ahead of Caroline Hedwall and Belen Mozo, both playing their third year on the Tour.
Hedwall, ranked 30th by Rolex, hasn’t been playing up to her ability this season, but she has a aggressive powerful game in her bag and could give Lopez some serious competition. Mozo, who’s ranked 113th, has recorded two top-10 finishes and is playing a bit above her ranking. Hedwall (for the Swedish team) and Mozo (for the Spanish team) are both slated for the LPGA International Crown in July, and they’re both hunting their first pro victory. Lopez will have an early home ground advantage but the competition in this group will be keen.
Anna Nordqvist, Sandra Gal, Juli Inkster, 8:47, Tee #10
Nordqvist started the 2014 season deeply discouraged about the state of her game and contemplating quitting professional golf. With victories at the Honda LPGA Thailand and the Kia Classic, 10th ranked Nordqvist probably isn’t thinking about quitting any more, but she missed the cut at the US Women’s Open and she, too, is playing for Sweden at the International Crown, so she’s coming into the WalMart Championship needing to get back on the front page of the board.
Gal, who’s ranked at 46th, has a pair of top-10s this year and is playing a consistently high quality game. Is she ready to challenge Nordqvist? I think so.
The wild card in this group is Juli Inkster, who with her T15th finish didn’t play at the Open like somebody who’s headed for retirement. Still, I’m looking for Sandra Gal to hit her stride and dominate this group.
Emily Tubert, Natalie Gulbis, Pernilla Lindberg, 1:03pm, Tee #1
Tubert, a standout member of the Lady Razorbacks golf team with four seasons as a First-Team All-SEC member, was recently named the recipient of the 2014 Dinah Shore Trophy, given to the nation’s collegiate golfer who best excels in athletics and academics. This will be her fourth appearance at the WalMart Classic, her first appearance as a pro.
Paired with Gulbis, who’s entered nine events this year, withdrawn from one and missed five cuts, and Lindberg, who’s missed four cuts out of the 14 events she’s entered, Tubert, who’s playing on a sponsor exemption, is very likely to dominate the pairing.
Lydia Ko, Stacy Lewis, Jessica Korda, 1:14pm, Tee #1
Despite the stroke play format this pairing of three 2014 champions is bound to generate some keen competition. World ranked 3rd, Ko’s having a spectacular rookie year on the Tour with her Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic win and five other top-10s, including a tie for runner-up at the JTBC Founder’s Cup. Korda, with wins at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic and the Airbus LPGA Classic, has also missed the cut at the last two events, the ShopRite LPGA Classic and the US Women’s Open and may be cooling off a bit.
But I see Stacy Lewis dominating this group, and possibly the entire tournament as well. Lewis is at the peak of her game right now. She’s mentally preparing to defend her title at the RICOH British Women’s Open, she’s in her 4th week at the top of the world rankings, she hasn’t missed a cut this year and she’s finished outside the top-10 only once. On top of all this, she’s playing on home ground — Lewis has several home grounds and Razorback country is her collegiate home.
Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, So Yeon Ruy, 1:25, Tee #1
Ryu is coming into the WalMart Classic with a powerful incentive to get to the top of the leaderboard. She tied up the 2013 tourney with a ten-foot birdie putt on the final hole and then lost to Inbee Park in the playoff. But Ryu’s game doesn’t look to be up to the task. The 2011 US Women’s Open champ is still hunting a 2014 win and with Creamer playing consistently at a very competitive level and Wie playing the best golf of her career, Ryu’s going to be along for the ride in this group.
Will Creamer keep pace with Wie? She can and I believe she will, simply because Wie is probably coming into the WalMart Championship tired from her two-day whirlwind PR bash in New York City.
Lexi Thompson, Christina Kim, Suzann Pettersen, 1:36, Tee #1
Kim played an heroic game at the ShopRite LPGA Classic and it’s wonderful to see this popular, talented woman healthy and playing golf again, but neither Kim nor Pettersen will keep pace with Lexi Thompson. Pettersen, sidelined by a back injury early in the season, doesn’t seem yet to be playing her usually aggressive game.
Rolex ranked at 5th in the world, Thompson’s win at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and her six other top-10 finishes this year have signaled a rising star who’s going to vie with Wie and Lewis for domination of women’s golf on the international stage.
Marina Alex, Allison Walshe, and Ariya Jutanugarn lead off the first round of the WalMart Northwest Arkansas Championship Friday morning at 7:30am local time. Golf Channel coverage from 9-11am ET will not provide live coverage of those groups with later tee times. To follow the round live after television coverage concludes use the LPGA electronic scoreboard (www.lpgascoring.com). My colleagues and I here at ProGolfNow will provide updates and an analysis of the first round as well later in the evening.