Women's PGA is wide open

Writing from Olympia Fields, Illinois

Wednesday, June 29, 2017

It’s hard to pick a winner in this week’s 63rd KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the third under that name since the LPGA and PGA of America went in together on the second major championship of the year.

The reasons are myriad. First, everyone is at Olympia Fields Country Club this week. All of the top 100 players in the rankings are playing. Nobody’s ill, or hurting, or worn out and resting. That indicates a strong interest in glomming onto the big trophy and the $525,000 that goes with it.

Second, the battlefield is new to all. There’s no track record of who played well on the North Course in the past. It’s the first women’s major here in 84 years.

Third, the prize is significant. This was known as the LPGA Championship, the top competition in the organization, until three years ago, when the big partnership with the PGA of America and the luring of KPMG brought a new name to the old trophy. But most everyone of note in women’s pro golf since 1955 has won the title, from Louise Suggs and Mickey Wright to Inbee Park and defending champion Brooke Henderson. The notable exception from days of yore: Carol Mann, who learned how to play golf as a junior at Olympia Fields and is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Here are the likely contenders for the crown on the 6,588-yard par-71 course beginning – expected overnight storms permitting – at 7:30 on Thursday morning:

• Henderson. The defender, a winner at Blythefield near Grand Rapids two weeks ago, jumping her to 12th in the world ranking. A big driver with decent short game, and when she’s on, deft with the putter.  Her stats are baffling. She’s third on the LPGA Tour in birdies but 83rd in putting and averages 1.78 putts when hitting a green in regulation.

“When I won Meijer, I think I kind of proved to some of the naysayers and proved to myself that I’m in a great position,” Henderson said. “This course is very tough. You’ve got to really think your way through. Hopefully that means I’m hitting a lot of fairways and keeping the ball below the hole on my second shots.”

• So Yeon Ryu. The winner last week in Arkansas, a feat that jumped her to No. 1 in the rankings from No. 3. She has a solid short game, as a 10-under 61 in the second round last week proved on top of her lead in season greens in regulation, and enough distance to keep up with the big kids. Nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts this season and the money lead – $1,212,820 – make her the favorite in a crowded field.

“I thought I was kind of far away from No. 1,” Ryu said, “but yeah, here I am, finally No 1. I’m living in a dream. I want to keep this position as much as I can, as long as I can.”

• Aryia Jutanugarn. Champion of the 2011 U.S. Girls Junior on Olympia’s South Course, she can duplicate Walter Hagen’s feat of clinching a national title on each side of the clubhouse by winning this week. She arrived at Olympia in form, having won in Canada a fortnight ago to sit briefly at No. 1, and hasn’t scored over par in her last 15 rounds, as befitting someone first on the LPGA Tour in birdies. So is regaining the top ranking a big goal? 

“It means a lot to me, but the most important thing is not about the ranking,” Jutanugarn said. “It’s more like how I’m going to play golf. I really want to be happy on the course. The ranking is like, if I get there, I get there.”

• Lydia Ko. The longtime No. 1 is now No. 3 and hasn’t won in a year, but recently has shown flashes of jumping back into contention. A tie for second at the Lotte Championship, advancement to the sweet 16 in Lorena Ochoa’s match play tournament, subsequent ties for 10th including a 65 and 64 on the card auger well for a big showing this week for Ko, ninth in scoring this season.

“I’m thinking more about how can I be more consistent and put myself in contention rather than thinking about, ‘Hey, I really want to be the No. 1 ranked player again,’ ” Ko said. “I think we all motivate each other.”

• Lexi Thompson. The world No. 4 shoulda-coulda-woulda won the first major of the season, the ANA Inspiration, but never got her hands on the Dinah Shore Trophy thanks to mismarking her ball on Saturday and getting penalized for it on Sunday. She fell to Ryu in sudden-death, but has won since, at Kingsmill in Virginia, on May 21, and has followed with a pair of joint runner-up finishers in her last two starts. She’s $410 from winning $1 million this season.

Unfortunately, her mother Judy took ill recently and was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Judy Thompson had surgery June 6. Thompson hasn’t spoken with reporters this week, but her agent said she will beginning Thursday.

• Michelle Wie. Apparently out of a long slump, Wie has contended enough to score six top 10s this year and rise to eighth on the money list. A fan favorite, she tied for fourth in Arkansas and tied for second at Blythefield.

Stacy Lewis, whose personal sponsorship by KPMG aided the arranging of tournament sponsorship, doesn’t think Olympia North is a bomber’s course.

“So I think it’s good,” Lewis said. “This golf course is opened up to a lot of different types of players. It’s really going to be a thinker’s course, plotting your way around because there’s quite a few holes here that I don’t need driver on. Ariya never hits driver, but for someone like Lexi’s length, there are holes where driver is taken out of play, and there’s opportunities for her to hit driver and go over bunkers.”

Ryu noted that the rough wasn’t as long as the previous two WPGAs, at Westchestern Country Club in 2015 and Sahalee Country Club in 2016.

“Easiest so far,” she said. But there’s a catch.

“Very different, these greens compared the last two years and any other major tournament course. To me, smaller, and really slopey, so the greens, one of the toughest for sure.”

At Olympia Fields, it almost always comes down to the short game. This week should prove no different.

Around Olympia

Golf Channel has offered a pair of special previews and a host of other programming from Olympia Fields this week, but live tournament coverage is only three hours a day, and from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Commitments to PGA Tour play take up the rest of the daylight hours. ... It’s hard to say how many people will turn out. While organizers are hoping most fans take the train, the main public parking lot on Dixie Highway appears to hold only about 500 cars.

Tim Cronin

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