News & Opinion

Dollars, drama highlight LPGA finale

NAPLES, Fla. – If the $1 million payout to the winner of the season-long Race to the CME Globe seems like a big deal to LPGA players, that’s because it is. 

Although the LPGA has come a long way in a decade – after being battered by the Great Recession and some misguided administrative decisions – purses still are dwarfed by those offered on the PGA Tour. 

Coming into the last event of the season, the CME Group Tour Championship, which starts this morning at Tiburon Golf Club, 16 LPGA players have earned $1 million or more in prize money this year. Last season on the PGA Tour, 102 golfers made seven-figure on-course incomes. 

Even if LPGA money leader Sung Hyun Park collects the tournament’s $500,000 winner’s check, she would finish with fewer than $3 million for the year; on the PGA Tour, 26 players earned more than $3 million last season. 

The disparity in riches means the women will be playing hard at Tiburon. Each of the top five players in the season standings – Lexi Thompson, Park, Shanshan Feng, So Yeon Ryu and Brooke Henderson – would win the points competition with a victory this week. Each can take it without winning, too, their scenarios more viable than a handful of golfers further down the standings who will need more help (scenarios: http://bit.ly/2hyhqGL; reset points: http://bit.ly/2hpdi8i; tee times: http://bit.ly/2A2u6xh). 

Rolex Player of the Year is also up for grabs. Ryu, Feng, Park and Thompson lead the way for that honor. On the money list, Ryu is the only player who could displace Park from the top spot. If the pieces fit together for Park, who weeks ago clinched Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year honors, it could be quite an ending to quite a year for the 24-year-old South Korean, who won the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open. 

Since 1966, when both awards first were given out in the same year, Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, in 1978, is the only other player to have been top rookie and POY in the same year on the LPGA.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much before [about Lopez],” Park said through an interpreter who translated her pre-tournament interview. “Recently, I’ve come across some articles and stories about what she was able to do. I’ve gotten to know a lot more about what she’s done and who she is. I know I’m in the chase for a lot of these awards. At the same time, I know I’m not the only one in the chase.” 

Park enjoyed a very brief turn recently in the No. 1 position on the Rolex Rankings before Feng’s back-to-back victories on the tour’s Asian Swing. “I got a lot of congratulations from people although I only lasted one week,” Park said. “It was really cool to be called the No. 1 player in the world. It was a short stint, but I enjoyed it very much.”

Feng is the fifth No. 1 in 2017, following Lydia Ko, Ariya Jutanugarn, Ryu and Park. Ryu, who didn’t win after assuming the top spot, concedes that the expectations of others created stress that hadn’t been there on her climb to the summit. “All the input was like way too much,” Ryu said.  

The first player from China to be No. 1, Feng is determined not to let the distinction be a detriment. “I still think about I'm still the same player,” Feng said. “Becoming the world No. 1 is just an accomplishment in my career. That proves that I'm a good player, but that is just going to give me more confidence that I can even be better. I still think I have room to actually improve. I don’t think this is the end, my maximum. It’s not. I still think I can be even better, so I won’t stop improving.”

One name largely absent from the conversation leading into the LPGA finale is Ko, the 20-year-old who hasn’t won since July 2016. With 14 LPGA victories before her 20th birthday, Ko made an ascent that was as steep as it was stunning. She did things with creative ease, but last fall the game started to look like work to her. 

There was a lackluster weekend at the CME Group Tour Championship after a second-round 62. Coaching, caddie and equipment switches followed – a lot of change to get used to, even for someone as talented as Ko. 

It’s not as if Ko has been playing terribly. She had top-five finishes in two of her last three tournaments and is ranked eighth in the world. Season honors are out of reach with the exception of the Race to the CME Globe, for which she has the slimmest of chances with a victory if many permutations go her way. 

But if Ko were to break her 16-month drought, the winner’s check no doubt would feel like a million bucks and then some. 

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1