News & Opinion

LPGA’s T of C finds place among stars

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The LPGA opened its season with what organizers billed as “the most unique event in golf.’’ Well, it might well have been that.

The field for the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions did feature 26 players who had won LPGA tournaments in 2017 or 2018. Since the circuit tried limited-field Tournament of Champions events at various sites from 1994 to 2007, bringing its winners together wasn’t all that unusual.

This latest attempt again brought out the best in LPGA talent, but it didn’t spotlight their skills for an obvious reason. There were more players from other sports or entertainment areas (49) than there were LPGA players (26) competing. That’s what can happen when you try to combine a tour event with a celebrity event. It’s not a perfect mix.

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Among all of the winners and celebrities at the LPGA’s Tournament of Champions, South Korea’s Eun-Hee Ji shined brightest.

South Korean Eun-Hee Ji was the best on the LPGA side, shooting a 14-under 272 that concluded with a 70 on Sunday, when play was conducted in 50-degree weather with wind gusts up to 30 mph (scores).

John Smoltz, the pitching great who also was a good-enough golfer to qualify for last year’s U.S. Senior Open, ruled the celebrity side (celebrity scores). It was scored under a modified Stableford format, with Smoltz accumulating 149 points, three more than runner-up Mark Mulder, another one-time pitching star.

The celebrity component boosted the galleries and helped get the tournament on more than just Golf Channel (NBC also provided weekend coverage). At least the two segments got along well.

“A lot of the fans that came, they weren’t for us [the LPGA]. They were for the celebrities,’’ said China’s Shanshan Feng, who tied for fourth on the LPGA side. “They weren’t for the [LPGA] players. They were for the celebrities, which is good because that brought them to the tournament.’’

“They [LPGA players] were wonderful to us,’’ said football great Sterling Sharpe, who tied for fourth among the celebs. “The language barrier could have been a little difficult, but it wasn’t. I hope I’m back next year.’’

While the LPGA players liked the event – the first time since 2015 that the circuit has opened a season in the U.S. – there was a little something lost in the interest of innovation.

“It felt more than a normal, official tournament because in other tournaments we wouldn’t have music on the 18th-tee box,’’ Feng said. And that finishing hole at the Tranquilo course at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando was a par 3. Very few significant competitions end on such a short hole.

One thing wasn’t so unusual: Koreans finished 1-2 in the Tournament of Champions, an immediate indication that South Korea’s domination of the circuit won’t end soon. Ji held off Mirim Lee to take the $180,000 first prize from the $1.2 million purse offered for the LPGA players in the 72-hole no-cut event. American Nelly Korda was a shot behind Lee, in third place.

Ji, 32, is by no means the best of the huge group of Koreans on the LPGA. Sunday’s victory was her fifth on the LPGA, to go with two victories in South Korea and two more elsewhere in Asia since she turned pro in 2007.

Winner of the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open, Ji has $6.39 million in career winnings on the LPGA. She also had near misses in two other majors – a tie for second in the 2012 Women’s PGA and a tie for third in the 2008 Women’s British Open – but 12 Koreans were ahead of No. 32 Ji in the Rolex Rankings at the start of the week.

The celebs played for $500,000, with Smoltz earning $100,000. He won a celebrity event on the same course in 2014 when the LPGA wasn’t a prominent factor. This year, the tournament was designated as an official LPGA event, the first of 33 tournaments this season. The next four are in Australia (two), Thailand and Singapore before competition returns to the U.S.

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is in his ninth year as golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and in his 29th year as golf columnist for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: lenziehm@gmail.com; Twitter: @ZiehmLen