It figures to be Zach Johnson vs. Luke Donald in the next Ryder Cup

Zach Johnson (left) and Luke Donald will create a good captain’s matchup in the Ryder Cup.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL. – Neither Zach Johnson nor Luke Donald looked threatening during Thursday’s first round of the PGA Tour’s traditional Florida Swing.

The veterans teed off within 20 minutes of each other, Donald starting his round off No. 1 and Johnson off No. 10 at the Honda Classic – the first of four straight tournaments in Florida.  Johnson finished at 4-over-par 76 and Donald at 2-over 74 and were far back of the leaders.

Their competitiveness figures to change very soon, however, though not as players.  Johnson and Donald loom to be opposing captains in the next Ryder Cup matches, to be played in 2023 at Marco Simone in Italy.

If the matchup materializes it’ll pit the most popular player over the years at Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop against a Northwestern alum who has remained involved in the Chicago golf scene through his philanthropic and design efforts.

Johnson’s selection as the U.S. captain will become official on Monday at a press conference at PGA of America headquarters here, the day after the Honda finishes its 72-hole run at PGA National. It won’t come as a surprise. Clair Peterson, long-time tournament director and now executive director of the John Deere Classic – Illinois’ lone annual PGA Tour event – congratulated Johnson via Facebook on Thursday and fans at the Honda Classic did the same as Johnson played his first round.

Leading the U.S. won’t be easy.  The American side will be trying to end a 30-year stretch without a win on European soil, the last one coming in 1993 at the Belfry in England. Johnson will also have a tough act to follow.  A U.S. squad captained by Steve Stricker handed Europe its worst beating with a 19-9 romp at Whistling Straights in Wisconsin in September. That was only the fourth U.S. win in the last 13 Ryder Cups.

Stricker was part of a six-man committee named to pick the next U.S. captain — three PGA Tour players and three PGA of America executives.

Currently battling health problems that have kept him out of tournament play the last three months, Stricker was a long-time U.S. vice captain before becoming the head man, and Johnson was a vice captain at the last two Ryder Cups after playing on five Ryder Cup teams.

A two-time Masters champion, Johnson has long been involved in the operation of the John Deere Classic, a fixture for 50 years in the Quad Cities area. The Iowa native has been a member of the tournament board almost as long as he’s been playing the tour, and he won the JDC in 2012.

Europe has yet to announce its next Ryder Cup captain but Donald has loomed as the likely choice since Lee Westwood, preferring to focus on his playing career, withdrew as a candidate. Padraig Harrington was the captain of the European side at Whisting Straits and is on a five-member committee to pick his successor.

Harrington gave Donald a resounding endorsement in January.  So did Graeme McDowell, who served along with Donald as Harrington’s vice captains.

While he hasn’t won a major title Donald’s playing record stands up to Johnson’s.  Donald spent 56 weeks holding the No. 1 spot on the Official World Golf Rankings and, in 2011, became the first player to win money titles on both the PGA and European PGA tours in the same year.

After Monday’s big announcement the PGA’s Florida Swing continues with the Arnold Palmer Invitational, at Bay Hill in Orlando; The Players Championship, in Ponte Vedra; and the Valspar Championship, at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbour.

 

 

 

 

Langer leads one-two Tour Edge finish in Chubb tourney

NAPLES, FL. — Tour Edge, based in Batavia, IL., isn’t the biggest golf club manufacturer, but it is the dominant one on PGA Tour Champions. That was particularly evident on Sunday when two Tour Edge ambassadors – Bernhard Langer and Tim Petrovic – finished one-two in the first full-field event of the season for the 50-and-over circuit.

Langer signed with Tour Edge last year, and the Chubb Classic was his most impressive performance since then. He shot his age (64) in the first round on the Black Course at Tiburon Golf Club and went on to win the 54-hole competition wire to wire.

“It’s great to get off to a good start in the new year and be near the top of the Schwab Cup again,’’ said Langer, who won the German championship when he was 17 and has now been a professional golfer for 50 years.  “I know that (Miguel Angel) Jimenez is ahead of me, but just to have a good performance like this is confidence building.’’

Shooting 68 in the second and third rounds Langer finished at 16-under-par 200 and was three strokes ahead of Petrovic, who carded a 69 in the final round at the only facility to host tournaments on the Champions, PGA and LPGA tours in the same calendar year. The PGA and LPGA play their events on Tiburon’s Gold Course.

Though both are Greg Norman designs, the Black is much tighter than the Gold layout. The Black routing is more difficult for spectators, but they turned out in bigger-than-expected numbers to watch Langer win the event for the fourth time.

Tour Edge boss David Glod opted to focus his player ambassador budget on Champions tour players and the staffers include much more than Langer and Petrovic. Scott McCarron, Tom Lehman, Ken Duke, Alex Cejka and Mike Weir are also officially carrying the Tour Edge banner and many more – most notably John Daly – have at least some Tour Edge clubs in their bags.

Petrovic was getting used to some new ones at the Chubb, but he knew how difficult it is to compete against Langer.

“Obviously he’s comfortable winning,’’ said Petrovic.  “We already knew that.  But he’s just efficient in everything he does.  I want to know what his heartbeat is coming down the stretch.  It’s probably half of what the rest of us have.’’

Langer, though, was a success story long before he hooked up with Tour Edge. Sunday’s win was his 43rd on PGA Tour Champions, two short of the record 45 wins by Hale Irwin. Langer also won the Champions’ season-long Schwab Cup competition six times after winning 42 times on the European PGA Tour and three times – including two Masters – on the PGA Tour. His Chubb win extended Langer’s streak of at least one victory to 16 years on PGA Tour Champions.

This season is different from the previous ones, though, as it’s Langer’s first without his 48-year swing coach Willy Hoffman.  He passed away a month ago.

McCarron was Tour Edge’s big gun before Langer signed up.  McCarron has 11 Champions’ wins and was the Schwab Cup champion in 2019-20. He had a tough final round at Tiburon on Sunday, however.  His 82 in the final round included a quadruple bogey nine on the par-5 fifteenth and dropped him to a tie for 71st finish. Oddly enough, McCarron had birdies before and after the disaster at No. 15.

Florida was the 2022 starting point for the LPGA, which played its first three events in the Sunshine State but won’t play again until the HSBC Women’s World Championship tees off on March 3 in Singapore..  The PGA’s Korn Ferry circuit had three events out of the U.S. before playing its first American event – the Suncoast Classic – at Lakewood National at the same time the Chubb was in progress. Lakewood is a two-hour drive from Tiburon.

Now the PGA Tour is coming to Florida, starting with the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens on Thursday.  The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, in Orlando; The Players Championship, at Ponte Vedra; and the Valspar Championship, at Innisbrook in Palm Harbour, follow over the next four weeks on Florida courses.

 

 

Another year hasn’t slowed down Langer on the Champions tour

A big day for Tour Edge with Bernhard Langer and Tim Petrovic both in contention at the Chubb Classic.

NAPLES, Florida – Another year of dominance for Bernard Langer on PGA Tour Champions seems a given with the first full-field tournament of 2022 still having one round to go.

Langer, 64, opened the Chubb Classic by shooting his age on Friday.  He wasn’t impressed.

“It was the second time for shooting my age and I did one better once,’’ said Langer.  “I should remember that stuff, but I get too caught up in the moment.’’

The first time Langer shot his age was his most memorable.

“It was fun doing it the first time on my actual birthday,’’ he said, “but it’s still special because it’s not easy to do.  Hopefully it gets easier as we get older.’’

He couldn’t do it in Saturday’s second round on Tiburon’s Black Course, shooting a 68,  but he was still in command throughout in a tournament he’s won three times – but not since 2016. Langer stands at 12-under-par 132 and is two strokes ahead of Scott Parel, Retief Goosen and Tim Petrovic entering Sunday’s final round.

“Yesterday I had a clean card — no bogeys,” said Langer. “Today I had seven birdies, but also three bogeys.  It was a little tougher today — a different wind direction and stronger wind as well.  But I’m still happy where I am.”

Former Masters champion Mike Weir, another Tour Edge player, pulled off a stunning recovery shot on Saturday, threading the needle from a difficult lie on the 17th hole. Zoom in above the last dot and you’ll see how close the ball came to clipping a tree on its way to the fairway.

The opening 64 propelled Langer to a two-stroke lead and Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, one of his playing partners, birdied the first three holes on Saturday to move into a tie for the lead.

The tie didn’t last long, as Karlsson endured a strange front nine.  He didn’t make a par on that side, following the three birdies with three bogeys.  Then, after making two more birdies, he took a double bogey at No. 9.  The only par score for him at that point was his front nine total.

Parel, who teed off seven groups in front of Langer, shot his own 64 on Saturday and got within a shot of Langer late in the day and Goosen and Petrovic also matched his 134 total for the first 36 holes. There’ll be suspense – and probably another bigger-than-expected gallery – on Sunday when Langer tries to close in on Hale Irwin’s record 45 tournament wins on the Champions circuit.  Langer has 42.

“He’s unbelievable,” said Parel. “I told him yesterday I’m glad you’re shooting your age and not my age, because then we’d have no chance. Obviously he’s a special golfer, and a better person than he is a golfer.”

Last year Langer won the PGA Tour Champions’ season-long Schwab Cup competition for the sixth time. He’s one of seven members of the World Golf Hall of Fame and one of 19 winners of PGA Tour major titles competing here.

A winner of two Masters titles and 11 of the majors on the 50-and-over circuit, Langer’s string of accomplishments has been a long one. He was golf’s first designed No. 1 player in 1986 when the Official World Golf Rankings were announced.

Illinois-based Tour Edge added Langer to its staff of ambassadors last year and that proved a wise move in the company’s battle for attention with the bigger club manufacturers.

His success so far this week comes at the only golf facility to host all three major professional tours.  The LPGA and PGA circuits have events on Tiburon’s Gold Course.  Only the Champions compete on the tighter Black layout.  Both layouts are Greg Norman designs.

Fans packed Tiburon for the first full-field event of the PGA Tour Champions season.

Two ex-Illinois Open champs are in the hunt at Korn Ferry stop

Deerfield’s Vince India was ready to go in Round 2 of the Suncoast Classic.

LAKEWOOD RANCH, Florida – The Korn Ferry Tour is only a pathway to the PGA Tour, but it can offer some things that the premier circuit. That clicked in during Friday’s second round of the circuit’s first tournament of 2022 in the United States.

For one thing the LECOM Suncoast Classic included three Illinois Open champions in its field.  You don’t see that very often.

You don’t usually get a friendly greeting from a player on his way to the first tee, either, but Vince India felt relaxed enough to exchange pleasantries and it didn’t hurt him when the competition kicked in.  He matched his first-round 66 with another in Round 2.

Two of the Illinois Open winners – former University of Iowa teammates India and Brad Hopfinger – showed they can hold their own with a strong group of players who are just a cut below those on the PGA Tour.  India, at 10-under-par 132 is four strokes behind leader Zecheng Dou and tied for 13th place. Hopfinger is two swings behind India but in a tie for 30th.

Darkness suspended play before the field could complete the second round, but the cut figured to come at 6-under par.  That meant India and Hopfinger will get a check after the tourney ends on Sunday but a third Illinois Open titlist, Wheaton’s Tee-K Kelly, won’t. The Medinah member and Ohio State alum improved to a 67 after his opening round 72 but was a not-good-enough 3-under after 36 holes.

Kelly won the Illinois Open last year while Hopfinger triumphed in 2014 and India in 2018. Hopfinger and India are among only 10 players who own titles in both the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open. The Korn Ferry has a stop at the Glen Club in May.

India beat both his playing partners, Tommy “Two Gloves’’ Gainey and Fabian Gomez, on Friday. Both of them have won tournaments on the PGA Tour. The Korn Ferry stop had more Illinois flavor, too. India is tied with Dawson Armstrong, who scored a dramatic victory in the 2015 Western Amateur at Rich Harvest Farms, in Sugar Grove. He’ll be playing on the weekend, too, but two Michaels won’t.

Michael Feagles came right from college to the Korn Ferry Tour but hasn’t forgotten his Illini roots.

Michael Kim has been an enigma. In 2018 he dominated Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop.  He was 27-under-par and won the John Deere Classic by eight strokes.  Both the score and victory margin remain tournament records, but Kim’s hot streak was short-lived.  The next year he missed 19 of 20 cuts on the PGA Tour and is still hoping to regain his magic from that great four days in the Quad Cities four years ago.

Michael  Feagles, meanwhile, is just getting his pro career started after being a mainstay for coach Mike Small’s University of Illinois teams. Kim was 3-under and Feagles 2-under in the first two rounds here.  Scoring was low, as expected.  Of the 143 starters 116 bettered par and one was particularly sharp on Friday.  Callum Tarren set the course record with a 10-under 61 while climbing into a tie for third place.

Still, Kim was loose enough to offer to shoot a selfie with Joy before he teed off and Feagles still showed his collegiately loyalty is still strong.  His golf bag was emblazoned with an orange Illini logo.

Michael Kim, once the star of the John Deere Classic, showed he can take a good selfie, too.

 

Now the men’s pro tours take the golf spotlight in Florida

ON TO TIBURON: The clubhouse at Tiburon, in Naples, FL, is a welcome site for three pro golf tour events each year. This week the stars on PGA Tour Champions will be there.

Golf-wise it’s Florida where the action is for at least the next month.

First it was the LPGA tour staging its first three tournaments of 2022 in the Sunshine state.  They were captivating events, too, with Danielle Kang, Lydia Ko and Leona Maguire winning the titles and Annika Sorenstam drawing bigger galleries than all of them playing against top male athletes from other sports in a celebrity competition.

Now – with the women headed to their next tournament March 3-6 in Singapore– all three men’s tours are either in Florida or headed that way.  The PGA’s Korn Ferry Tour kicked off its first tournament of the year in the United States on Thursday with the LECOM Suncoast Classic at Lakewood National, on the outskirts of Sarasota.

On Friday PGA Tour Champions holds its first full-field event of the year, the 35th annual Chubb Classic at Tiburon in Naples.  Then there’ll be four straight weeks of PGA Tour events – the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, the Arnold Palmer  Invitational in Orlando,  the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra and the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor.

The Korn Ferry Tour is holding its fourth tournament of the year, with the first three being in the Bahamas, Panama and Colombia. The field includes three Illinois Open champions – Brad Hopfinger, Vince India and Tee-K Kelly.

India, who shot 66 in the first round at Lakewood National, had top-15 finishes in both the Bahamas and Panama before missing the cut in Colombia.  Kelly had his best Korn Ferry performance in a tie for seventh last week and Hopfinger tied for 13th in Colombia. Rookie pro Michael Feagles, a mainstay for Illinois’ collegiate powerhouses the last four years, is also in the field.

Lakewood Ranch has two 18-holers, and the Korn Ferry players are using the Commander Course.  It opened in 2017 and the winners have gone extremely low — 26-under-par in 2019, 23-under in 2020 and 13-under last year – in previous Korn Ferry stops.

More familiar names will be teeing off on Tiburon’s Black Course on Friday in the 54-hole Chubb Classic. Bernhard Langer heads a field that also includes Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Sandy Lyle, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Padraig Harrington nd Ian Woosnam.  All of them won major titles.

Miguel Angel Jimenez, who won the circuit’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship last month in Hawaii, is also competing and former world No. 1 David Duval and Y.E. Kang, winner of a PGA Championship, will be making their debuts in full-field PGA Tour Champions competition.

Tiburon is a special venue, as it’s the only facility to host a PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions and LPGA Tour event in the same calendar year.  Tiburon has two courses, both designed by Greg Norman, and the Black Course will be used this week.  The other two circuit’s played their events on the Gold Course.

The Chubb Classic is being held for the 35th time and is the longest-standing PGA Tour Champions event held in the same marketplace.  The Black Course hosted the event for the first time in 2021 with Steve Stricker winning the title.  Stricker, sidelined by a heart ailment in November, won’t defend his title.

Chubb tourney’s 35th anniversary is at a special place

The clubhouse at Tiburon is a welcome site for three pro golf tour events.

NAPLES, FL. – The traditional warmup in Hawaii is over.  Now PGA Tour Champions is ready to get down to business. With the tournament rounds scheduled for Feb. 18-20, the Chubb Classic Presented by SERVOPRO is the first full-field event of the season for the 50-and-over circuit.

“A great place for it,’’ said Peter Jacobsen, who played in the tournament last year and will be on Golf Channel’s broadcasting crew for this one.

Oh yes, he’s also a member at Tiberon, the host club that first welcomed the Chubb in 2021.

PGA Tour Champions made its traditional season debut at the Mitsubishi Championship, but only winners of tournaments from the previous year can play in that one.

“It’s the crown jewel because everyone wants to play there,’’ said Jacobsen, “but all the players are excited to get out and get their year started. Last year was a weird one with Covid.’’

Indeed it was. Last year’s Chubb was moved to April and was one of the many events on all the golf tours that was played without fans in attendance. The fans will be very evident at Tiberon this year, and not just because the tournament won’t be dealing as much with pandemic issues.

The Chubb is always a special event.  It’s become a Florida tradition and this year’s playing marks the tournament’s 35th anniversary. It’s the longest-running Champions Tour event in the same marketplace. The Champions circuit started in 1980, and the Chubb made its debut just eight years later.  It’s  produced plenty of golf excitement ever since.

So, let’s get down to business. Here’s what golf fans need to know in the waning  days before the first tee shot is struck on Tiburon’s Black Course.

Executive director Sandy Diamond (left) and media director Jeremy Friedman give the Chubb a new look.

WHAT’S NEW:  The tourney has a new executive director, but this won’t be Sandy Diamond’s first rodeo. He worked at the tournament 20 years ago, then spent a long career with the PGA Tour before hooking on with the First Tee of Metropolitan New York as its chief development officer.

When the Chubb position opened up Diamond was excited to take it and promptly moved to Naples to oversee management of the tournament.

“My background has been more on the development side – sponsorship, marketing – and not on the operational side,’’ said Diamond, but he’s off to a flying start.  He’s lined up full fields for morning and afternoon pro-ams on both Wednesday and Thursday of tournament week.  There’s a $14,000 fee to get a foursome into the field in those, and Diamond had 56 teams lined up two weeks before the tournament.

“And there’s no freebies,’’ said Diamond.

There may also be another pro-am on Tiberon’s sister Gold Course on Tuesday of tournament week, based on demand.

The Gold Course at Tiburon hosts the LPGA and PGA tours, but not the Champions.

WHAT ABOUT TIBURON? It’s the only facility to host events on the PGA and LPGA tours as well as PGA Tour Champions in a one-year period. The club has taken on that demanding task in a four-month period. The LPGA’s CME Championship, which included the 2021 season, was held in November and was the biggest money event in women’s golf. The QBE Shootout, held in December, brought in an array of PGA Tour stars and now it’s PGA Tour Champions’ turn.

The Chubb is the only event of the big three held on Tiburon’s Black Course.  The other two were held on the Gold.  Both courses were designed by Greg Norman.

WHO’S DEFENDING?  Unfortunately, probably nobody.  Steve Stricker was a one-stroke winner over Robert Karlsson and Alex Cejka last year.  It was the 54-year old’s sixth victory on the Champions circuit, and he followed up with an even more high-profile accomplishment when he captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team to a record 19-9 whomping of Europe at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits course in September.

Unfortunately Stricker was hit with a severe illness – described as an inflammation around his heart — in late November and his participation in the Chubb is doubtful, though reports suggest he has been making big strides in his recovery.

“I don’t think he’ll be here, and that stinks,’’ said Diamond.  “It’d take a minor mira

While Greg Norman designed both Tiburon courses, the Gold and Black have their own distinct qualities.

WHO WILL BE HERE?  Diamond had only a handful of early commitments, but they were some good ones – Jim Furyk, Colin Montgomerie, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Bernhard Langer. David Duval, a former major champion, is also coming.  He made his Champions debut in the Mitsubishi event, finishing in a tie for 34th, and the Chubb will be Duval’s first in a full-field competition. He was the 2001 British Open champion and a former world No. 1.

Later player commitments included Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ian Woosnam, Billy Andrade, Brad Faxon and Dudley Hart. Sponsor exemptions were awarded to Michael Balliet, head pro at nearby Calusa Pines, and amateur Michael Muehr.

There’ll be 78 players in the field, and Diamond promised “The field will be extremely strong.’’

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING:  The first Chubb first champion was Gary Player at The Club at Pelican Bay, the site for the first three years of the tournament.  Other Naples area courses took their shot at hosting – Vineyards, Lely, Bay Colony, Pelican Marsh, TwinEagles, Quail Creek, TP Treviso Bay and The Quarry – before Tiburon joined the mix.

When Player won the purse was only $300,000.  Now it’s $1.6 million. Lee Trevino was the first back-to-back winner (1990-91) and Mike Hill also accomplished the feat in 1993-94.

Langer is the only three-time winner (2011, 2013 and 2016).

BEST STORY LINES: Langer, who lives just a couple hours away, in Boca Raton, is always a good one. Now 64, this guy can still play and will continue to chase Hale Irwin’s record 45 Champions wins at least for another year. Langer has won 41 Champions titles and captured the Charles Schwab Cup  six times, the last win coming last year.

Miguel Angel Jimenez got off to a great start in Hawaii when he won the Mitsubishi event for the third time, this time in a playoff with Steven Alker. Alker was the surprise of last season and will be well-watched if he keeps his success run going.

And who know what to expect from David Duval?

BEST VIEWING HOLES: Jacobsen, who has lived in Naples and been a Tiburon member for 18 years, believes the key holes will be Nos. 2 and 18.

“The second is tight and long, a difficult par,’’ said Jacobsen.  “It’s extremely difficult and tests your driving right off the bat.  The last hole is a reachable par-5.  A player will have the opportunity to make eagle and win the tournament there.’’

“Overall, the Black Course is a good design,’’ said Jacobsen.  “It’s not overly difficult or very long (6,949 yards from the tips).  Greg Norman did a good job.  He designed a course that is good for tour players and resort guests as well.’’

 

 

Ko finally regains winning form on LPGA’s first full-field event of 2022

The battle was intense, but Lydia Ko dropped some key putts as Danielle Kang could only watch.

BOCA RATON, FL. – The first full-field event of the Ladies PGA tour’s 2022 season was just a two-player duel between two of the circuit’s most popular stars. One of them not only came away with a vicrtory but also gave herself a big boost for her Hall of Fame aspirations.

Lydia Ko, a 24-year old New Zealander who was an instant sensation when she came on the tour at age 16,  took her 17th career LPGA title by holding off 29-year old American Danielle Kang.   The good friends were in the spotlight throughout in the $2 million Gainbridge Championship at Boca Rio.

Ko took the first-round lead with a 63 and Kang rallied into a tie for the top spot after 36 holes.  They played together in the final two rounds, and Ko regained her two-stroke advantage with a solid even par round in cold windy weather on Saturday.

Kang, the runner-up to Nelly Korda in last year’s Gainbridge event, got back into a tie when Ko got off to a slow start on Sunday. They took turns taking sole possession of the top spot until Ko claimed it for good with birdies at Nos. 15 and 16, and she protected it with stellar bunker shots to save pars on the final two holes.

“The putt on 15 was really the momentum shifter,’’ said Ko.  “I kept reading it further and further right, and it turned out the perfect read.’’ Kang had the same problem with the read from seven feet and agreed.  But she missed hers.

The winner of last week’s season-opening Tournament of  Champions at Lake Nona, in the Orlando area where Ko now resides, Kang missed a 15-foot birdie putt on the final green to end her hopes of sending the seesaw competition to a playoff. Ko finished at 14-under-par 274 for the regulation 72 holes, one swing better than Kang.

In addition to claiming the $300,000 winner’s check Ko boosted her chances of making it into the LPGA Hall of Fame.  Selection is determined on a performance-based point total.  She has 21 points and needs 27.

“Sometimes I try to be too much of a perfectionist,’’ she said.  “The Hall of Fame would be huge, but I just try to play my best golf.’’

She became the youngest-ever player-of-the-year in professional golf history — male or female — to be named rookie-of-the-year when she started her LPGA career.  Ko won two major championships among her victories early in her career and medals in two Olympics after that,  but wins have been hard to come by – until Sunday.  It was the first of her LPGA victories claimed in the month of Januaryafter failing to win on the LPGA tour in 2021.

Ko is taking this week’s final of three straights stop of the LPGA’s Florida swing off.  This week’s event is the Drive On Championship in Ft. Myers.

Lydia Ko had her driver working, and she wound up with the Gainsbridge trophy.

 

LPGA’s first full-field event will carry on without Annika

Last week’s cold weather hampered Nelly Korda (right) in the LPGA’s Tournament of Champions but warmer temperatures are expected this week at Boca Rio.

 

BOCA RATON, FL. — The first full field event of the LPGA’s 2022 season tees off on Thursday at Boca Rio Golf Club.  It’ll have 120 players, but not Annika Sorenstam.

Sorenstam, who won 72 tournaments on the LPGA tour before taking 13 years off from golf competition, is still tinkering with a comeback but her next tournament won’t be for a while. She was a big reason why the LPGA’s season-opening Tournament of Champions was a big hit.

Despite cold, sometimes rainy, weather the gallery turned out in bigger than usual numbers to see Sorenstam compete at Lake Nona, her home course.  She did well, but is taking a break now.

“I won’t play next week.  It’s the PGA (Merchandise) Show (in Orlando), and we have a fun week coming up,’’ she said.  “We have a busy week with meetings with sponsors.’’

“Next week’’ is also the Gainbridge Championship. Sorenstam will leave that one up to Danielle Kang, who took a three-shot victory in the LPGA portion of the Tournament of Champions on Sunday, and her  main rivals of the previous four days – Mexico’s Gaby Lopez, Canadian Brooke Henderson and the Korda sisters – Nelly and Jessica.

Nelly is the defending champion in the Gainbridge, having won last year when the event was played at Lake Nona. Kang won the T of C,  finishing at 16-under-par for 72 holes and earned $225,000.

“I shot 4-under on a cold day and 3-under (in the third round) – probably the best I’ve ever played in the cold,’’ she said.  Last year Kang lost the Tournament of Champions title to Korda’s sister Jessica in a playoff at Tranquilo, another course in the Orlando area.

Kang, a 29-year old Californian, won for the sixth time on the LPGA tour but her biggest win was her first. She won the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, one of the circuit’s majors, at Olympia Fields.

Sorenstam has a couple tournaments coming up, one in February and a senior event in March. She lost a playoff to former major league pitcher Derek Lowe in the celebrity division of the T of C.  Lowe got the win by making a 25-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death but Sorenstam took the whole four-day test in stride.

“I’m not sure what I expected, but I’m super pleased with the great pairings I had all week,’’ said Sorenstam.  “If this tournament was played at any other course I probably wouldn’t be playing, but this is why I came here in the first place.  The support is fantastic, I love this golf course and I’m a proud member for sure.’’

Sweden’s Madelene Sagstrom won the Gainbridge title when the event was played at Boca Rio in 2020, and she’ll also be in the field this week. She finished 17th in the Tournament of Champions.

Nelly Korda led the T of C after 54 holes but shot 75 on Sunday to finish in a tie for fourth.

“I was freezing,’’ she said.  “I always get colder than it actually is.  That’s why I always stay away from tournaments that are always in the cold.’’

Korda lives in Bradenton, FL., and it’s rarely as cold in the Sunshine State as it was last week. Lexi Thompson, who is from Delray Beach, FL., will make her season debut at Boca Rio.  She didn’t qualify for the T of C field. Australian Karrie Webb is also in the field.  A former major champion, she will return to the LPGA circuit for the first time in two years. The Gainbridge field includes 16 of the top 25 in the world rankings.

The sponsor exemptions are also interesting.  Taylor Collins, a teaching professional at nearby Coral Ridge Country Club in Ft. Lauderdale, was the first woman to win the South Florida PGA Section title in 42 years and Nishtha Madan, a promising player from India, will be making her LPGA debut.  She will compete on the Symetra Tour in 2022.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Annika, Nelly bring an interesting finish to the LPGA’s T of C

Annika Sorenstam, with husband Mike McGee on the bag, is showing — at age 51 — that she can play with the LPGA’s best players in the circuit’s Tournament of Champions.

LAKE NONA, FL. – The Ladies PGA Tour, like the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions, opens each season with a Tournament of Champions.  The women do it a little differently, though. They hold a celebrity event in conjunction with theirs, and Saturday’s third round had an even more unusual twist.

Paired in the final group was the legendary Annika Sorenstam, winner of 72 LPGA titles, and current world No. 1 Nelly Korda.  Both could win titles in today’s final round.

The 22-year old Korda, whose older sister Jessica is the defending champion, owns a one-stroke lead over Danielle Kang and Gaby Lopez among the 29 LPGA members.  Sorenstam, who had been out of tournament golf for 13 years until making a mini-comeback last year, has a two-point lead in the celebrity division.

Sorenstam, a member of the Lake Nona club that is hosting the tournament, is 51 and the only woman in a 50-player field of celebrities that include former Chicago sports heroes Jeremy Roenick, Brian Urlacher, Jon Lester and A.J. Pierzynski. Because the LPGA players are competing at stroke play and the celebrities are using a Stableford point system, it’s  to difficult to compare their performances.

Last year Sorenstam, on a whim, entered an LPGA tournament and made the cut.  Then she was a run-away winner of the U.S. Women’s Senior Open. When she headed the field in the Tournament of Champions, limited to players who have won LPGA titles in the last two years, a comeback story seemed in the offing.

Sorenstam didn’t exactly quell those rumors this week.

“I’m thinking how much golf I’m going to play after this event,’’ she said. “I’m not really sure.’’

She is raising a family now, and that’s just one factor.

“There’s really a fine balance, especially when you play with the best,’’ she said.  “You see the level of players you’re playing against and you realize you’re not there anymore.  My mindset isn’t the way it used to be.’’

She remains a drawing card, however.  In previous years the celebrity competitors drew as much attention as the LPGA competitors in the Tournament of Champions.  On Saturday, in chilly weather that included some rain, that wasn’t the case.  The LPGA regulars and the celebrities were mixed together and the bigger than usual roving galleries supported all the women, but especially Sorenstam and the Korda sisters.

“(Sorenstam) has so much game.  It was cool to see,’’ said Nelly Korda.  “She shot 1- or 2-under on the back nine.  She’s not hitting it as far off the tee, but her woods and iron game is so good.’’

 

 

PGA Show, LPGA tourneys give Florida the real start to golf season

Madelene Sagstrom (left) and the Korda sisters — Nelly (left) and Jessica — will be prime time players when the LPGA opens its season with three tournaments in Florida.

Dismiss the fact that the PGA Tour has played tournaments in Hawaii the last two weeks. The 2022 golf season really starts this week. That’s when the golf spotlight shifts to Florida and will stay there for a while.

The PGA Merchandise Show returns after taking a year off because of pandemic concerns and the LPGA – after concluding 2021 with two stops in the Sunshine State – gets back in action with its first three tournaments of the new year in Florida.

The PGA Tour returns to the mainland with the Farmers Insurance Open in California and PGA Tour Champions has its Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, but those events don’t match the glut of activity the women are planning around the Merchandise Show.

First event is this week’s LPGA’s 2022 debut, the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.  In addition to the new title sponsor the tourney has a new venue, Lake Nona on the outskirts of Orlando.    It’ll be a four-day 72-hole battle of players who have won on the circuit in the last two years and there’ll be a celebrity competition mixed in.  Play begins on Thursday.

As soon as the last putt drops at Lake Nona on Sunday the scene shifts to nearby Orange County National for a scaled down version of the Demo Day that traditionally preceded the big show at the Orange County Convention Center.  Most the major club manufacturers won’t be at the show this time, but there’ll be an array of golf-related companies on hand. It won’t be quite the traditional New Year’s celebration when golf diehards gather, but it’ll be as close to a return to normalcy as we can get for now.

It won’t be easy for the LPGA’s tournament offerings to match last year’s, either.

The 2021 season started with Jessica Korda winning the Tournament of Champions and her sister Nelly winning the first regular season event, the Gainbridge Championship then played at Lake Nona. That was only the second time sisters won back-to-back events on the LPGA Tour, the first being in 2000 when Lake Nona member Annika Sorenstam and her sister Charlotta  pulled off the feat.

This year’s T of C has a new site and a $1.5 million purse for the 72-hole no-cut tournament.  The field includes six of the top 10 in the women’s world rankings and also features Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, who calls Lake Nona “my member course’’ because she practices there throughout the season; and Michelle Wie West.

This year the Gainbridge moves back to Boca Rio, in Boca Raton, with Nelly going in as the defending champion in a 120-player field with $2 million in prize money on the line from Jan. 27-30.  She’s coming off a spectacular year and the Gainbridge win started it all.  It came in late February of 2021 and was her fourth professional win but the first with her parents, both Florida residents, on hand.

Nelly went on to win four more titles in 2021 including the Olympic gold medal  en route to claiming the No. 1 world ranking.  Her sister will be the defending champion at the Tournament of Champions.

Though Nelly is the defender at Boca Rio, Sweden’s Madelene Sagstrom feels like one, too.  She won the 2020 Gainbridge tournament there.  It was her first win as a pro.

“I’m biased about this place,’’ said Sagstrom, who now lives in Orlando and will also be in the field at Lake Nona. “On Friday (of her win in 2020) I shot 62 – my lowest round by three shots.’’

Adding to that, she did it with the father of her boyfriend working as an emergency caddie when her usual bag-toter couldn’t get to the tournament on time. Her game slipped a bit after the tour shut down play a month later.

“Before the pandemic I was on a role, but then we were out for five months and I lost my rhythm for a while,’’ she said, “but I did finish second in a major (T2 at British Open) and got it back.’’

The Gainbridge field also includes Delray Beach resident Lexi Thompson, who will be making her 2022 debut.  She didn’t qualify for the Tournament of Champions.  The field also includes Brooke Henderson, the popular Canadian player; New Zealand’s Lydia Ko and Korea’s Inbee Park, who is coming off a lengthy layoff from competition.

After that the LPGA concludes its run of Florida tourney to start the season at the Feb. 3-5 Drive On Championship at the Crown Colony course  Ft. Myers.