LPGA retains Tournament of Champions theme in its opener

Brooke Henderson did the celebrating at Lake Nona in 2023. (Joy Sarver Photos)

The PGA Tour no longer starts its season with a Tournament of Champions.  The field at last week’s Sentry event in Hawaii, for better or worse, was dominated by players who got in by finishing in the top-50 finish in last year’s FedEx Cup.

The LPGA, though, will again celebrate its recent winners at its season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona, in Orlando FL. It’ll have a January 18-21 run, which makes it a convenient lead-in to the nearby PGA Merchandise Show at the Orange County Convention Center.

While the women have preserved the Tournament of Champions concept by inviting the winners of its tournaments over the last two years, they must share the attention and tee times with celebrities and amateurs who come from the worlds of music, entertainment and sports.

The LPGA stars play for a $1.5 million purse – official prize money — over 72 holes and the celebrities and amateurs compete in a separate competition using a modified Stableford scoring system. The event will be televised nationally on The Golf Channel and NBC.

Admittedly using two formats in one event is unusual, but this one works given its spot on the schedule.  The LPGA debuted this format in 2019 and the celebrity/amateur division has been dominated by baseball standout John Smoltz and Mardy Fish, a one-time professional tennis player. That division has a $500,000 purse and supplements – without distracting from – the LPGA competition.

The preliminary entries included 35 LPGA players, among them a solid contingent of the circuit’s top stars, and about 50 celebrity/amateurs are also expected to compete.  LPGA players include Canadian Brooke Henderson, the defending champion; 2023 Rolex Player of the Year Lilia Vu, Olympic champion Nelly Korda and New Zealand’s Lydia Ko.

They’ll be in competitive mode, with the regular season beginning Jan. 25 with the Drive In Championship at another Florida course, Bradenton Country Club.

While the now gone PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions was a long-time fixture for the men, the LPGA’s version didn’t start until 2019.  It was first held at Four Seasons in Lake Buena Vista before moving to Lake Nona in 2022.

Lake Nona is the home course of LPGA legend Annika Sorenson, and she has been a competitor in the competition in the past as a celebrity. Her foundation will be the prime beneficiary of this year’s tournament.

Henderson led wire-to-wire last year, finishing with a four-stroke edge on runner-ups Charley Hull of England and Maja Stark of Sweden.  Fish won the celebrity division for the third time.