Fassi’s 62 perks up a late start in the LPGA’s Pelican tourney

Maria Fassi falls back on her heels after a birdie putt lips out on the final hole Friday, depriving her  of a Pelican tournament record 61.

BELLEAIR, Florida – As the last full-field event of the season, the Pelican Championship is important for LPGA players. The top 60 on the season point list qualify for next week’s $7 million CME Group Championship in Naples, where $2 million – the largest first prize in the history of women’s golf – will be on the line.  Plus, the top 100 on the point list after Sunday’s final round here earn their playing privileges for the 2023 season.

The final staging of the 120-player event under the name of The Pelican hasn’t been ideal.  Originally scheduled for 72 holes, the first round was cancelled due to a visit from Hurricane Nicole on Thursday and the event was reduced to 54 holes.

Nicole, the second hurricane ravaging most of Florida in the last six weeks, left the course soggy for Friday’s rescheduled Round 1 and created a shortage of space for parking.  The main lot was too muddy in some spots on a day when organizers had planned a Veterans Day celebration amidst the golf.

None of that bothered Mexico’s Maria Fassi, however.  She wasn’t qualified for the CME event heading into the Pelican but took the first-round lead with an 8-under-par 62. That was good for a two-stroke lead on American Lexi Thompson, Hong Kong’s Tiffany Chan, Spain’s Carlota Ciganda, Republic of Korea’s Hy Joo Kim, and Germany’s Isa Gabsa entering Saturday’s Round 2.

“Every one of us wants to be at the CME,’’ said Fassi, “and this had been a tough season for me at the beginning.  I got back on my feet towards the middle and now – especially after today’s round – I have a chance. I’ve just got to keep doing what I did today.  If I keep taking care of myself and hitting good golf shots that will take care of itself.’’

The day off caused by the hurricane worked in Fassi’s favor after she played tournaments in Japan and Korea the last two weeks.

“I loved it,’’ said Fassi.  Poor putting held her back the last two weeks, but not on Friday.  She shot 30 on the back nine, making an eagle at No. 14 and lipping out a birdie put on No. 18 that would have given her the tournament course record.  Ireland’s Leona Maguire shot 62 in the first round last year.

“I knew a round like this could happen any time in the year,’’ said Fassi.  But she was especially glad it happened Friday when she badly needed it.

Nelly Korda, who won last year’s Pelican tourney in a four-player playoff, shot a 66 Friday but is still four shots behind leader Maria Fassi after Round 1.

Despite the inopportune time for the hurricane’s visit, the Pelican has been elevating its profile lately.

In September the LPGA and tournament staff announced that the Tampa Bay area’s LPGA event would be rebranded as “The Annika Driven by Gainbridge at Pelican,’’ in honor of legendary Annika Sorenstam assuming the duties of tournament host. Sorenstam’s Foundation will benefit from the event, to be played Nov. 6-12, 2023.

Along with that development came the announcement that the prize fund would be increased from this year’s $2 million to $3.25 million in 2023.  That’ll make the tournament the LPGA’s best-paying event outside of the major championships and the CME Group climax to the season.

Gainbridge had sponsored LPGA tournaments in Indianapolis from 2017-19 and Boca Raton and Orlando, in Florida, the last three years. The company wanted to stay involved with the premier women’s golf circuit.

More recently The Pelican was named the site of  “The Match,’’ an exhibition entering its seventh season on Dec. 10.  The format has changed over the years, and next month’s version at the Pelican will be played over 12 holes under the lights with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy taking on Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.

Lydia Ko (left) was all smiles before shooting a 68 and Lexi Thompson spent time with her dog after posting a 66. Ko and Thompson were losers to Nelly Korda in a playoff at last year’s Pelican.