LPGA changes are imminent as season winds down

Linking up with Annika Sorenstam changed the atmosphere at Pelican.

BELLAIR, Florida – Changing times on the LPGA Tour are unlike the PGA-LIV soap opera on the men’s circuit, but the women are in the progress of some adjusting, too – starting with the name of the season’s penultimate tournament.  Instead of using the name of the host club in the title, what was the Pelican is now The Annika driven by Gainbridge at Pelican.

It honors Annika Sorenstam, one of golf’s all-time greats.  It’s the first time an LPGA tournament has been named in honor of a player, and more legends might be recognized down the road.

“It’s important to have history involved in the game,’’ said Stacy Lewis, the U.S. Solheim Cup captain.  “It’s important for these girls to know the players that have come before them.  Fortunately, everybody knows Annika. I wish we had more of them because there are a lot of players that played even before Annika that we probably haven’t done a good job of honoring.  There needs to be more of it.’’

Betsy King, Nancy Lopez and Kathy Whitworth have been similarly honored at tournaments, but not quite like Sorenstam. The Annika has a bigger purse ($3.25 million, biggest on the LPGA circuit minus the majors and CME event) and a better field than was the case in the event’s three seasons as the Pelican. The signage and décor very much highlighted Sorenstam’s connection to the event.

One difference was evident even before Thursday’s first round was over when darkness set in at 5:48 p.m. with one player still to finish.  Nelly Korda, the champion the last two years, had a less-than-ideal start. Though she shot a 67 on the par-70 Donald Ross design course, Korda trailed nine of the players who also had morning starting times and she was tied for 31st when Thursday’s play ended. Canadian Brooke Henderson was the leader with an 8-under-par 62.

Two-time defending champion Nelly Korda wasn’t at her best in The Annika’s debut at the Pelican, but the colorful atmosphere was refreshing.

Lexi Thompson, runner-up twice in the previous three years, started in the afternoon and posted a 64 with a lot of added pressure.  The CME Group Tour Championship, the biggest money event in women’s golf with $7 million on the line, is coming up Nov. 16-19 to conclude the season.  Only 60 players will qualify for the CME at another Florida facility, Tiburon in Naples. (Tiberon will also be the site of a new December event in which some LPGA players team up with players on the PGA Tour).

Thompson, who has missed the cut in eight tournaments this year and had only two top-10 finishes, stands 88th in the point standings so she needs to climb the leaderboard before the tourney ends on Sunday.  New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, another top player for many years, is also on the outside of the CME field, too.  She stands 101st.

Stacy’s Solheim Cup team is also smarting from a 14-14 tie in Spain, which enabled their European counterparts to retain possession of the trophy.

“I hate how it finished because I felt we played good enough to win,’’ said Lewis, who will return as the American captain the next time the bi-annual event is played.  “There are definitely some changes to be made.’’