Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 26, 2014

LPGA And Jessica Korda Off To A Fast Start

After experiencing a January thaw earlier in the month, New England and much of the East Coast has been plunged back into a deep freeze. This weekend the low winter sun brought light but no warmth, as the thermometer struggled to climb out of the teens. It was a good weekend to dream of warmer climes, and tuning into the Golf Channel’s coverage of the LPGA’s opening tournament surely helped.

It is a given that the women’s tour will always play in the long shadow cast by the PGA Tour. Fueled by the dominance and celebrity of Tiger Woods, the men’s tour enjoyed explosive growth through the last decade. It was growth the likes of which golf had not seen since the ‘60s and 70s. The advent of weekend television coverage brought first the swashbuckling play of Arnold Palmer, then the laser-like irons of Jack Nicklaus into living rooms, dramatically broadening golf’s appeal beyond the country club set.

Commissioner Tim Finchem gets credit for the recent explosion in purses and a schedule that now spans the globe and scarcely takes a break. But surely Finchem knows it is the likes of Woods and Phil Mickelson that fans are paying or tuning in to see; just as his predecessor Deane Beman knew when he became the PGA Tour’s head in 1974 that it wasn’t his idea for The Players Championship and spectator-friendly TPC courses but rather the exploits of Nicklaus and Tom Watson that were bringing an earlier generation to the game.

In the last few years the PGA Tour barely gave a nod to the hard economic times that brought ruin to many families and left other sports struggling. The LPGA was not so lucky, with the women’s tour suffering a virtual near-death experience just a few years ago. As recently as 2011 the LGPA’s schedule had shrunk to just 23 events. Play didn’t begin until late February, and then proceeded in fits and starts, with gaping holes in the tournament calendar. But as I noted in this space two months ago, under the leadership of former marketing whiz Michael Whan, the LPGA is back in growth mode. This week’s leadoff event in the Bahamas was the first of 33 official tournaments, and total prize money is up fifteen percent over last season.

Given pride of place on this year’s LPGA schedule, the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic had its inaugural outing last May. As it turned out, the Pure Silk was the perfect tournament to start the new season, because no imagery could so dramatically demonstrate how far the LPGA has come in so short a time as the pictures from the Ocean Club Golf Course this year as compared to last.

Just as the players were arriving on Paradise Island last May, the island chain of the Bahamas was being drenched by tropical downpours. More than a foot of rain fell on the Tuesday of tournament week. Much of the course became one giant water hazard. Intrepid young women golfers traded in their woods and irons for fishing poles. The grounds crew pumped more than 45 million gallons of water off the course, but despite their best efforts several holes remained unplayable. In the end the LPGA shortened the tournament to three rounds from four, and the layout to twelve holes instead of the usual eighteen. The thirty-six holes played represent the bare minimum for an official event, and allowed eventual winner Ilhee Lee of Korea to claim her first ever LPGA victory. The inaugural Pure Silk was emblematic of the LPGA’s recent history, as the Tour and its players made the best of a bad situation.

This week’s pictures had to be much more to the liking of the islands’ tourist board. Under brilliant sunshine and lapis lazuli skies, with the Atlantic sparkling in the background, 108 players teed off on schedule on Thursday, with all eighteen holes of the 6,644 yard, par 73 Ocean Club in play. In just her second tournament as a professional, 16-year old phenom Lydia Ko of New Zealand, who won two LPGA events as an amateur and very nearly captured last season’s final major, shared the first round lead with a 5-under par 68. Ko ultimately finished in a tie for 7th, the first of what seems likely to be innumerable top-10 finishes by the teenager who is already ranked 4th in the world.

On Friday the wind picked up, but it didn’t blow Paula Creamer off course. The 27-year old American has nine LPGA wins but amazingly none since her gritty triumph at the 2010 Women’s U.S. Open. Creamer opened the second round with a double-bogey, but then recorded ten birdies over the remainder of the round to shoot a tournament record 65, 8-under par. Yet her brilliant play still left Creamer one shot behind playing partner Jessica Korda. The lanky 20-year old American, who was just 17 when she turned pro, managed eight birdies of her own in firing a 66. Following her opening round of 69, Korda led the field into the weekend at 11-under par.

The revolving leaderboard turned in favor of Korea’s Na Yeon Choi on Saturday. Choi’s third round 66 took her to 15-under, one stroke better than American Lizette Salas. Korda and Creamer were two shots further adrift, while fellow American and world #3 Stacy Lewis was another stroke back. But when Lewis gets hot she can make up four strokes in no time, and on Sunday Stacy Lewis got hot. She recorded six birdies in her first eight holes to rocket up the leaderboard. As the final groups walked the course’s closing stretch, Lewis held a two-shot lead over Korda and Choi, with Creamer just behind them.

But Korda had been supremely comfortable on that closing stretch all week. The Ocean Course’s final four holes feature a pair of reachable par-5s sandwiching the tough par-4 16th and even more difficult par-3 17th. In the end those four holes made all the difference. On Sunday Lewis made four pars, and for the week she was one over on that part of the golf course. Given the pair of easy par-5s that had to leave an unpleasant taste in her mouth. Creamer made two birdies, and was one better than that on the four holes for the entire tournament, but entered the home stretch too far behind. Choi made a costly bogey on the 16th, and for the week played the stretch just 1-under par.

Seeking her second LPGA win, Korda finished 4-4-2-4, making birdies on both of the par-5s as well as the fiendish par-3 17th. The three birdies allowed her to catch and pass Lewis. For the tournament she dominated that part of the golf course, going 7-under par on those final four holes. When a nervy 10-foot putt found the bottom of the cup at the home hole, Jessica Korda had her second victory, and the LPGA had a successful, and happily dry, start to its new season. And back in frozen New England, we got to watch images that were welcome reminders that warmth will one day come again.

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Responses

  1. The LPGA thanks you, I am sure!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Well if they do Michael Whan could send me a check! 🙂 Thanks as always,

      M-


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