ORLANDO, FLORIDA | On a frigid weekend for the Sunshine State, the LPGA Tour wasted no time warming up. The leaderboard at the season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions couldn’t have been better if it had been scripted for a Jack Wagner movie on Hallmark. The event that included 29 LPGA winners playing alongside a spate of celebrities (Wagner among them) historically has been like a nice New Year’s handshake: Great to see you again, now let’s get down to business. But this year, the best players in the women’s game decided to dispense with the formalities and go after it right away.
How good was the show at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club? The final group on Sunday included world No. 1 Nelly Korda, who won on this golf course a year ago when the Gainbridge LPGA was moved out of Boca Raton for a one-off due to COVID-19. Korda was joined by Gaby Lopez, who won the 2020 Tournament of Champions in a protracted playoff against Nasa Hataoka, which was the last time ski caps came out at this event. Rounding out the last threesome was Annika Sörenstam – yes, that Annika Sörenstam – who led the celebrity division after three rounds and was neck-and-neck all day with former Major League Baseball pitcher Derek Lowe.
Lowe was playing in the penultimate group with major champion Danielle Kang, the No. 10 player in the Rolex Rankings who began Sunday a stroke back. A group ahead of them was Brooke Henderson, who started two behind. Being from Ontario, Henderson was the one player in contention who chuckled at anyone complaining about the cold.
Kang appeared unfazed by anything. It felt like she came in with something to prove. After losing the Tournament of Champions last year in a playoff to the other Korda (Jessica), Kang went through her first winless season since she broke out in 2017 at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
While she had a great time playing with the celebrities, Kang had that look in her eye. She’s what the old-timers call a fireplug, full of spunk and vinegar, which can go either way. On Saturday, after hitting a pop-fly tee shot to short right field on the 18th, she almost broke her driver over her back. There are more than a few times when Kang makes observers take a few steps back. But she also can be the funniest person in a foursome, quick with a tip and a broad, beaming smile.
It felt like she came in with something to prove. After losing the Tournament of Champions last year in a playoff to the other Korda (Jessica), Danielle Kang went through her first winless season since she broke out in 2017 ...
Playing with Lowe might have helped her on Sunday. Rather than the intensity of staring Korda and Lopez in the eye, Kang could talk baseball and encourage Lowe. In the process, she made two birdies and a bogey on the front nine and a third birdie on the par-5 11th.
One hole later, the par-3 12th, proved to be the turning point.
With Korda struggling, Lopez jumped out with consecutive birdies on Nos. 5, 6 and 7. But then she made a mess of No. 9, a par-5 and the easiest hole on the course. After laying up, Lopez missed the green short, then hit a poor pitch and made a bad bogey. A birdie at 11 gave Lopez a one-shot lead. But then Lopez missed the green again on the 12th and failed to get up and down.
Moments earlier, Kang had hit an aggressive 7-iron on the par-3 that landed in the high grass but bounded forward and left her with an 8-footer for birdie. When Kang made the birdie and Lopez followed behind with a bogey, Kang held her first solo lead since the opening round.
Kang added to it with a 12-footer for birdie at 13 and another at the par-5 15th. An adventurous bogey at 16 wound up not hurting. Kang took a 3-shot lead ahead of Henderson into the final hole where she was able to enjoy the music (a DJ blared tunes to the crowd every afternoon). She finished 16 under to chalk up her sixth career victory, the first since August 2020.
A few minutes later, Lowe drained a 15-footer to beat Sörenstam in a playoff for the celebrity prize.
What a start. And what a wonderful opening show for fans of the women’s game.