By Jeff Babineau
Women’s professional golf is back in Boca Raton this week with the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio, the first full-field event of the 2022 LPGA season.
World No. 1 Nelly Korda, who captured the Gainbridge title last February when the tournament was staged for one year at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando, is back to defend her crown. Korda, 23, had a disappointing finish to the season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions on Sunday, struggling to a final-round 75 in cold and windy conditions, but nonetheless tied for fourth and will look to start another run of great play beginning on Thursday.
“I had some good moments and I had some iffy moments, too,” Korda said. “In all, I hope I can ride the good into this event.”
Korda won five times in 2021, a season that not only included her first major championship victory (KPMG Women’s PGA), but also a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Japan. Prior to Sunday at the Tournament of Champions, Korda had posted 11 consecutive rounds in the 60s, which was just three shy of the all-time LPGA record (14, Annika Sorenstam).
Korda played deep into the 2021 calendar, participating with her father, former Australian Open tennis champion Petr Korda, in the PNC Championship, a team event that took place in December. It was there she took a prized photo with Tiger Woods and showed off her impressive game to an expanded audience. She is looking forward to opening her 2022 with three consecutive starts in Florida, and then plans to take a six-week break to get refreshed for the long season.
“It’s a no-brainer starting in Florida three weeks. I can drive everywhere,” said Korda. “The main focus always for the year is to stay healthy and fresh. I usually play around 22 events a year, and that, just to me, works.”
It certainly worked nicely a year ago. In one sense, Korda is a co-defender at this week’s Gainbridge LPGA. When the event was played at Boca Rio two years ago, it was Sweden’s Madelene Sagstrom breaking through to win. Sagstrom shot a career-best 62 in the second round and held 36- and 54-hole leads. On Sunday, she birdied the 17th hole to pull into a tie for the lead, and won when Japan’s Nasa Hataoka missed a 3-foot par putt on the final green.
“It made me feel like I belong,” Sagstrom said of her first LPGA triumph. “That was my fourth season on tour, and I kind of just … it’s hard when you come out and you don’t really perform where you think you should perform.
“So, for me, it was kind of I belong out here, I can play against the best players in the world, and just made me feel more comfortable, confident, and just trusting my game a little bit more. It was a huge step in that direction.”
This week’s 120-player field features 16 of the top 25 players from the Rolex Rankings. The field includes Danielle Kang, who played brilliantly over the weekend and won for the first time in 18 months. Kang never played very well on the cold, so in the offseason she worked on that in Las Vegas, and was the only player in the 60s in both weekend rounds. For a second consecutive week, players are expecting to encounter unseasonably cold Florida conditions, with temperatures expected to dip into the 30s overnight on Saturday, and stay in the 50s for the weekend rounds.
“I think most people wish we had that coming to Scottish Open in the summer, but I guess we start in Florida this time,” Sagstrom said, smiling. “I think we all know you have to adjust your game when that happens. Obviously, it would be nicer if it was 75 and sunny, but it’s part of what we do for a living. You just have to suck it up and just go with the flow. Bring some hand warmers out, bring the beanie out, and get ready.”
Competing for the first time in nearly two years will be World Golf Hall of Fame member Karrie Webb, 47, a 41-time LPGA winner (seven major titles) who lives and plays nearby. Last week, former World No. 1 Annika Sorenstam was part of the field at the TOC, competing in the celebrity division. On Sunday, she played in the final grouping alongside Nelly Korda and Mexico’s Gaby Lopez.