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What’s at stake—beyond the $1.1 million winner’s check—at the CME Group Tour Championship

December 16, 2020

Inbee Park, a 20-time LPGA Tour winner, is in line two claim the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year award for only the second time in her career.

Jamie Squire

It’s the final tournament on the LPGA Tour in 2020, with 72 golfers getting ready to play in Naples, Fla., after a chilly U.S Women’s Open in Houston. The field is competing for the biggest winner’s check in women’s golf at this week’s CME Group Tour Championship: $1.1 million. But players are eyeing more than a big payday in the 2020 finale. Though the shortened season resulted in a few of the tour’s year-end awards not being handed out—notably the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year and the Rolex Annika Major Award—the Rolex Player of the Year and the Vare Trophy are both still on the line, and both far from clinched.

A year ago, Jin Young Ko had wrapped up Player of the Year honors before the start of the finale at Tiburón Golf Club, the award determined by a season-long points totals based off top-10 finishes in every tournament (30 for a win, 12 for second, nine for third down to one for 10th), majors worth double.

This year, it’s a much tighter race.

Currently in the lead is Inbee Park, with 112 points. KPMG Women’s PGA champ Sei Young Kim is just six points behind with 106 points. Kim has a good history at Tiburón: in 2019, she dropped a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the tournament.

After Kim, there’s a bit of a drop off, with Danielle Kang at 87 points. If she were to win, grabbing 30 points, and Park doesn’t finish in the top six, and Kim no higher than third, Kang would win Player of the Year. After winning the first two events in the tour’s return to golf from the COVID-19 hiatus in the summer, winning the last event of 2020 would be a fitting end for Kang.

For Kim, it’d be the biggest accomplishment in the 27-year-old South Korean’s career thus far. Which is saying something, as she’s a 12-time winner on the LPGA Tour, including her first major this year.

Sei Young Kim is defending her title at the CME Group Tour Championship.

Mike Ehrmann

“It’s a big motivator to me because I never had the Player of the Year in my life. So that’s biggest in my career if I did that,” Kim said.

The Vare Trophy is awarded to the player with the lowest scoring average for the season. In 2019, Ko also won that award with a 69.052 scoring average. In a normal year, players have to have completed 70 rounds to qualify for the award. With the shortened season—the CME will be the 18th tour event played in 2020—players would have to have played every event to hit the 70-round mark. So, players have to have played 48 rounds at the completion of the CME to be eligible this year.

A number of players didn’t travel to play on tour until later in the season because of the pandemic, so the number who are eligible is slimmer than usual. Ko, for example, isn’t close to the minimum because she’ll have only played four events at the completion of the CME.

Heading into the CME, Kim is leading with 68.677 scoring average. The catch is that she’s only played 31 rounds in 2020. Brooke Henderson is next (69.727), but she’s ineligible, too, as is Inbee Park (69.927) and Nasa Hataoka (69.953). Danielle Kang, however, has a scoring average of 69.978 and has played 45 rounds thus far, so the four additionally from this week’s no-cut event would put her at 49.

Winner of the first two events after the LPGA's COVID restart, Danielle Kang is leading the race among eligible golfers for the Vare Trophy (low scoring average) entering the season finale.

Mike Comer

The next eligible player and Kang's closest competition is Moriya Jutanugarn, at 70.522.

With everything that is on the line at the CME, especially for Park given her lead in the Player of the Year race, the pressure comes off a bit with the perspective that the 32-year-old veteran has about the season. Winning $1.1 million would be fantastic, and, of course, winning POY would be an honor (she previously won it in 2013). But all that has happened in 2020 has shifted the 20-time LPGA Tour winner’s thinking.

“It would be nice to have another award obviously, but, like I said, this year has been a gift. I'm just happy that we got to play,” Park said. “Just that’s really all I can ask for. If the results follow, that's great. If not, I'm just really happy we're out here and playing and playing some really good golf.”

Playing with gratitude has worked for her thus far: She’s finished in the top 10 in eight of her 12 starts in 2020.

It might just work again.