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12 players to watch at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

Lexi Thompson watches her tee shot on the seventh hole during the opening round last week's Meijer LPGA Classic.

Gregory Shamus

June 22, 2021

Majors on the LPGA Tour have become a breeding ground in recent years for first-time victories and newcomers getting their initial sip of stardom. Dating back to Jeongeun Lee6’s victory at 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, seven of the last 10 major champions made a major their maiden LPGA victory. That trend has continued in 2021, with long bombers Patty Tavatanakit and Yuka Saso claiming the titles at the ANA Inspiration and the U.S. Women's Open.

Heading into the third major of the year, this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, the question is will we see it happen again? There are a handful of worthy candidates who might be the next to do so among our 12 players to watch, but also some players who remind us of Sei Young Kim, proven LPGA winners looking simply to take the next step in their careers.

Yuka Saso
The recent U.S. Women’s Open champion took a scenic detour to Atlanta through San Diego, visiting her idol Rory Mcilroy and spending time with him inside the ropes at the U.S. Open. The two chatted about what it takes to stay dominant for as long as he has and the lesson of taking copious notes after every practice session could prove helpful as Saso looks to join historic company. Beverly Hanson (1951 Eastern Open) and Jin Young Ko (2018 ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open) are the only two players in LPGA history to win their first start as a tour member. Saso officially became a member after her win at Olympic Club and would love to make LPGA win No. 2 also be a major.

Ezra Shaw

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Nelly Korda
It certainly can’t hurt to win the week before a major, and Korda did so in style at the Meijer LPGA Classic. The 22-year-old shot a career-low 62 on Saturday and followed it with a closing 67 to win by two shots, her fifth career LPGA title. It helped wash away the disappointment of a missed cut at the U.S. Women’s Open earlier in the month. This will be her 26th career start in a major, with top-10s in four of the last nine. Suffice it to say, the World No. 3 is getting anxious to add a major title to her résumé.

Icon Sportswire

• • •

Jessica Korda
When Sei Young Kim won the 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Jessica inherited the title, for better or worse, of winningest LPGA player without a major. After her sixth career victory in January at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, Korda mentioned she feels healthier than she's felt in a while, which likely explains how she’s racked up three top-three finishes in eight starts so far in 2021. Another strong performance this week will lock up her spot on the U.S. Olympic team; she's 13th in the Rolex Rankings and needs to stay in the top 15 while warding off any other Americans chasing from behind.

Sam Greenwood

• • •

Nasa Hataoka
The U.S. Women's Open runner-up is coming off her second playoff defeat in a major; Sung Hyun Park defeated her at Kemper Lakes during the 2018 KPMG Women’s PGA after Hataoka shot a 64 to jump from 23rd place to start that final round. She preceded her performance at Olympic Club by reaching the Round of 16 at the Bank of Hope LPGA Match Play, her first top-10 finish in 12 starts. Not only is she looking for her first major (and first overall win since the 2019 Kia Classic), Atlanta Athletic Club is the last chance to secure a spot on the Japanese team that will compete at home in the Olympics.

Ken Ishii

• • •

Leona Maguire
No player has arguably had a better year in 2021 and not won on tour than the 26-year-old Irishwoman. At the LPGA Mediheal Championship two weeks ago, Maguire held the 18-hole lead and ended up finishing T-3. At the Meijer LPGA Classic, she held the 36-hole lead and finished runner-up. The dominant amateur is turning the corner on the LPGA, with her T-2 finish at the Lotte Championship rounding out a season that screams Solheim Cup selection for Team Europe. Maguire’s new game gets its second major test of the season, finishing T-28 at the ANA Inspiration in April. She’s looking for her first top-10 at a major in her 14th career major start.

Andy Lyons/PGA of America

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Jennifer Kupcho
Look no further than Kupcho for your clubhouse favorite to become the latest to make a major her first LPGA victory. After a Friday 65 at Aronimink Golf Club a year ago, the 24-year-old sat in second place. She then shot two over on the weekend to slip to T-7. This year, she was T-8 after an opening 69 at the ANA Inspiration before an uncharacteristic 77 knocked her out of contention Saturday. Then, she was in the top 10 again after the first round at Olympic Club before finishing T-26. Kupcho’s second major start as a professional was the 2019 Evian Championship, which highlights her major resume, shooting a glimmering 66 Sunday to finish T-2. Kupcho is also in a good Solheim Cup ranking position heading into this week after a T-10 at the Meijer LPGA Classic and can place a locked grip on her roster slot with a victory.

Michael Reaves

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Shanshan Feng
Feng returned to the LPGA in 2021 after a year of not playing during the COVID-19 pandemic and immediately was in contention at the ANA Inspiration, finishing T-3. The Chinese star followed that with a fourth-place showing at the U.S. Women’s Open. The former World No. 1, a 10-time LPGA winner, aims for her second career major title, but her first since winning this event, then known as the Wegmans LPGA Championship, in 2012.

Jed Jacobsohn

• • •

Hannah Green
The 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA champion hasn't been back to her home in Perth, Australia, since leaving to come to the United States for the Kia Classic in March. So she and her team announced that she’ll take five weeks off after competing at Atlanta Athletic Club to see family and rest up for the Olympics. It was no easy decision, Green said, but one she needed to make to stay both physically and mentally fit and healthy. Her game looks poised for a nice potential send-off; since gaining 15 yards off the tee in the offseason, she’s had five top-15 finishes and leads the LPGA in average birdies per round.

David Cannon

• • •

Jin Young Ko
The World No. 1 finished the 2020 season by winning the CME Group Tour Championship but has gone nine starts in 2021 without a victory. Since winning the 2019 ANA Inspiration, Ko has had an average finish in majors of sixth place, which was actually bumped up slightly after a T-7 at the U.S. Women's Open earlier this month. Interestingly, though, Ko is looking for her first top-10 at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, finishing T-11 in 2018 and T-14 in 2019. Ko did not play in 2020 as she remained in Korea due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Reaves

• • •

Lexi Thompson
Thompson opened up a bit after losing a five-shot lead with eight holes to play at the U.S. Women’s Open, explain how she leaned on her support team in the wake of the disappointing finish. Her work with mental coach John Denney kept her smiling at the LPGA Mediheal Championship, where she finished T-34. Thompson improved to T-20 at the Meijer LPGA Classic. Her true test of moving past the disappointment of Olympic Club will be how she handles her 53rd career major start this week.

Sean M. Haffey

• • •

So Yeon Ryu
Ryu, a two-time major winner trying desperately to qualify for the Olympics, has finished in the top six in four of her last seven starts. She’s ranked 16th in the Rolex Rankings, but has to pass Hyo Joo Kim in ninth to become the fourth and final golfer from South Korea to get a ticket to Tokyo. It's almost as if the winner's circle is playing zone defense against Ryu, as she's finished in the top three eight times in 45 starts since her last win in 2018. Ryu has some scar tissue from this major; she had a four-shot lead entering the final round in 2018 only to shoot one over par on Sunday and lose in a three-way playoff to Sung Hyun Park.

Lionel Ng

• • •

In Gee Chun
The two-time major champion has played her last 70 holes bogey-free and heads into AAC off a T-3 at the Meijer LPGA Classic after shooting a 21 under par. If not for being DQ'd after failing to sign her scorecard after the second round of the Kia Classic while sitting tied for fourth, she could have six top-10s this season. Still, her five are more than she had combined in 2019 and 2020, the most in a season since she had 12 in 2017. The 26-year-old admitted at the start of the Kia Classic that she has faced battles with her mental health and it was difficult to process her poor results and not let it hamper her emotional well-being.

Thananuwat Srirasant