Hugel-Air Premia LA Open
As the LPGA season heats up, an intriguing race for World No. 1 is brewing
Jin Young Ko (left) has seen her grip on World No. 1 dwindled in 2021, with Nos. 2-4, Inbee Park, Sei Young Kim and Nelly Korda, in pursuit. (Getty Images, 4)
LOS ANGELES — The Hollywood sign looms large over Wilshire Country Club, where the LPGA’s Hugel-Air Premia LA Open begins on Wednesday. It’s apropos of the drama that could be playing out this week and throughout the spring and summer on the LPGA Tour.
Since July 2019, Jin Young Ko has held the No. 1 spot on the Rolex Women’s Rankings, the stretch including 82 weeks of active play and eight weeks when the rankings were frozen during the COVID-19 hiatus. Yet her nearest rival, World No. 2 Inbee Park, has been steadily creeping closer to Ko on the points list in recent weeks. Park, who won her 22nd career LPGA title at the Kia Classic last month, trails Ko by an average of .67 points after opening the season 2.51 points behind. In addition to her Kia win, Park was T-7 at the ANA Inspiration and tied for runner-up last week at the Lotte Championship.
It isn’t just Park who is putting heat on Ko. Sei Young Kim and Nelly Korda, Nos. 3 and 4 in the latest Rolex Ranking, have both gotten off to solid starts in 2021. Kim also finished T-2 at the Lotte and T-3 at the ANA, and has posted top-25s in 17 of her last 19 starts dating back to October 2019.
“Yeah, definitely that’s my biggest goal, and I keep push myself,” said Kim, a 13-time tour winner, of becoming World No. 1. “Yeah, I wish I could reach what I goal this year.”
Korda, also T-2 last week, won earlier this year at the Gainbridge LPGA, was T-3 at ANA and T-10 at Kia. She’s the trying to become the first U.S. player to reach No. 1 since Stacy Lewis in 2014.
“It's a cool accomplishment to be the highest ranked American, but definitely my No. 1 goal as a professional golfer is to be the No. 1 golfer in the world,” Korda said early last year.
All three golfers will be competing this week in Los Angeles, the tournament that started in 2018 but was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic having 15 of the top 18 players in the world in the field.
Ko has been No. 1 in the Rolex Women's Rankings since July 2019.
While the race for No. 1 is tightening, it’s not as if Ko is making it easy for her rivals to continue their pursuit. The 25-year-old from South Korea has finished in the top seven in three of her four starts in 2021, with two solo fourth-place finishes at the Gainbridge LPGA and Kia Classic.
Ko did not return to the United States when the LPGA Tour initially resumed play last summer, competing on the KLPGA Tour until eventually making the trip from her home country in November. At that time, it was Kim who crept up on Ko’s lead at No. 1 by winning the KPMG Women’s PGA and the Pelican Women’s Championship in consecutive starts. But Ko responded with a runner-up at the U.S. Women's Open and a victory at the CME Group Tour Championship. By taking the $1 million check in the season-ending tournament, Ko claimed the 2020 money title in four starts.
This week, Ko can lean on good vibes from her previous starts at Wilshire. She finished T-5 and T-2 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, hinting that the venue might be one where she can hold her own.
“I’m just trying to play my game, and focus on my game, not the other players,” Ko said on Tuesday. “Even Sei Young, or Inbee, or Nelly, or the other players, I don’t care really.”
Maybe she doesn’t, but those giving chase do. And they’re not likely to give up until they catch her.