LPGA preview: Golf’s best rivalry headlines the 2022 season

Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko enter the 2022 season as the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

​​The LPGA Tour marches into 2022 with a new commissioner at the helm, a record purse and 34 tournaments on the schedule, the most since 2017.

Only nine weeks removed from Jin Young Ko’s thrilling finish to win LPGA Player of the Year over Nelly Korda, the best women’s golfers in the world tee off at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in Orlando this weekend. As the calendar year begins, here’s what we’re looking forward to in the tour’s 72nd season.

Korda versus Ko, Part Two? Not so fast

Ko’s victory at the CME Group Tour Championship in mid-November put the finishing touches on a budding rivalry between the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the Rolex World Rankings. Ko and Korda closed out the season as if they were competing in a heavy-weight boxing match, combining to win the final four events. Ko came away with the Player of the Year award, her second in the last three years, as well as the money title for the third consecutive year.

As the golfers enter the 2022 season, however, past returns don’t guarantee future results.

The last time the top two players with the most victories repeated the following season was in 2015, when Lydia Ko and Inbee Park (and Stacy Lewis) won three times each in 2014 and then five times each in 2015. Other than that, you have to go back to 2002-03, when future Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak led the tour in victories in back-to-back years. Sorenstam had 11 wins in 2002 and five in 2003, while Pak recorded five in 2002 and three in 2003 alongside Candie Kung.

Achieving that level of success in consecutive seasons isn’t easy against the LPGA’s deep field of challengers. Korda begins her season at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions on Thursday, while Ko works with her coach, Si Woo Lee, in Palm Springs, Calif.

The lingering Vare Trophy question

The LPGA Tour has two end-of-season awards that factor into a player’s selection to the Hall of Fame: the Player of the Year award and the Vare Trophy. The player with the lowest scoring average on tour wins the Vare. So, after Ko and Korda dominated the LPGA in 2021, it would be reasonable to assume those awards ended up in their hands.

Korda did finish the season with the lowest scoring average on tour, 68.774, edging out Ko’s 68.866. Lydia Ko, however, won the Vare because she met the minimum-round requirement for the award. To be eligible for the Vare, a player must record 70 rounds or 70 percent of the official tournament rounds. Even though five canceled events during the 2021 season removed 20 possible rounds, 70 remained the lesser number. As a result, Ko (67 rounds) and Korda (62) each narrowly missed eligibility for the Vare.

What’s even harder to swallow about their disqualification is it causes them to miss out on an LPGA Hall of Fame point. The LPGA requires that a player win a season-ending award or a major to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Players earn one point for a regular tour win and one for securing either of the two season-ending awards, the Vare Trophy or the Player of the Year. Players gain two points for major championship victories.

In total, a golfer must accumulate 27 points and ten years of tour service to enter the Hall of Fame.

With seven LPGA victories and a major title, Korda has eight points. Ko, meanwhile, has seventeen points thanks to 12 LPGA victories, two majors and three end-of-season awards (2019 Vare; 2019 and 2021 Player of the Year).

Only four players have played their way into the LPGA’s Hall of Fame since the turn of the century: Annika Sorenstam (2003), Karrie Webb (2005), Se Ri Pak (2007) and Inbee Park (2016). Lorena Ochoa meets the points requirement, but not the years of service.

LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan acknowledged the controversy surrounding Vare Trophy eligibility during a media roundtable at the CME Group Tour Championship in November.

“It’s not the first time that’s happened,” she said. “I think over the years, there have been top players who have not been eligible for the trophy … Now that the purses are bigger, the players can play fewer events and still make a really good living.

“So, we have to step back and evaluate. Are those the right numbers? Are we allowing our best players to win this really prestigious award? We’re really open to evaluating that in the offseason.”

As the first tournament of the season gets underway this week, there have been no updates to the award’s requirements.

How far will the purse go?

On Jan. 7, former LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan made one of his first landmark decisions as United States Golf Association CEO, adding Promedica as a presenting sponsor of the U.S. Women’s Open and nearly doubling the tournament’s purse from $5.5 million to $10 million this year. Over the next five years, it will rise to as much as $12 million.

The U.S. Women’s Open represents the crown jewel of recent LPGA purse surges, with the full-schedule purse up to $90.2 million from $69.2 million last season. The AIG Women’s Open leapt from $4.5 million in 2020 to $6.8 million in 2022. Likewise, the CME Group Tour Championship increased its purse from $5 million in 2021 to $7 million this year.

Chevron took over as presenting sponsor of the first major of the year in March, and increased the purse of the tournament from $3.1 million to $5 million.

Marcoux Samaan, who’s seeking to bridge the pay gap between the LPGA and PGA Tours at all levels, said recently that she expects more purse increase announcements.

Patty Tavatanakit is poised for a breakout 2022 season. (Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Thailand’s rise to LPGA prominence

At the 2021 ANA Inspiration, Patty Tavatanakit blitzed the field with a 323-yard driving average to claim her first LPGA Tour victory and deliver Thailand its second-ever LPGA major championship. She also became the first rookie to win the ANA Inspiration since Juli Inkster in 1984.

Tavatanakit, Ariya Jutanugarn, Moriya Jutanugarn and Pajaree Annanarukarn form the group of Thai players who won on the LPGA last year, the second-most champions from any country behind the five from the United States (Nelly Korda [4], Austin Ernst, Ally Ewing, Jessica Korda and Ryann O’Toole.) South Korea had three winners last year (Ko [5], Inbee Park, Hyo Joo Kim), and Japan had two (Nasa Hataoka [2], Yuka Saso).

Atthaya Thitikul first made a statement five years ago, when she became the youngest player ever to win a professional golf tournament at 14 years and four months old at the Ladies European Thailand Championship. She nearly left her mark on the LPGA last season, but Ariya Jutanugarn ripped the victory out of her hands when she shot a 63 on Sunday at the Honda LPGA Thailand. Instead, Thitikul dominated on the Ladies European Tour, winning twice and finishing in the top 10 in 13 of her 17 starts. After earning her LPGA status through Q-Series, the tour’s qualifying school, Thitikul is 20th in the Rolex World Rankings, the second-highest ranking for a Thai player behind Tavatanakit (12th).

Thitikul is also the second-highest ranked 2022 LPGA rookie, with Ayaka Furue of Japan behind her at 14th. Hinako Shibuno, who declined LPGA status after winning the 2019 AIG Women’s Open, also earned her card through Q-Series and is 37th in the world.

The race for No. 1

Since the creation of the Rolex Rankings in 2006, only Jin Young Ko (2020), Lydia Ko (2016), Yani Tseng (2012) and Lorena Ochoa (2008, 2009) have held onto the No. 1 spot for an entire calendar year. In the 16 years of its existence, fifteen players have earned the label as the best player in the world. The rankings formula uses an average weight of points earned from each tournament, with more points available at majors than at regular events. And the stronger the field, which is based on the rankings of the players in the tournament, the more points a player can earn.

Korda enters the 2022 season having spent 27 weeks atop the world and counting, the most ever for an American. She and Ko are in a tier of their own, averaging 9.73 and 9.64 points, respectively, ahead of Lydia Ko’s third-place 5.78 average.

While the top two players have a notable lead, it’s not an insurmountable difference, as Korda showed last year. Korda entered 2021 with a 6.34 point average and sat third in the rankings before her win at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship vaulted her to No. 1.

The most room for ranking volatility comes in June, when two majors are played over the course of the month. The U.S. Women’s Open will be held at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club from June 2-5, followed by the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Congressional Country Club from June 23-26.

LPGA icon Annika Sorenstam might not be done just yet. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

The return of Annika Sorenstam?

Golf is one of the few sports where an all-time great can return years later and still hold their own. Last January, Sorenstam made the cut at the 2021 Gainbridge LPGA — held at her home course of Lake Nona Golf Club — in her first LPGA start in 13 years. It was the Swede’s 297th made cut in 308 career LPGA starts, and 50th consecutive made cut.

Now Sorenstam, a 72-time LPGA champion, can prove her return is official in 2022. Sorenstam earned her status for the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open by winning the U.S. Senior Women’s Open last year. While she has yet to commit to play, the script is set for her to enter. Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, the home of this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, is where Sorenstam won her second major title in 1996.

The 51-year-old is playing in the celebrity division of the Tournament of Champions this week.

Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.