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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.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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