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Nelly Korda vs. Jin Young Ko: 5 storylines for the CME Group Tour Championship

Nelly Korda is coming off of a win at the Pelican Women’s Championship last weekend. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Nelly Korda’s playoff victory at the Pelican Women’s Championship last week put her back in front of the race for the Rolex Player of the Year honor. As the LPGA heads into the CME Group Tour Championship, the final tournament of the 2021 season running from Thursday to Sunday, Korda will have to fend off No. 2 Jin Young Ko to add another trophy to an already historic season.

Korda versus Ko is the most obvious storyline of the season finale, but there’s even more on the line in Naples, Fla. this weekend. Here are five things to watch at the last tour event until 2022.

1. A fight to the finish

The 2021 season will be remembered for the back-and-forth battle between Ko and Korda for supremacy of the LPGA world rankings. Two weeks after Ko won the BMW Ladies Championship to resume her position at the top of the rankings and the Player of the Year race, Korda countered with her fourth victory on tour. The difference in their rankings average was in the thousandths before Korda won the Pelican Women’s Championship on Sunday. Now, the American has a little bit of breathing room, with a 0.95 edge over Ko in average world rankings points.

Korda has a more comfortable lead in the Player of the Year race, currently holding a 10-point advantage over Ko after her victory Sunday earned her 30 points and a total of 191 on the year. A win this weekend guarantees Korda the award, worth a coveted LPGA Hall of Fame point.

If Ko finishes in second place, worth 12 points, she needs Korda to finish 10th or lower to win outright. In that same scenario, a ninth-place finish by Korda would mean they share the Player of the Year award. The last time two golfers split the award was in 2017, when So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park finished the year tied at 162 points. If Ko wins the award, it would be her second such honor in the last three years.

If Ko finishes third or worse, Korda will be named Player of the Year and cap a stellar 2021 campaign. Each player has four wins on the LPGA Tour this season. Korda’s Olympic gold medal did not factor into the race since it was not a tour event.

Korda and Ko are the heavy favorites entering the Tour Championship, which begins Thursday with Round 1. Since the tournament moved to Tiburón Golf Club in 2013, Charley Hull is the only golfer who’s won the event without ever having been ranked top two in the world. The other champions, and their best-career rankings, have been: Shanshan Feng (No. 1) Lydia Ko (No. 1), Cristie Kerr (No. 1), Ariya Jutanugarn (No. 1), Lexi Thompson (No. 2), Sei Young Kim (No. 2) and Jin Young Ko (No. 1).

Jin Young Ko will be Nelly Korda's primary challenger this weekend. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

2. Vare Trophy controversy strikes the LPGA — again

The Vare Trophy honors the golfer with the lowest scoring average on tour in a given season. The golfer must compete in a minimum of 70 rounds or 70 percent of all rounds that season to be considered for the award.

Five LPGA events were canceled this year due to COVID-19, leaving the tour with 110 available rounds. As a result, the top three in scoring average missed out on qualifying for the Vare Trophy.

Nelly Korda (68.845) will finish the year with 62 rounds and Jin Young Ko (69.032) with 67. Yuka Saso (69.103), who joined the tour after her victory in the U.S. Women’s Open in June, has played just 29 rounds this season. Lydia Ko (69.391), in fourth, planned to skip the Pelican Women’s Championship last week but changed her mind when her team realized she could qualify if she played both of the final two events on the LPGA calendar. Ko will finish with 73 rounds at the conclusion of the CME Group Tour Championship.

Last week, the Korda sisters did not hide their displeasure with the fact that neither Korda nor Ko can qualify for the trophy this year due to the minimum rounds requirement.

“I was like, ‘Oh, OK, cool. That sucks.’ That’s pretty much what I said in our group chat,” Nelly Korda said ahead of the Pelican Women’s Championship when asked how she reacted to the news.

“Jin Young has had an amazing past couple events,” Korda added. “If she was to win it, she deserves to win it. I would say the same for me. It kind of sucks that that’s just how it is.”

Jessica Korda, currently ranked 20th on tour, shared a similar opinion.

“It’s just that the person who’s now in the running, is it considered an asterisk or — I don’t know. It’s just such a weird rule when your No. 1 and 2 player in the world … and three players — is it one, two and three aren’t eligible? So it’s just weird.”

Further compounding this is Korda’s chance to make history. If she were eligible for the honor, she’d be threatening the all-time Vare Trophy scoring record. Only Annika Sorenstam has scored below 69 to win the trophy, when she averaged 68.7 in 2002. Korda needs to shoot 22-under at the CME Group Tour Championship to match Sorenstam’s average and record the second-best average in history, behind Jin Young Ko’s 69.062 in 2019.

In 2020, Sei Young Kim (68.686) led the tour in scoring average, but Danielle Kang (70.082 and fourth place on the average scoring list) won the award after completing 49 rounds during the shortened season.

3. The magic number

The winning score of the last three CME Group Tour championships has been 18-under par, achieved by Lexi Thompson in 2018, Sei Young Kim in 2019 and Jin Young Ko last year.

Since the tournament moved to Tiburón Golf Club in 2013, the average winning score has been 16 1/4-under par. Discarding Lydia Ko’s outlier of a 10-under victory in 2014, the average winning score is 17-under par.

Kang has gone winless on tour this season after two victories in 2020. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

4. Last rodeo for the stars

World No. 4 Sei Young Kim and No. 13 Lexi Thompson missed out on their first tour victories of 2021 when they lost in a playoff at the Pelican Women’s Championship last week. They’re not the only top-ranked golfers and recent major champions who will be looking to hoist their first trophies of the season this weekend.

Kang has recorded eight top-10 finishes since losing to Jessica Korda in a playoff at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January. Jeongeun Lee6, the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open champion, had a five-shot lead going into the final round of the Evian Championship in July before losing to Minjee Lee. Aon Risk Reward Challenge winner Hannah Green is searching for her first victory on tour since the 2019 Cambia Portland Classic.

If Kim doesn’t find the winner’s circle this weekend, her six-year streak of winning every year on tour — the longest active streak in the LPGA — will come to an end. As a result, Jin Young Ko would surpass her as the longest active annual champion, having won every year since 2017.

5. The last chance to be world No. 1

Whoever sits at the top of the world rankings after the CME Group Tour Championship will get at least six uncontested weeks as the No. 1 player in the world. The LPGA has not yet announced its 2022 schedule, but in the last three years, the tour has started with the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in late January.

Korda has spent 19 weeks as the world No. 1, which ties her for 12th on the all-time rankings. If she wins this weekend, she can leap to T-7 by the beginning of 2022 for having held onto the top spot for 25 weeks alongside Stacy Lewis and Jiyai Shin. One week later, she’d move into sixth place behind Annika Sorenstam, the first world No. 1 in the history of the rankings who’s held it for 61 weeks.

Ko is alone in second place with 114 weeks atop the world rankings. If she surpasses Korda this weekend, she would surge to 120 weeks by 2022 and be 38 weeks behind Lorena Ochoa for the most spent at No. 1 since the rankings were created in 2006.

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.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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