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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.