Nelly Korda, Jin Young Ko and a historic $1.5M LPGA prize

Nelly Korda, at the AIG Women's Open in August, has four titles on the LPGA Tour this year. (Warren Little/R&A via Getty Images)

Total prize money in women’s golf has largely doubled every decade since the LPGA was first founded in 1950 (with the exception of a minuscule increase from 2000-2010) and hit an all-time high this year of $76.45 million. As we head into the final tournament of the year at this weekend’s CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, FL, the largest single purse in the history of women’s golf is on the line with $1.5M designated for the tournament winner. It’s an amount that would nearly double the year-to-date prize money of the year’s top two golfers, Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko. 

The LPGA has been a tale of two flames in 2021 with Korda and Ko trading off dominant stints atop the rankings. For the first seven months of the season, it was all Korda. Between January and July, the 23-year-old from Bradenton, Florida won three LPGA tournaments, including her first major at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and finished in the top ten in eight of the eleven tournaments she entered. 

To cap off her barnstorming summer, she won the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo by a thrilling one stroke margin earned on the final round’s 18th hole over Japan’s Mone Inami. Sharing that moment with her older sister and pro golfer, Jessica Korda, was extra special for the sisters who hail from Czech professional tennis player parents who are still highly involved in all their kids’ sporting careers (Korda’s younger brother competes on the ATP Tour).         

After cementing her name on the list of top women’s golfer to watch for years to come, things cooled off a bit for Korda. After winning the major, her best finish in the next four tournaments was a tie for 13th at the AIG Women’s Open. She also took some well-earned time off the course as well, opting to play in only two of the past six events.

In the meantime, the spark passed to Jin Young Ko, who caught fire at the end of summer, winning three of five tournaments in September and October. The 26-year-old from Seoul, South Korea has rarely been far from the spotlight since joining the tour in 2018. Out of the gate, she became only the second player in history to win her inaugural LPGA tournament and capped off the year with Rookie of Year honors. In just her second year on tour she won two majors, topped the list for official prize money earned, won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average (69.06), and was named the Rolex Player of the Year. Not a bad sophomore season.

After an abbreviated 2020, Ko maintained her number one world ranking and now finds herself neck and neck with Korda for that coveted title to close out 2021.

Momentum was behind Ko heading into the Pelican Women’s Championship last weekend with a 15-point lead ahead of Korda in Player of the Year standings. (Points are awarded to the top 10 finishers of each tournament, with 30 pts for 1st place, 12 pts for 2nd, 9 pts for 3rd, and so on.) But Korda proved she’s not done with 2021 yet by winning a thrilling four-way play-off to clinch her fourth victory of the year and put her 10 points ahead of Ko, who finished T6.

Now Korda is once again sitting at number one in several categories: Player of the Year points, official money earned, percentage of rounds in the 60’s, and lowest scoring average (68.84). Ko is right on her tail in each of those and with four tournament victories apiece (the Olympic gold doesn’t count toward LPGA stats), the Player of the Year title is still very much in contention as the two prepare to tee off in Naples for the final four rounds of 2021. One possible advantage Ko might have heading into this weekend is the fact she won this tournament and the then $1.1M prize one year ago by a five-stroke margin.

While the LPGA’s MVP title is now a two-woman race, a historic $1.5M is up for grabs for this weekend’s entire field of 60 golfers, who have earned entry by the accumulation of “Race to CME Globe” points in LPGA events throughout the year.

Keep your eye on Rookie of the Year lock Patty Tavatanakit. The 22-year-old Thai golfer clinched her first tour victory in her very first major at the ANA Inspiration back in April and sits third in Player of the Year points due to an impressive nine top-ten finishes this season. New Zealander Lydia Ko is also playing great golf and with one victory and four second place finishes this season is another likely front runner for the cash prize this weekend. And for Lexi Thompson, a season ending victory would do much to salve the sting of her recent struggles to hang onto late tourney leads on the green. Whoever wins the record-breaking first place prize, it will be a momentous step forward for women’s golf.

Round one begins this Thursday on Golf Channel with Sunday’s final round coverage airing on NBC from 1-4pm ET.