NAPLES, Fla. – Never have so many been in pursuit of so much at the end of such a long season. And it all comes down to the CME Group Tour Championship, the 33rd and final event of the year, with virtually every LPGA honor, including the Race to the CME Globe $1 million bonus, on the line. And Day One did not disappoint.
Who will be Rolex Player of the Year: So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park, Lexi Thompson or Shanshan Feng? Who will claim the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average: Thompson, Park or In Gee Chun? Who will capture the money title: Ryu or Park? And who will bank that Million dollar bonus?
While someone as deep as No. 12 on the points reset has a mathematical chance of winning the bonus, it’s most likely the person that gets that massive direct deposit will be either Ryu, Park, Thompson, Feng or Brooke M. Henderson.
The only thing we know for sure is that Park is the Rolex Rookie of the Year, an honor she clinched weeks ago as she more than double the point total of runner-up Angel Yin. If she can pull it off, Park would join Nancy Lopez in 1978 as the only player to be Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season.
In Thursday’s opening round at the Tiburón Golf Club, all of those in contention for top honors did what they had to do to keep themselves in contention, especially Park, who looks likes she’s serious about making history. Sung Hyun can pull off an unprecedented six-pack of awards: ROY, POY, Vare, money title, the $1 million bonus & No. 1 in Rolex Rankings. She started slowly then sprinted to five-under-par 67, one stroke off the lead held by Peiyun Chien and Sara Jane Smith and tied with Lydia Ko, Azahara Munoz, Suzann Pettersen and Karine Icher.
Ko, who is looking to end a winless year, has been trending upward the last couple of months and her coach, Gary Gilchrist says she is finally adjusting to all the changes she went through last off-season. “She has slowly built more confidence in her game,” Gilchrist said. “She is now comfortable with her equipment. Also, she and her caddie are working well together. Her work ethic is remarkable. This year she missed cuts, which she had never experienced, but her positive attitude and outlook never wavered. The Asian swing was a real confidence builder.”
Ko also started slowly but finished brilliantly with birdies on Nos. 13 and 14 and an eagle on the par-5 17th hole. The big number for her on Thursday: Only 23 putts “It is good to be able to play some solid golf these past few weeks and put myself in better positions going into the weekends and going into the final round,” she said. “I think the more I do that, the confidence kind of builds up. Golf is such a confidence game. If you start making birdies or putts and playing well, it builds up.”
Feng returned from the Asia swing with back-to-back wins and with In-Kyung Kim is the only three-time winner on tour this year. She opened with a 70, as did Henderson, who has snuck up on the POY race with her relentlessly consistent play. Thompson shot 71, Ryu had a 72 and Vare contender Chun had a 73 after a double bogey on No. 18.
Park, who would be a contender for yet another award if there was one given out for the best swing on tour, had seven birdies and two bogeys on the day and played the 10-hole stretch from No. 3 through No. 12 five under par. Showing the complete power of her game, she averaged 260.5 yards off the hit, hit 10 fairways, 14 greens and needed only 28 putts.
This opening round was only the second time Park played the Tiburon course – the first was in the pro-am – and the way she has taken to it sent an ominous message to her challengers. “I think the course suits my game really well,” she said. “It feels good. There is a little bit of a bounce on the greens, but I think I can play well in the next rounds.”
It’s early, but this CME Group Tour Championship just might become something rare in sports: An event that not only lives up to the hype, but exceeds it. On Day One, at least, pretty much everyone with a chance to strike it rich came up big, and no one bigger than Sung Hyun Park, someone who seems comfortable chasing history.