NAPLES, Fla. – History is everywhere at the Tiburón Golf Club this week. Sei Young Kim leads the chase for the $1.5 million first prize in the CME Group Tour Championship; Carlota Ciganda has already banked the $1 million bonus that came with winning the Aon Risk Reward Challenge and, on Friday, the Tour unveiled a 2020 schedule with record prize money and TV exposure.
“Somebody out there is going to be the first one to take the historical biggest-ever check,” LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said Friday about the pot of gold at the end of the Race to the CME Globe rainbow. And he made it clear that even bigger things are yet to come.
“As we close out 2019 and move to 2020, I could not be more excited about what the future will bring for the LPGA Tour and the sponsors that support us,” Whan said, citing $75.1 million in prize money and more than 500 hours of TV with at least seven tournaments on network television in the new season.
“We’ve grown,” Whan said. “But now we must flourish.”
Ciganda has already flourished, collecting a bonus equal to what Brooks Koepka won in a precedent-setting move by Aon to offer women and men equal pay for the same work – recording the lowest composite score on a designated hole at each event during the season.
Now, the Tour Championship swings into the weekend with a ton of talent chasing the massive first-place check. Kim, who opened with a 65, backed that up with a 67 to be at 12-under par 132 through 36 holes, two strokes ahead of Caroline Masson with Brooke Henderson and Nelly Korda at 135.
Su Oh made a move with a 67 to be alone in fifth place at 136. Defending champion Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda and Yu Liu are at 137 with Jodi Ewart Shadoff, Mi Jung Hur, Nasa Hataoka, Marina Alex, Nanna Koerstz Madsen and Georgia Hall at 138. In a knot at 139 are Jing Yan, Charley Hull, Jeongeun Lee6, Amy Yang, Danielle Kang, Bronte Law, Lizette Salas and So Yeon Ryu.
The Tour Championship could cap what has been a breakout 13 months for Nelly Korda. She overwhelmed the front nine, making five birdies in a bogey-free 31, then had a couple of hiccups in a back-nine 37, including a short, missed putt on No. 16.
Nelly, still only 21, has raised her game to another level over the last year. Her run started when she won the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA on Oct. 28 of last year, continued in February at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open and then she won her third LPGA event Nov. 3 when she defended her title in Taiwan.
Along the way, Korda posted a 3-0-1 record in the Solheim Cup, teaming with sister Jessica to win both of their alternate shot matches.
“I had a really great front nine today,” Korda said. “Definitely hit the brakes on the back. Started missing my shots a little. But all in all, I've been really hitting it solid, giving myself a lot of good opportunities. I'm definitely happy where I'm at going into the weekend and definitely in contention.”
Kim, who is known to get on a roll and go low, made only one bogey in her 67 and has herself well positioned as she pursues her tenth LPGA win. Both Masson and Henderson climbed up the leaderboard with late moves, Masson with three birdies over the final five holes and Henderson with five over the last seven holes.
“I wasn't hitting it that great, but then on the back nine I made a long putt on 12 and that really started to get things rolling,” said Henderson, whose nine wins over the last five years is the second-most on Tour during that stretch.
“I had a great crowd out there today, as well, which is always really fun, and I started to make some birdies there, and it just seemed like I could make everything,” she said. “The last like six holes were really fun.”
The LPGA began the 2019 season with the Drive On marketing campaign, featuring a diverse group of players driving home the point that they are playing for every girl out there, inspiring them to dream big with no limit on their aspirations.
Now the season – and the decade – surges to a close at the CME Group Tour Championship with the feeling this historic week is heading toward a dramatic conclusion. Saturday is moving day at the Tour Championship. What better time to Drive On?