RANCHO MIRAGE. Calif. (AP) — The ANA Inspiration is back in its usual leadoff spot in golf's major championship season, though far from normal with fans absent again.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on the festivities surrounding the 50th edition of the event, the players soaked in the familiar mountain views and colorful flower gardens at Mission Hills as they prepared for the start of play Thursday.
"When you arrive here it's just a different atmosphere," Canadian star Brooke Henderson said about the event that started in 1972 as the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner's Circle and became a major in 1983.
"It's just incredible. You obviously see Poppie's Pond and Dinah's statue, Wall of Champions. It's just an incredible feeling."
The tournament was postponed until September last year, with Mirim Lee chipping in for eagle on 18 to force a playoff, then beating Henderson and Nelly Korda with a birdie on the first extra hole.
"The feeling is really good to be able to hear those words, being called a major champion," Lee said. "It definitely gives me more motivation to win again."
Mission Hills played far different in September in 100-degree heat on Bermuda grass, than it will this week in slightly cooler temperatures on overseeded rye.
"It was in great shape in September, don't get me wrong, but it's way more green, way more healthy," Lexi Thompson said. "It's definitely meant to be at this time of year, I believe. We have great weather. And this is probably the best I've seen the golf course shape-wise."
In the September event, a blue advertising wall was used as a backstop behind the 18th green in place of a grandstand. This time, there will be be no wall, allowing the green to play as an island on the par 5.
"Very different," Korda said. "You're definitely going to think about going for it. I hit a 6-iron in just short of the green (Monday) and it rolled up to the middle and then I also tried to hit like a little 5 to land it middle of the green and it went over. So it definitely going to be very hard to hold."
Thompson won in 2014 and has finished in the top five in four of the last five years. She recently started working with instructor Martin Hall.
"Just keeping things simple but at the same time trying to improve on little things," Thompson said.
Korda won the Gainbridge LPGA in February for her fourth tour victory. She won in the second event of the season, a month after sister Jessica took the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.
She looks at the loss last year at Mission Hills as a learning experience.
"I've always said when you put yourself into those positions, you get more comfortable being in those in the future," Korda said. "I've said this so many times, but the more I put myself into that position, the better."
Inbee Park won Sunday in the Kia Classic in her season debut. The Hall of Famer won at Mission Hills in 2013 for the third of her seven major titles.
"I think this golf course is going to play hard and fast, which we always want to play this golf course," Park said. "I think that's going to be the case this week, so I'm really happy to see that."
Top-ranked Jin Young Ko missed the tournament last year after winning in 2019.
"It was sad because I missed defend champion," Ko said. "I'm happy to be back."
Michelle Wie West also is back at Mission Hills for the first time since 2019. She missed the cut at Kia, shooting 81-74 in her first event since June 2019.