With one winner in the books – Jessica Korda at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions – the door to the LPGA Tour’s 2021 party is now thrown wide open. The 120 players at this week’s Gainbridge LPGA shower the first full-field event of the season with a stunning array of talent.
On hand are six of the top seven from the Rolex Rankings, winners of six of the last nine major championships and 23 major winners overall. If that’s not enough, add two members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Dame Laura Davies, who turned pro in 1985, and Annika Sorenstam, playing her first LPGA Tour event since 2008.
The Diamond Resorts got things going with 25 LPGA Tour winners playing with 53 celebrities for a robust audience on Golf Channel and NBC. The Gainbridge LPGA at Lake Nona in Orlando is the first of three events in the run-up to the major championships, which start with the ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills in the California desert April 1-4.
To say that this is a season of intense anticipation is an understatement. After a 2020 campaign interrupted by COVID-19, the 2021 schedule is non-stop golf. After Gainbridge is the LPGA Drive On Championship presented by Volvik at Golden Ocala.
Then, beginning with the KIA Classic the week before the ANA Inspiration, the Tour has only three weeks off until concluding with the CME Group Tour Championship and the Race to the CME Globe the week prior to Thanksgiving.
And to spice things up even more, this is a year of twin excitement with the biennial Solheim Cup Sept. 4-6 at historic Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, and the quadrennial Olympics Aug. 4-7 near Tokyo, this year falling a year late because of COVID-19.
That the Gainbridge LPGA has this place on the schedule is appropriate since Lake Nona was the site of the first Solheim Cup in 1990. Last year, this tournament put Madelene Sagstrom in the winner’s circle for the first time on the LPGA Tour after three wins on the Epson Tour.
“My game feels really good,” says Sagstrom. “I had a really strong finish to 2020, so I'm really happy where it's heading. I'm just trying to get more out of my own way and play the way I played at Gainbridge last year.”
Sagstrom, 28, who opted to spend the winter in Florida instead of Sweden, turned pro in 2015 and won three times on the Epson Tour in 2016 after playing college golf at Louisiana State University.
“Normally I like to go home, but this time it was short, just a few weeks, so I wanted to spend my time here,” she said. “I celebrated Christmas with friends. Just trying to stay safe, trying to keep my social responsibility and just do the best we can.”
Of those among the Rolex Rankings top seven, No. 1 Jin Young Ko and No. 2 Sei Young Kim are making their 2021 LPGA Tour debut at Gainbridge, as is No. 7 Nasa Hataoka. No. 4 Nelly Korda finished third at Diamond Resorts with No. 5 Danielle Kang second and No. 6 Brooke Henderson ninth.
“We are thrilled to bring the LPGA Tour to Lake Nona Golf & Country Club for the second event of our record-breaking 2021 season,” said Ricki Lasky, the LPGA’s Chief Tournament Business Officer. “Lake Nona will be a quality, competitive test for the world’s best professional golfers.”
In last year’s debut of the Gainbridge LPGA, Sagstrom prevailed by one stroke over Hataoka, making a nervy 8-footer on the final hole. Kang was third. They are back this year along with Sung Hyun Park, Lexi Thompson, Jeongeun Lee6 and Carlota Ciganda, all among the top 15 in the Rolex Rankings.
“I think I just have more confidence in myself,” Sagstrom says about the impact of winning Gainbridge. “I know I can perform against the best players in the world. Just feeling that calmness in myself a little bit more has made the biggest difference.”
As with everyone else on Tour, Sagstrom has both the blessing and the challenge of a jam-packed 2021 schedule.
“The biggest thing for me is really set up the schedule for how I work and make sure I have energy and that I'm not tired,” she said. “You want to play everything, especially the great events that we have. [But] you want to come fresh into a major. You want to make sure your head is there and your body isn't too far behind. That summer stretch is going to be heavy.”
Like many in the field, Sagstrom will be going head-to-head against Sorenstam for the first time. As a fellow Swede that has special meaning for her. Also special is defending an LPGA Tour title for the first time. Those are just two of the many compelling storylines at this week’s Gainbridge LPGA.