Jump into a Kia and Drive On! The road ahead takes the LPGA Tour through its first-ever season in which there are both the Solheim Cup and Olympic golf. And this week’s Kia Classic welcomes it all with the deepest field in women’s golf since the world went into quarantine a year ago.
With the long pause of the pandemic seeming to be ending in earnest and the first major of the year – the ANA Inspiration – looming next week, golf’s global tour has the whole gang back together at Aviara Golf Club in Carlsbad, Calif.
And if the last Kia Classic – the one played in 2019 – is any indication, the wait will be well worth it.
Nasa Hataoka won by three strokes over a star-studded quintet tied for second of Jin Young Ko, Inbee Park, Danielle Kang, Sung Hyun Park and Azahara Munoz. Going into this year’s Kia Classic, Hataoka is No. 7 in the Rolex Rankings with Ko No. 1, Inbee Park No. 3, Kang No. 5, Sung Hyun Park No. 11 and Munoz No. 75.
All of them are in this year’s field along with the entire Rolex Rankings Top 10, each major champion from last year, 21 of the 24 Solheim Cup competitors from 2019 and Michelle Wie West, returning from maternity leave.
One of the casualties of the pandemic was the 2020 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year race. Because of the schedule disruptions last year, the fairest thing to do was defer everyone’s rookie status to 2021 where they are joined by some Epson Tour grads as newbies.
After three events, Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand leads in Rolex rookie points trailed by Ireland’s Leona Maguire, Albana Valenzuela of Switzerland and Americans Jennifer Chang and Andrea Lee. All are in this week’s field.
The Kia Classic kicks off a West Coast swing that goes to the ANA inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and then Hawaii for the LOTTE Championship and back to the Golden State for the HUGEL-AIR PREMIA LA Open. All were canceled last year by COVID-19.
And all are back this year bigger and better than ever. Also back is Wie West, 31, who includes the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open among her five LPGA Tour victories in a career plagued by injuries, most recently hand surgery in October 2018.
Her last Tour event was the 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in June. A year later, she and husband Jonnie West welcomed their daughter Makenna Kamalei Yoona West into the world.
Meanwhile, Wie West has maintained a high profile in golf, first being elected by her peers to the LPGA Board of Directors and then working for CBS as a TV commentator at the 2020 Masters. She’s also maintained an active social media presence in support of equal and respectful treatment of women in the workplace and beyond.
Currently positioned at No. 534 in the Rolex Rankings – where she has been as high as No. 2 since the rankings first appeared in 2006 – Wie West has said she’d like to return to competition so her daughter can see Mom play against the best in the world for real and not just on YouTube.
Wie West joins an American contingent that has gotten off to a strong start in 2021 with Jessica Korda winning the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, her sister Nelly victorious at the Gainbridge Championship and Austin Ernst taking the most recent tournament at the Drive On Championship at Golden Ocala.
This is a season in which there is so much at stake each week. In addition to Race to the CME Globe points, there are spots on the Solheim Cup teams for Europe and the United States at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, in September as well as qualifying off the Rolex Rankings for Olympic golf Aug. 4-7 in Tokyo.Like the Kia Classic – and so much else – the 2020 Olympics were pushed back a year for safety sake. But this week, the Kia Classic is back and it has a car full of talent. This will be a good week to get on board and Drive On. World events can slow down golf’s global tour, but nothing can stop it.