This is a fact of the COVID-19 year that doesn’t need an asterisk but rather an exclamation point. Many sports stats for 2020 were skewed by the pandemic pause. But when it comes to new faces on the LPGA Tour this is undeniably true: The rookie class of 2021 is the most experienced ever.
Because of the truncated 2020 season in which some newcomers didn’t have access to many events, it was decided that the Rolex Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year would not be awarded and that all who were rookies last year will compete for the honor this year.
That means 19 players are back for starring roles in “Rookie Year: The Sequel,” joined by four top finishers from the 2020 Epson Tour as well as U.S. Women’s Open winner A Lim Kim. Many of those returning for their rookie year – which is an odd statement in itself – gave a passionate preview of what to expect from them.
Of the 19 rookies in 2020, seven played well enough to earn Rolex Player of the Year points, led by Yealimi Noh, the talented teen from California who was No. 30 in POY points, No. 25 on the money list, No. 14 on Race to the CME Globe points, No. 26 in scoring average and is currently No. 43 in the Rolex Rankings.
“I think just focus,” Noh said when asked what she learned from her first year on Tour. “It's just like focusing on yourself and see where it will take you because you can't really control anyone else.”
Also earning POY points was Matilda Castren of Finland, who was T-8 at the Drive On Championship Reynolds Lake Oconee and No. 15 in scoring average. Bianca Pagdanganan of the Philippines was third at Reynolds Lake Oconee, T-9 at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and led the Tour in driving distance at a remarkable 283.07 yards.
Andrea Lee established herself as one of those to watch in 2021 by finishing No. 36 in POY points, buoyed by a three-tournament run of T-5 in the Marathon Classic, 11th in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open and T-7 in the AIG Women’s Open. The 22-year-old Californian who played at Stanford earned her Tour card in the 2019 Q-Series.
“The first week at Inverness, it was pretty tough,” Lee said about returning at the Drive On Championship last July after a five-month break. “Definitely the nerves were there. So, that was kind of a big confidence booster going into the next week at the Marathon. I think what I've learned so far playing on the LPGA is just staying super patient.”
Both Noh and Lee are also very much in the race to make the U.S. Solheim Cup team, which will take on Europe at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, Sept. 4-6. Noh is No. 21 on the points list while Lee is No. 19. The top eight automatically qualify. As of now Brittany Altomare is No. 8 with 121 points.
Joining the 19 returning rookies are Ana Belac of Slovenia, who led the Epson Tour money list last year and was third in scoring average. She’s joined by Epson Tour No. 2 Fátima Fernández Cano of Spain, No. 4 Frida Kinult of Sweden and No. 5 Janie Jackson from the United States. Kim Kaufmann, No. 3 on the Epson money list, was an LPGA Tour rookie in 2014.
This season will have the oddity of a major champion among the rookies. A Lim Kim burst on the scene at Champions Golf Club in Houston when she birdied the last three holes of the U.S. Women’s Open to win by one stroke over Rolex Rankings No. 1 Jin Young Ko and Amy Olson. A week later, Kim accepted LPGA Tour membership for 2021.
Among those who gained a measure of fame in 2020 was Haley Moore, the 22-year-old old from the University of Arizona who was on the winning U.S. team at the 2015 Junior Solheim Cup. She became a voice of the LPGA Tour’s Drive On campaign through her work against bullying.
“I realize my story is truly powerful, and I want to help every young girl and boy, everyone, who has been [bullied],” Moore says. “I just want everyone who has been struggling to be able to get over it and not always go home thinking, ‘If I go outside, what are people going to think of me?’ Hopefully, they can get it all back together and just see the light in their life again.”
The Tour returns February 25-28 with the Gainbridge LPGA at Lake Nona near Orlando, Fla., with a field of 120, including some of those 24 rookies. For many, it will feel like another February tradition – Groundhog Day. For the second time, they will experience their first LPGA Tour season.