Four events, four players and only 29 points: that’s the current state of the Rolex Player of the Year race, one of the most prestigious awards in women’s professional golf. With only four events left on the LPGA Tour calendar - two in Asia and two in Florida - four players are in a tight battle for the Player of the Year nod. And if history is a guide, the winner might not be determined until the final putt falls at the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla. on November 20.
Currently leading the charge is Rolex ANNIKA Major Award winner Minjee Lee, who came within a whisker of capturing two major championships in 2022 and vaulting to the No.1 spot in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. First, Lee won the Cognizant Founders Cup in May with a ball-striking performance that rivaled some of the best in golf history. The Australian’s proximity to the hole from every distance was eye-popping. Three weeks after that win, she put on another display, capturing the U.S. Women’s Open presented by ProMedica with an incredible four-day total of 13 under.
That Sunday, USGA Chief Executive Officer Mike Whan told a story on the 18th green at Pine Needles minutes after the final putt fell. He said that during one of his first pro-am experiences as commissioner of the LPGA Tour, he was paired with Minjee. About five holes into that round, he called one of his staffers and said, “I’d like someone to come out and take a picture because this young woman is going to be the number one player in the world someday.”
Lee came within a shot of that feat this summer when, at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, she finished one lone stroke behind In Gee Chun in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Her tie for second that Sunday moved Lee to No.2 in the world and made her the runaway favorite for Player of the Year.
But the season extends well beyond the end of June, and a lot can change over the course of a summer. Brooke Henderson knew that. After the 25-year-old Canadian worked out her putting woes and realized that sometimes a less-than-perfect performance is still good enough, she jumped back into the winner’s circle, first with a come-from-behind victory at the Shoprite LPGA Classic presented by Acer, and then with a dramatic birdie on the final hole to capture the Amundi Evian Championship, her second career major. Pair those victories with seven more top-10 finishes and Henderson enters the homestretch only 19 points behind Lee in the Player of the Year race.
As odd as it seems to say, Lee and Henderson are not the hottest players in the game at the moment. That title goes to Thai teenager Atthaya Thitikul, also a two-time winner in 2022 and someone hoping to join rarified air on the LPGA Tour by winning both the Rolex Player of the Year and the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award in the same season. She could also become the No.1 player in the world before year’s end.
Annika Sorenstam didn’t do that. Neither did Lydia Ko. But already the youngest player in history to win a pro tournament on a major tour and the LET’s 2021 Player of the Year, Thitikul is showing herself to be some kind of generational talent.
Speaking of Ko, the comeback kid continues to claw her way back toward the top. The player who holds more “youngest-ever” records than any player in history is 25 now. And even though she only has one win this year – the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio way back in January – Lydia has 11 top-10 finishes. In nine of those, she’s finished in the top five.
That consistency has left Ko just 29 points out of the Player of the Year lead.
It would be different if the LPGA Tour put the award up for a vote. But the Rolex Player of the Year is decided by a points system. A win is worth 30 points; a runner-up is worth 12; third place is worth 9; fourth 7; fifth 6, and each spot between sixth and tenth is worth between 5 points and 1 point. For that reason, a win in any of the next four events could vault one of the four players mentioned to the top.
That’s the kind of season-ending drama fans of the LPGA have come to expect. A year ago, Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda entered the final round of the Tour Championship with Player of the Year up for grabs. Sei Young Kim captured Player of the Year on the final day of the 2020 season as well.
Back in 2017, the final round didn’t even do it. Once all the points were tallied to the last decimal point, So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park remained tied and were co-Players of the Year.
No one can predict what will happen in the next month and a half. But if history is a leading indicator, we might not know the Player of the Year until the last putt on the last day of the season.
So, stay tuned. It’s set to be a fight to the finish.