Once again, one of the most prestigious awards in women’s golf could come down to the last putt of the year. With only two events remaining, the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year award is still too close to call and might remain that way until Sunday afternoon of the CME Group Tour Championship. But that is not unusual for the LPGA Tour.
Last year, Nelly Korda entered the final round of the final event leading the season-long player-of-the-year race. Then an incredible performance by Jin Young Ko, who captured the CME Group Tour Championship, flipped the script and gave Ko her second Rolex LPGA Player of the Year award in three years.
In 2020, Sei Young Kim didn’t win the CME Group Tour Championship, but she did capture Rolex Player of the Year by playing well enough on the final day of the season. Again, it wasn’t a sure thing until the last putt fell on Sunday.
Back in 2017, it came down to one of the most unusual occurrences in professional golf history. After the final putt fell and all the points were tallied, the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year race ended in a tie between So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. Both players won twice that year, including one major apiece, and they both had high enough finishes in the same number of events that no matter how many decimal places you carried the calculations, the two remained tied. It was a first in LPGA Tour history. Both Ryu and Park’s names are on the trophy and both received one point toward the LPGA Hall of Fame as a result.
These sorts of anomalies are possible because, unlike player-of-the-year awards in other sports that are based on votes, the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year is completely objective. Players receive 30 points for a win, 12 points for a runner-up finish, 9 points for finishing third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and on down the line until you get a single point for finishing tenth.
There have been times of domination when the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year was never in doubt. Kathy Whitworth, the winningest player in LPGA Tour history, won the first four awards beginning in 1966 and seven out of the first eight. The only interruption came in 1970 when Sandra Haynie was Player of the Year.
Annika Sorenstam was Player of the Year eight times, the most in history. Five of those came in a row between 2001 and 2005. And they were never in question. The same was true with Lorena Ochoa’s four consecutive titles between 2006 and 2009. But since Yani Tseng won back-to-back player-of-the-year awards in 2011 and 2012, the title has been closely contested, often remaining undecided until the final putt of the season.
This year, with only two events remaining, six players could still be crowned Rolex LPGA Player of the Year. Lydia Ko came into the Pelican Women’s Championship leading Minjee Lee by one point with Brooke Henderson and Atthaya Thitikul 20 points back. Should Lydia hoist the Pelican Women’s Championship trophy on Sunday – an event she lost in a three-way playoff a year ago – then she would capture her second Rolex LPGA Player of the Year, the first coming back in 2015 when Lydia was still a bespectacled teenager.
Certainly Lydia, who arrived at Pelican Golf Club with two wins and 13 top-10 finishes and is leading the Race to the CME Globe as well as the Vare Trophy contest for low-stroke average, has the best shot. But Lee, who has two wins on the season, including a major championship, could finish in 10th place or better at the CME Group Tour Championship and still be Player of the Year depending on how others in contention finish.
Henderson, also a major champion in 2022, could lock up the title with two wins or a runner up and a third-place finish in the final two events of the year, while Thitikul, who captured the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award before the first shots were struck at Pelican, needs another win to have a chance. Should Thitikul enter the CME Group Tour Championship more than 30 points behind, she would be mathematically eliminated.
Should she win, Thitikul would join Nancy Lopez and Sung Hyun Park as the only players in LPGA Tour history to capture both Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season.
The final two players with a shot – albeit a long one – are both major champions. In Gee Chun, who won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and lost the AIG Women’s Open in a playoff, needs to win the Pelican Women’s Championship and the CME Group Tour Championship to have a chance. If Chun does not win this week, she would be eliminated.
Jennifer Kupcho, who won three times this season, including the Chevron Championship, needs to win the Pelican Women’s Championship and the CME Group Tour Championship as well. If Kupcho does not win back-to-back events to close out 2022, she too would be eliminated.
As players enter the final furlong, Lydia has the lead and the inside track. But history has shown that the race isn’t over until they all pass the finish line. And as we’ve seen often in recent years, anything can happen in the closing moments of a tight race.