Can Nelly Korda be stopped this week at Pelican Golf Club?
The LPGA has returned to Belleair, Fla., for the fourth year in a row to play The ANNIKA driven by Gainbridge at Pelican. The event began in 2020 with a 14-under victory by Sei Young Kim. Since then, Korda has owned the Donald Ross design just outside Tampa. She won the event in 2021 with four rounds in the 60s and 24 birdies. Last year, the major champion successfully defended her title in a rain-shortened 54-hole event with 18 more birdies and three more rounds in the 60s.
How has Korda been so effective at the Pelican Golf Club? It all starts with incredible approach play. The par-70 layout has two par 5s, four par 3s and 12 par 4s. Covered tee to green in Bermudagrass, the field of 120 players will need to navigate those par-4 approach shots with tremendous aplomb.
Korda’s power off the tee has led to shorter iron shots into these intricate green complexes. The flat terrain is made complicated by Ross’s architecture around the green. Throw in 50+ bunkers and 10 holes where water comes into play, and Pelican Golf Club can easily rattle your cage. Twelve players finished in the top 10 a year ago, and on average, they gained over four strokes (4.2) against the field on approach.
Ruoning Yin leads this field in that category and is closely followed by Jin Young Ko, Megan Khang and Hae Ran Ryu, four players who can hit it close. The second-largest gain by the top 10 in 2022 came with the flatstick. Those same 12 players gained over three strokes (3.7) on the greens on average against the rest. Our best putters at Pelican Golf Club are Hye Jin Choi, Ayaka Furue, Lilia Vu and Atthaya Thitikul.
Thitikul is one of the eight players in the top 10 (19 of the top 30) of the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings who are competing this week for the $3.25 million purse. The top 65 and ties will play the weekend and try to improve their position in the season-long Race to the CME Globe to get inside the top 60 and qualify for the CME Group Tour Championship. Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko are both on the outside looking in. The last time we saw Thompson, she was close to making the cut on the PGA Tour, and Ko had an excellent Asian swing with solo third and T11 finishes at the BMW Ladies Championship and Maybank Championship, respectively.
Can either player break through and earn a spot in the Tour Championship next week? To do so, they will need to improve upon their par-4 scoring, as both sit outside the top 50 in that statistic. (Jin Young) Ko, Thitikul, Linn Grant and Celine Boutier lead that category in this field. Twelve of those tests await every round. Over 70% of Korda’s sub-par scores in her back-to-back wins came on the par 4s. That’s a place where a player can really separate themselves from the field.
It's cool to see how the LPGA has elevated this event by introducing Annika Sorenstam as the host. The course and club have really supported the Tour and created quite the championship atmosphere. There are so many storylines waiting to play out this weekend, and unlike last year, the weather looks beautiful.
Can Nelly three-peat? Her form in 2023 would say otherwise, but should she recall her previous two trips to Tampa, there is a chance. Maybe a quick chat with the host will inspire her to get back to her winning ways at a course where she always contends.Keith Stewart is an award-winning PGA Professional. He covers the LPGA and PGA TOUR for Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, LPGA, and PGA TOUR. If you are looking to raise your golf acumen and love inside information about the game, check out his weekly newsletter called Read The Line.