After a mesmerizing week of thrilling competition in Spain that saw dreams realized and history made, the LPGA is back to its regularly scheduled programming of heart-pounding drama. The Tour will warm up again with a quick jaunt at Pinnacle Country Club for the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G – a 54-hole tournament that always promises a birdie fest.
Tied Across the Pond
Though the trip from Finca Cortesin to Rogers, Ark. is long, Georgia Hall, Leona Maguire and Emily Kristine Pedersen will hazard the journey to compete this week after an electric performance at the Solheim Cup. With the first tie in Solheim Cup history, Europe retained the Cup, now earning the Solheim Cup in three straight competitions for the first time ever. Coming away with a 1-2-1 record and just 1.5 points for team Europe, it wasn't Hall's best showing, but with a tied 14-14 finish, every point was important. After an undefeated debut at the 2021 Solheim Cup, Maguire once again played in all five matches, earning 3 points with a 3-2-0 record. The Irishwoman was unstoppable in her final match against Rose Zhang, beating the rookie 4 and 3. But it was Pedersen, a captain's pick, who probably had the most notable performance in Spain last week. The Dane also played in all five matches, amassing a 2-2-1 record to capture 2.5 total points. She struggled early with a loss in her opening foursome match on Friday alongside Charley Hull. However, she managed to turn everything around and stun the world with just the second ace in Solheim Cup history during her fourball match that afternoon. After that, Pedersen's game kicked into high gear, and she might be bringing some of that magic to the States with her this week. Regardless of how they performed, all three will come off a historic performance and ride some serious momentum across the pond into Pinnacle Country Club.
Returning to Home Soil
On the other side of the competition, five Americans will be making the long journey to Arkansas this week. Though they didn't play last week, captain Stacy Lewis and assistant captain Natalie Gulbis will hit the course this week alongside three of their players, including Danielle Kang, Cheyenne Knight and Lexi Thompson. Rookie Knight had the best week of the three for a show-stopping Solheim Cup debut. With a 2-0-1 record, the Texan was one of few players to go undefeated last week, joining fellow American Megan Khang (3-0-1), Scotland's Gemma Dryburgh (0-0-2) and Spaniard Carlota Ciganda (4-0-0). But Thompson also turned in an invaluable performance – some of her best golf of the season so far – going 3-1-0 and winning the final singles match against Pedersen to earn the Americans' 14th point and tie the Solheim Cup for the first time in the competition's history. Kang's respectable 2-2-0 record certainly does not reflect her sizable impact on the American team and her level of play at Finca Cortesin. The 30-year-old brought the energy over the weekend and used her putter to keep every match close. Though they didn't manage to win the Solheim Cup last week, Kang, Knight and Thompson were some of the best players on the American squad and will certainly take some confidence to the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
It's no surprise Kang wants to return to Arkansas this week despite the four grueling matches she played over the weekend at the Solheim Cup. Kang missed most of the summer schedule in 2022 due to injury, returning to competitive golf for the CPKC Women's Open at the end of August with an entirely new swing. She struggled through her first two tournaments back on the LPGA Tour but nearly broke through for a second 2022 victory at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, proving that she could put herself in contention despite limitations caused by her injury. Kang went bogey-free across three days, carding a 54-hole total of 17-under that was highlighted by a final-round, 7-under 64, which saw her pitch in for eagle on the 18th hole and force a playoff with Atthaya Thitikul. Kang ultimately came up short, but the clean cards and runner-up finish were more than enough to restore her confidence in her game. She went on to record three more top-15 results to finish out the year on a high note. Kang has had a strong 2023 season, making 11 cuts in 15 starts with three top-10 finishes, but a return to Pinnacle Country Club after a magnificent performance in Spain might be the boost Kang needs to get back into the winner's circle for the first time since the 2022 Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.
But the real star of the week will be Atthaya Thitikul, the former world No. 1 and reigning Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year. The 20-year-old earned her second win of 2022 at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship after prevailing against Kang in a playoff. Thitikul shot a three-day total of 17-under en route to her win and tied the 18-hole tournament scoring record with a bogey-free, 10-under 61 on Saturday. The win kicked off a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes to end her rookie season. Thitikul has picked up right where she left off in 2022 this season, earning nine top-10s in 15 total starts. Her best finish was a solo third at the Honda LPGA Thailand, and her most recent top 10 came at the last event she played, the Portland Classic, where the Thailand native finished T7. She is also leading the Aon Risk Reward challenge at 0.929 under par, just 0.006 ahead of her closest competitor Angel Yin. The youngster has been sensational since joining the Tour and hasn't slowed much since her rookie season, but she has yet to return to the winner's circle in 2023. Though she has two wins on her resume, this week will be the first time she gets to defend an LPGA Tour title which just might be the competitive boost she needs to return to the top of the leaderboard.
It's the Final Countdown
It may not feel like it, but the final stretch of the 2023 season has officially begun with just nine events left on the schedule. After the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, the Tour will have one more event in the states at The Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America before embarking on a four-tournament swing in Asia. The last full-field event will be the ANNIKA driven by Gainbridge at Pelican before the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship. But the season won't officially be finished until the inaugural Grant Thornton Invitational, a co-sanctioned event with the PGA Tour, in December. While there is still a lot of exciting golf to come, there are only a few more opportunities to clinch the end-of-season awards. With her three wins this season, highlighted by her two major victories at The Chevron Championship and the AIG Women's Open, Lilia Vu has locked up the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award and leads the race for the Rolex Player of the Year with 154 points. She is followed by the only other player who has three wins this season, Celine Boutier, and KPMG Women's PGA champion Ruoning Yin who both have 133 points. Boutier currently leads the Race to CME Globe and is followed closely by Yin. Finally, Hae Ran Ryu leads the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year competition at 625 points, with LOTTE Championship winner Grace Kim trailing with 512 points.