The LPGA wagon train is heading out west to do a little prospecting. Although they aren’t literally searching for gold, these players are looking for a little game to start the 2023 season. With three events in over a dozen time zones in two months, consistency has been hard to come by. The first major championship is about a month away, and each player can’t wait to see what they dig up this week in Gold Canyon.
A familiar face returns to the LPGA Tour for the 5th edition of the LPGA Drive On Championship. Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club is the host venue for the first full-field tournament of the year. One hundred and forty-four players begin play on Thursday in Arizona. Since this is our first complete group, we also have our first cut on Friday to successfully navigate. The Top 65 and ties will make the weekend and compete for a piece of the $1.75 million dollar purse.
Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are here trying to earn that $262,500 first-place check. For the third time this year, we will see standouts like Nelly Korda and Brooke Henderson. The HSBC Women’s World Championship winner Jin Young Ko will also tee it up. One player we haven’t seen is Lexi Thompson. The American standout will be making her first start of the year.
Superstition Mountain is a 36-hole facility. The ladies will be competing on the Prospector Course. A difficult test at 6,690 yards, the Par 72 scorecard displays four par-3s and -5s along with 10 par-4s. However, those 3s and 4s are stout. The average par-3 measures 178 yards, and seven of the 10 par-4s measure over 390 yards. These ladies aren’t familiar with this layout, but the LPGA Tour has played here before.
The Safeway Invitational was played on the Prospector from 2004 to 2008. In those five years, there were only three different winners. That Hall-of-Fame list is a who’s who of women’s professional golf. Annika Sorenstam (2004, 05), Juli Inkster (2006), and Lorena Ochoa (2007,08) have 130 wins between them. Each has won at least once on this course, and together their skillset may help us decide who won’t get spooked this weekend at Superstition Mountain.
The defending Drive On champion Leona Maguire may like the weather she will face in the desert. Early in the week, the competitors will see a little rain before the first round. Thursday through Sunday will be dry and relatively calm. The temperature will be quite cool in Arizona. It may remind Maguire of home as the highs are predicted to reach the low 60s and dip into the 40s at night.
With a full field in play, many should be prepared for a cool start or finish to at least one round. In addition, three past champions are competing in a group in Gold Canyon (Danielle Kang, Ally Ewing, and Maguire). So, going back to those Safeway winners, let’s take a closer look at what player traits they share.
- Even though the Prospector Course is long, Superstition Mountain sits at 1,900 feet above sea level. This will help some of the shorter hitters gain a little length. Unfortunately for them, it will also help the longer ones even more. Lorena, Annika, and Juli were excellent off the tee. In this field, Nelly Korda, Atthaya Thitikul, and Yuka Saso are the ones I would watch with a driver in hand.
- Nearly 40% of the approach shots will test players from over 150 yards. Mid- and long-iron play is something Inkster, Sorenstam, and Ochoa used to separate themselves from the field. Jin Young Ko, Atthaya Thitikul, Georgia Hall, and Maja Stark lead the tour in Strokes Gained Approach.
- Jack Nicklaus designed the host course, and he loved bunkers. All 14 tee shots face a fairway bunker (37 of them), and all 18 greens are protected as well (45 greenside). The best around the green saving par are Megan Khang, Charley Hull, and Celine Boutier. Khang is excellent from the bunkers as well ranked eighth on the LPGA.
- The three Hall of Famers averaged 17-under par in their five wins. Getting to 20-under is a possibility on the Prospector over four days. The sub-par scorers in this field are Nelly Korda, Yuka Saso and Leona Maguire. Keeping up with these three will be important if you want to contend.
- Unlike the three Safeway winners, a couple of the players in the field this week are members at Superstition Mountain. Pay special attention to Jennifer Kupcho, Carlota Cignada, and Mina Harigae. Fun fact, Harigae just got married at the club last weekend.
The winning skillsets outlined above will be key. Pay special attention to those names and the attributes attached to them. Complete game control will be needed to adjust for elevation, avoid trouble, and conquer the closing holes come Sunday.
It’s easy to get spooked when you play Superstition Mountain. I can assure you, “there’s gold up in them hills” for those who handle the pressure and play like LPGA legends.