Almost two months after Amy Yang took home the CME Group Tour Championship and with it the Race to CME Globe, the LPGA returns to action this week, as the 2024 season gets underway with the Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Florida.
The Tournament of Champions was conceived in 2019 and includes a celebrity pro-am element to the week, which gives this opening event a fun and relaxed feel.
Each of the five editions so far have taken place in Florida, with the first three held at the Four Seasons Resort’s Tranquilo Course, before moving here to Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in 2022.
Winners of the Tournament of Champions:
- 2023 – Winner: Brooke Henderson (-16); runners-up: Maja Stark, Charley Hull (-12)
- 2022 – Winner: Danielle Kang (-16); runner-up: Brooke Henderson (-13)
- 2021 – Winner: Jessica Korda (-24, playoff); runner-up: Danielle Kang (-24)
- 2020 – Winner: Gaby Lopez (-13, playoff); runners-up: Nasa Hataoka, Inbee Park (-13)
- 2019 – Winner: Eun-hee Ji (-14); runner-up: Mirim Lee (-12)
Last year’s renewal saw Brooke Henderson run out a convincing four-stroke winner after finishing 2nd at Lake Nona the previous year. The Canadian returns to defend this week.
Lake Nona Golf and Country Club is a gated golf community in Orlando, Florida and home to a championship golf course that was designed by Tom Fazio in 1986; widely regarded as one of the most well-conditioned courses around. It has been the residence of many professionals, including LPGA stars Lydia Ko, Leona Maguire and Nasa Hataoka.
Aside from taking up hosting duties of this event in 2022, it hosted the Gainbridge LPGA in 2021 – won by Nelly Korda with a score of -16 – and it was also the stage of the first ever edition of the Solheim Cup, where the U.S ran out comfortable 11 ½ - 4 ½ winners over their European counterparts.
The course is a par 72 and at 6608 yards, is one of the ten longest courses on tour. It possesses 10x par 4s (318-419 yards), 4x par 5s (503-521 yards) and 4x par 3s (160-180 yards). As we’ve seen with those three winning scores in the last three years, all at -16, it provides the players with a strong challenge to begin the year.
Lake Nona is a relatively flat course, with tall oak, pine and cypress trees framing the holes. Whilst it is tighter and more densely tree-lined on the front nine, it opens up a little more on the back.
The fairways are generous and dogleg in both directions. They are protected by strategic bunkering and some troublesome rough, whilst there are several out-of-bounds areas that need to be avoided.
Like the rest of the course, the average-sized greens are a bermudagrass base but use a poa trivialis overseed that is dominant at this time of year. Most are raised; generally long and narrow in shape and relatively speedy, playing at up to 12 on the stimp. The breaks on them are subtle and they’re known for being tricky to read.
Water plays a huge part here, visible on thirteen holes but only really in-play on nine, providing you aren’t too wayward in your ball-striking. Hazards defend each of the par 3s and has to be navigated on the closing 398-yard par 4 18th; a hole that is protected by water up the entire left-hand side, from fairway to green.
There is a solid bunch of par 5s which can be got at with elite ball-striking but are by no means gimmes, though the 15th could play as short as 441 yards which will need to be taken advantage of. The par 4s look the real scoring holes, with eight of them coming in below 400 yards; this includes the drivable 14th, which is down at 318 yards but will play at sub-250 yards at some point this week.
This attractive course offers up a fair test of golf, with many good birdie chances countered by danger lurking around almost every corner.
- SG: Off-the-Tee
- Driving Distance
- SG: Approach
I’m all over strong, long ball-strikers here - who have virtually dominated each of the three tournaments here in recent years.
Last year’s leaderboard was headed by a very power-heavy top 4, in the shape of winner, Brooke Henderson; runners-up, Maja Stark and Charley Hull; and 4th-place finisher, Nelly Korda.
Each ranked top 6 in driving distance in the 29-woman field there, with Henderson combining that power with all-round quality, which included ranking 2nd in approach, 2nd in GIR and 3rd OTT. Hull was more reliant on the putter but Stark and Korda excelled in ball-striking; Stark ranking 1st in approach and GIR, whilst Korda led the field OTT.
2022 winner, Danielle Kang stands out a little as the only player to feature in the top 3 in any of these events to not be known for power, though she did excel with her irons, ranking 1st in approach and GIR. Her two nearest challengers both possess length; Henderson in 2nd ranked top 5 in approach, GIR and OTT, whilst 3rd-place finisher, Gaby Lopez ranked 2nd in GIR, 5th in approach and 8th OTT.
We don’t have tournament-specific stats for the Gainbridge LPGA in 2021, though we know what the top 2 there, Nelly Korda and Lexi Thompson, are all about. Each ranked top 5 for GIR and top 7 for driving distance that year, whilst fellow runner-up, Lydia Ko, is an elite iron player at her best.
It’s hard to weigh up correlating events for a tournament in which a very small, limited field competes every year. I’ve tried to look for courses with similarities and a couple stood out.
These are the host of the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship, Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Course and the former home of the Chevron Championship, Mission Hills Country Club. Both of these courses use a poa trivialis overseed on bermudagrass-based greens; are of a similar length and have generous fairways that appeal to quality drivers.
The forecast is predicting a little bit of everything this week. Rain is stated to fall before the start of the event and reappears again on Thursday, before some potential thunderstorms for the second round.
Temperatures are anticipated to be relatively cool and winds could gust at up to 25mph over the weekend.
This week’s 35-woman field involves eleven of the world’s top 20, including the current #1, Lilia Vu and #2 Ruoning Yin.
Brooke Henderson returns to defend and is joined by two other former winners in the shape of 2022 champion, Danielle Kang and 2020 winner, Gaby Lopez. Whilst the only other player to win here, Nelly Korda, is also in attendance.
Vu and Yin are amongst a strong group of debutants, which includes Rose Zhang, Linn Grant and JLPGA star, Mone Inami, who gets the opportunity of her rookie season; accepting tour membership following her victory in the co-sanctioned Toto Japan Classic towards the end of last year.
Market Leaders: Nelly Korda 13/2, Lilia Vu 7/1, Ruoning Yin 9/1, Brooke Henderson 10/1, Nasa Hataoka 11/1, Rose Zhang 12/1
I’m going to get stuck in right at the top of the betting this week and whilst Brooke Henderson’s record here is excellent and Ruoning Yin has the type of power-packed ball-striking game to go well on debut, it’s Florida’s own, Nelly Korda who goes in as the headline selection in our first event of the year.
4 pts Nelly Korda Win only - 13/2
In a year without an LPGA victory and an up-and-down record in the majors, it would be easy to paint 2023 as a disappointing one for Nelly, though this is more a sign of what we’ve come to expect of her.
Whilst all of that is true, she missed just two cuts in nineteen starts – both of which came when she was dealing with a back injury - and hit the top 10 on ten occasions. She did get her hands on a trophy, when running out an impressive four-stroke winner of the Aramco Series – London event on the LET.
Korda didn’t really threaten to win again following that but finished no worse than 32nd in any of her final eight starts of the year and signed off with a trio of solid performances in this, her home state, finishing 25th in The Annika, 8th in the CME Tour Championship and was 4th in the inaugural Grant Thornton Invitational, where she was paired with Tony Finau of the PGA Tour.
It’s no surprise to see this big-hitter drive the ball excellently, ranking 7th off-the-tee last season. She also hit plenty of greens, ranking 19th in greens-in-regulation and though her precision iron play wasn’t of the highest level in 2023, she was starting to find it towards the end of the year, producing two of her three best approach performances in the last three events of the year.
Korda won at Lake Nona in 2021 in the Gainbridge LPGA and has finished 4th here the last two years in this event; entering the final round in 2022 in the lead before a final-round 75 dropped her down three spots. Her record in this event away from Lake Nona is also excellent, finishing 3rd-10th-3rd at the previous venue and I’m expecting her to make another fast start to her season this week.
1.5 pts Maja Stark each way (1/4, 5 places) - 33/1
Maja Stark has one of the best ball-striking games on tour and can use that to once again start her season strongly at Lake Nona, after she finished 2nd here on debut last year.
That runner-up finish kicked off what was a superb start to the year for the Swede, as she followed with a win in the Lalla Meryem Cup on the LET and then finished 4th in the Honda LPGA Thailand on her LPGA return.
Whilst she didn’t quite replicate that level of results throughout the rest of the year there were still plenty of positives; the standouts being a first major top 10 when 9th in the US Women’s Open and a 4th-place finish in the Scottish Women’s Open.
Stark is all about the ball-striking, ranking 19th in approach and 34th OTT last season, where she is able to find a fine balance of power and accuracy. This skillset took her to that contending effort here, comfortably leading the field in approach and ranking 6th with driver, and she looks good value in this limited field to go close again.
1 pt Ashleigh Buhai each way (1/4, 5 places) - 45/1
Ashleigh Buhai has finished inside the top 10 in both previous visits here and should be feeling positive after finishing 2023 by getting the better of a strong field in the Women’s Australian Open.
Last year was a story of two halves for Buhai. In the first part, she was one of the form players around, winning on her fifth start of the year in the South Africa Women’s Open and gaining a first win on US soil in the Shoprite Classic in June.
The second half was a bit of a struggle but she concluded it with that successful defence of her Women’s Australian Open title, beating off the likes of Minjee Lee and Hannah Green in the process.
The South African was one of the best iron players on tour in 2023, ranking 8th in approach and whilst she doesn’t tick the power box, she has relied on her accuracy off-the-tee to forge a good record at this course.
Buhai finished 8th at Lake Nona in the 2021 Gainbridge LPGA and returned to finish 9th here in the Tournament of Champions last year. She has shot seven out of eight rounds under par across both of those starts and with the winning habit she has developed in recent years – in top-quality fields – she looked a big price in the season opener.
You can catch all of Jamie's Previews and Golf Betting Tips over on our dedicated golf Insights hub.