Spain’s Carlota Ciganda winning the important fourteenth point that ensured the Solheim Cup stayed in Europe, in the first edition to be staged in Spain, was as close to a dream scenario you could have hoped for last week. That it actually happened was incredible and capped off a magical event at Finca Cortesin.
Right from the start the event was packed with drama. From the USA going 4-0 in the opening foursomes session and Europe’s impressive fightback to get it back to 8-8 entering the singles. The battle then ebbed and flowed throughout the final day, with both sides looking favourites to win the event several times.
Two of the more curious selections of the event, Emily Pedersen and Caroline Hedwall supplied two of the absolute standout moments of the three days.
Pedersen hit an amazing hole-in-one on Friday – only the second in the history of the event – and produced an all-round high-quality performance.
Whilst Hedwall’s unbelievable fightback late on in her match with Ally Ewing set the tide turning back in favour of Europe, as she birdied five of her last six holes, going from 2 down with five to play to a 2up victory; Ciganda then securing the trophy moments later with a sensational birdie on 17.
Although it is not ideal that the event ends in a draw, there can be no denying that the 2023 Solheim Cup – which promised to be one of the most exciting renewals in its history – delivered.
The LPGA now hurtles towards the climax of its season, with seven consecutive weeks of events before the season-ending Tour Championship from the 16th-19th November at Tiburon Golf Club.
The players will head off for a four-week stint around East Asia in a couple of weeks but first we have two events stateside, starting with the NW Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club this week. A 54-hole event that starts on Friday.
The Arkansas Championship debuted in 2007, in an event won by then Arkansas University amateur, Stacy Lewis. The tournament was reduced to eighteen holes due to severe weather and saw those in 2nd behind Lewis splitting half of the winners’ prize share.
It took place in September that year, as it did four times in its first five years and after being staged in June from 2012 to 2019, it returned to this end-of-September slot in 2021. The championship has always been contested here, at Pinnacle Country Club.
Lewis would go on to win the tournament again in 2014 in more traditional fashion, though she was not the first player to collect multiple trophies in the Arkansas Championship, as Taiwanese star, Yani Tseng, became the first player to win two in a row, in 2010 and 2011.
In recent years, Japan’s Nasa Hataoka has added her name to the list of multiple winners with two victories in 2018 and 2021. Her 2018 win saw her set both the winning score and winning margin records; winning by six strokes on a score of -21.
Atthaya Thitikul won for the second time in 2022 in last year’s tournament, in a playoff – the first since 2013 – against Danielle Kang. She returns to defend at Pinnacle Country Club this week and is joined by several players who starred in last week’s Solheim Cup.
Pinnacle Country Club was designed by Don Sechrest in 1990 and renovated by Randy Heckenkemper – who assisted in the design of TPC Scottsdale, among others – in 2009. Due to some adverse weather conditions last winter, the Zoysia fairways were damaged and needed to be replaced, meaning they won’t quite be in the same condition this year, though the greens and their surrounds are fine; it is not expected to play a whole lot differently from previous years.
The course is a par 71, measuring 6438 yards and is made up of: nine par 4s (320-431 yards), five par 3s (150-190 yards) and four par 5s (488-578 yards).
With a scoring average just shy of -18 over the last eight years – not forgetting it’s an event played over three rounds – it’s a scorable golf course and there’s no reason to suspect that won’t still be the case this year, despite some warm, dry weather keeping the greens slick.
Though tree-lined throughout, there is plenty of room and the fairways – many which dogleg gently – are largely generous, some extremely so. Having said that, many of them pinch the further up you go and with overhanging trees blocking lines into the greens, the players will need a level of precision with driver. Whilst thick bermudagrass rough and strategic fairway bunkers offer defence should you start straying too far from the short grass.
Some significant elevation changes will test approaches into the large, speedy and pure bentgrass greens, which have a lot of subtle slopes and some which are multi-tiered. If firm, three-putting will be difficult to avoid. They are protected by bunkers and gentle run-offs that lead into tightly mown Zoysia around-the-green, which tempts many players to pull putter instead of wedge when on the surrounds of the putting surfaces.
With water in-play on sixteen holes – much of which comes from the creak that bends throughout the course – there is a real risk/reward feeling about Pinnacle CC.
All four of the par 5s have water in-play, most prevalent of which is the 549-yard 14th (that will also play as short as 471 yards this week). The creak winds its way up the left-hand side of the fairway here and feeds into a larger body of water completely protecting the front of the green.
The collection of short and scorable par 4s follow a similar theme, with a number that could potentially be drivable throughout the week for the longest hitters; including the severely doglegging 348-yard 5th (playing more like 280 if cutting across the dogleg) and the 10th hole, which will play as short as 266 at some point.
Each of the five par 3s have water for protection, none more so than the signature hole at the course, the 150-yard 15th. Which requires an approach into an island green complex surrounded by water and strong bunkering.
There is danger lurking at most turns at Pinnacle Country Club but as the scoring suggests, these dangers are easy enough to avoid and if keeping your ball in-play, you can give yourself countless birdie looks.
- SG: Approach
- SG: Putting
- Driving Distance
Last year’s renewal won by Atthaya Thitikul was the first in which we had tournament specific stats and they suggest this a course all about what you do from fairway to green.
Thitikul excelled in approach and with the short game when winning last year, ranking 8th in scrambling, 9th in putting and 10th in approach. Runner-up Danielle Kang was 1st in scrambling and 2nd in approach; Chella Choi in 3rd was 2nd on the greens and 21st in approach; whilst Pornanong Phatlum in 4th ranked 10th in putting and 11th in scrambling.
Nasa Hataoka is a two-time winner of the event and typically marries quality in approach with a solid short game. Lydia Ko is another former champion with a similar set of skills,
Though driver didn’t appear overly important last year, and the list of winners/contenders has featured both longer and shorter hitters, I do think bombers can overpower several holes and should relish the more generous fairways.
Three of the par 5s will play pretty long, including the 578-yard 2nd hole and will only be reachable for the very longest players in the field, whilst they are also the players best equipped to take advantage of the potentially drivable par 4s. Thitikul was 11th in driving distance when she won last year, Sung-hyun Park was the 6th longest driver on tour when winning in 2018 and Yani Tseng was one of the biggest hitters on the LPGA when recording her wins in 2010/2011.
Correlating Events (Courses)
JTBC/Kia Classic (Aviara GC)
The JTBC Classic was played until last year and from 2013 took place at Aviara Golf Club. The course features generous tree-lined fairways, large greens and water in-play on several holes.
Last year’s Arkansas winner, Atthaya Thitikul won there earlier in 2022; Lydia Ko, Inbee Park and Nasa Hataoka have also recorded wins at both courses.
Austin Ernst won in Arkansas in 2020 and has finished 2nd at Aviara, whilst Eun-hee Ji has won the JTBC Classic and finished 2nd in Arkansas. Azahara Munoz, Amy Yang and Danielle Kang have all finished 2nd at both courses.
Portland Classic (Columbia Edgewater CC)
The Portland Classic’s Columbia Edgewater is a tree-lined course, with generous fairways and similarly sized, speedy greens.
Ai Miyazato, Austin Ernst and Stacy Lewis have each recorded wins both there, and here at Pinnacle CC. Meanwhile, Nasa Hataoka and Atthaya Thitikul have hit the top 10 in Portland.
Brittany Altomare and Moriya Jutanugarn have several top 5s at both courses; Carlota Ciganda has two top 5s there to go with multiple top 10s here and Chella Choi has top 10s across the two events.
Dana Open (Highland Meadows GC)
Highland Meadows is a touch tighter than Pinnacle CC and the greens smaller, but with its combination of strong bunkering, gentle doglegs and lots of water in-play, it has developed firm form-ties with this week’s event.
Na Yeon Choi, So-yeon Ryu, Lydia Ko and Nasa Hataoka have claimed the title at both events, whilst Austin Ernst has various top 5s in the Dana Open.
The duo of Danielle Kang and Chella Choi are past winners of the Dana Open with attractive records in Arkansas; Azahara Munoz has numerous top 10s at Highlands Meadows and Linnea Strom has finished 5th there, complimenting her good record here, where she’s finished 9th and 13th in three starts.
Meijer LPGA Classic (Blythefield CC)
Blythefield CC is a loosely tree-lined course with kind fairways and though the greens there are small, the event has typically seen low scoring. Thus, it has many form-ties with the Arkansas Championship.
So-yeon Ryu has won both events, whilst Nasa Hataoka has finished 2nd there and Atthaya Thitikul 5th.
Brittany Altomare and Chella Choi have top 5s across both; Danielle Kang, Moriya Jutanugarn and Azahara Munoz each have two or more top 10s.
Conditions are set to be warm and dry throughout the week, with gusty winds reaching a high of 16mph only offering a mild challenge to the contenders.
The event has attracted a decent field this week, with six of the twenty-four participants at the Solheim Cup entered, as well as USA captain and two-time winner here, Stacy Lewis. That six includes three from each side: Leona Maguire, Emily Pedersen and Georgia Hall from the trophy-retaining European side, and Lexi Thompson, Danielle Kang and Cheyenne Knight from the US team.
World #6, Hyo Joo Kim is the top ranked player in the field and is followed by former winner, Lydia Ko at #10 and #11 Atthaya Thitikul, this week’s defending champion.
Atthaya Thitikul and Hyo Joo Kim both have good records here and are understandably joint favourites this week, though 8/1 is short enough and they are easy enough to leave out.
I do think there are a couple of players who played in last week’s Solheim Cup who represent a bit of value, though they come a little further down the betting and instead, my headline selection this week is Japan’s Yuka Saso.
3 pts Yuka Saso each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 14/1
I put Saso up last-time-out in the Kroger Queen City Championship, where she entered the final round with every chance from four off the lead; ultimately disappointing with a final-round 72 to finish 5th. However, that was her fifth top 10 in eight starts and with the iron play continuing to look in a better place than earlier in the year, she looks to have a clear chance again this week.
Among those top 10 performances were two excellent efforts in majors, when 2nd in the Women’s PGA Championship and 3rd in the Evian Championship. Whilst two starts prior to her latest effort, she finished 8th in a difficult CPKC Women’s Open.
Saso’s iron play has been on the up over those starts, with the recent 3rd and 8th-place finishes coming in weeks where she produced two of her top three approach displays of the season, whilst at the Queen City Championship, she produced her sixth best stats of the year in this area.
Surprisingly, the reason she couldn’t quite kick on there was the putter, something which has been one of the better parts of her game this year, ranking 29th. With the power she has with the driver, ranking 10th in driving distance, combined with her improved approach play and generally strong putting, she has a good profile for this event.
Saso certainly showed this on debut in 2021 when finishing 4th, returning last year to finish 32nd. A 5th in the Dana Open further emphasises her suitability to this challenge and means that the 2021 US Women’s Open champion looks likely to be a major player this week.
1.75 pts Danielle Kang each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 30/1
After a poor year by her standards, it was pleasing to see Danielle Kang come alive in the Solheim Cup last week. She played four matches there, winning two and signing off the week with an impressive 4 & 2 victory over Charley Hull in the singles, where she looked good on the greens and hit some superb approaches. I’m hoping she can carry that form over into this week – a place where she has twice finished 2nd – and use Team USA’s narrow failure to regain the Solheim Cup as motivation for a great finish to the year, starting here.
Kang started the year in good form, recording three finishes of 7th or better in her opening seven starts, including a runner-up finish in the Aramco Series – Singapore. However, she has recorded just two top 20s in her last eleven starts, with a best of 10th in the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National.
The driver has been the issue and sees Kang rank a lowly 140th of 144 players on the LPGA this season. Though she ranks solidly enough in approach at 48th, this is down from her being among the top ten best iron players on tour in 2022, but she did look good in this area in her last appearance prior to the Solheim Cup, ranking 13th when finishing 14th in the Portland Classic. The putter shone their too, ranking 9th and that has been an asset all season, ranking 27th overall.
Her combination of quality in approach and on the greens is what has helped the Californian form an excellent record in Arkansas, with her recording two runner-up finishes and a 4th in the last four years.
Kang has correlating form in spades too, as a past winner of the Dana Open and 2nd-place finisher in the JTBC Classic. She’s a steely competitor and with her confidence hopefully given a boost by that performance in Spain, she can finally turn one of those close calls at Pinnacle CC into a victory this week.
1.25 pts Lexi Thompson each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 45/1
Lexi Thompson entered last week’s Solheim Cup with just twelve starts this year, seven of which resulted in missed cuts and just one top 10 when 3rd in Saudi on her first start of 2023. With that, her showing at Finca Cortesin was inspired – as was Stacy Lewis’ decision to lean heavily on her – as she won three matches for the first time in the event and signed off with a singles victory over a flying Emily Pedersen to at least mean the USA didn’t suffer their third defeat in a row.
Her game looked in good shape across the board and though a couple of errors proved costly, they were rare. The long game looked excellent, and she produced plenty of quality on and around-the-greens.
There were some encouraging signs in her previous start before the Solheim Cup, as she produced her best ball-striking performance of the season when finishing 19th in the Kroger Queen City Championship.
Lexi has had some good results in Arkansas in recent years, finishing 3rd in 2018 and 8th in 2021. Strong form at the Meijer LPGA, where she has recorded several top 5s, including a win – along with multiple runner-up finishes in the Dana Open – solidify her chances and if able to at all harness some of that positive play from Spain, 45/1 may look a big price by Sunday evening.
0.75 pts Gina Kim each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 200/1
Former #8 amateur, Gina Kim, achieved her best LPGA finish to date when 3rd in the correlating Portland Classic two starts ago. Though she missed the cut on her debut here last year, that performance offered more promise than the bare result suggests, and she can improve on it this year.
Kim turned pro at the start of last year and spent most of 2022 playing the Epson Tour, where a victory and 2nd-place finish helped her finish 8th on the money list and earn an instant upgrade to the LPGA.
There were some promising signs early in the year, including a top 20 in the LA Championship. Though she struggled for form until that 3rd in the Portland Classic at the end of August.
The putter has done most of the heavy lifting for Kim, indeed it was this club that shot her into 3rd in Portland, as she ranked 6th and produced her best numbers of the year on the greens. Although, she also hit the ball better than she has all year in that event, including a fourth-best approach display of 2023.
Kim missed the cut here last year, as she opened with a poor 3-over 74 in round one. However, she responded excellently in round two, firing eight birdies in a 5-under-par round and with that recent top 3 showing her game to be in decent shape, she can get off to a much better start at Pinnacle CC this time around.