With the month-long stint in East Asia complete, the LPGA now heads back to the U.S, where they will conclude the 2023 season with back-to-back events in Florida.
The Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club provides us with the finale next week but first it’s to Pelican Golf Club for the fourth edition of The ANNIKA.
The ANNIKA debuted in 2020 as the Pelican Women’s Championship and is hosted by one of the greats of the game, ten-time major champion, Annika Sorenstam.
South Korean, Sei Young Kim won the inaugural edition, shooting -14 to beat Ally Ewing by three strokes.
Kim then put up an excellent defence of her title in 2021, eventually losing out to Nelly Korda in a four-women playoff, which also included Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko; after all finished tied on -17.
Korda then did what Kim was unable to in 2022, by retaining the trophy, in an event that was shortened to 54-holes due to the approaching Hurricane Nicole.
Lexi Thompson had to once again settle for a runner-up spot there and she returns this week hoping to go one better, as Korda chases what would be a historic third title on the spin in this event. Something that would put her up there alongside a small but elite group of players to achieve the threepeat, including this week’s host, Sorenstam, who holds the record with five consecutive wins of the same event – the Mizuno Classic (now the Toto Japan Classic) from 2001-2005.
Pelican Golf Club (formerly known as Belleview Biltmore Golf Club) was originally designed by Donald Ross in 1925. However, the course was significantly renovated by Beau Welling in 2018 and is described as being “designed with inspiration from Donald Ross’ original layout” rather than a strict restoration of his original design.
The course is a par 70, measuring 6349 yards and there are twelve par 4s (312-428 yards), four par 3s (143-191 yards) and two par 5s (495-529 yards).
Despite being laid on rather flat terrain, the course is supposed to be somewhat of a tribute to Augusta National. You can certainly see this in places, where the generously inviting and undulating fairways are framed by a smattering of trees within pine straw on most holes; with large, white, steep-faced bunkers placed strategically for protection.
These bunkers also come into play around the large and speedy bermudagrass greens, which are generally elevated and littered with run-offs. Whilst big, most are angled, shallow and abound with slopes and contours, which makes accessing some pins tricky. It is these greens that provide the most substantial challenges at Pelican Golf Club.
With water in-play on ten holes, the course has plenty of risk/reward about it. Two of the four par 3s (the 9th and 12th) are defended by water right and centre. There are several par 4s that will tempt the players into going for it in one, including the 17th hole, that will play as short as 256 yards this week; with water long, anyone getting after it a little too much runs the risk of finding the hazard.
Whilst the par 5s are gettable they are no gimme birdies. Water protects the left-hand side of the 7th fairway and green and on the second par 5, the 14th, strategic bunkering tightens the fairway landing area and guards the front of a shallow green.
There are plenty of challenges at Pinnacle Golf Club but the scoring has been decent enough across the three renewals so far, where a particular “brand” of golfer has enjoyed the most success.
- SG: Off-the-Tee
- Driving Distance
- SG: Approach
- SG: Putting (Bermudgrass)
- Par 4 Scoring
Due to the wide open and generous nature of the fairways, as well as the need to attack the greens precisely and in the correct spots, Pelican Golf Club has so far proven to be a haven for high-quality and lengthy ball-strikers.
Nelly Korda has won the last two renewals of this event and can very much be described as possessing such a skillset. In her win last year, she excelled with the driver, ranking 1st and was 6th in driving distance, complimenting with a top 25 approach display. Lexi Thompson is in a similar mould and ranked as the 4th longest driver there and 8th OTT, whilst the shorter-hitting Allisen Corpuz was in-tune with her irons, ranking 2nd.
Sei Young Kim won the first renewal in 2020 and finished 2nd in 2021. She is another player who hits the ball well, ranking 1st in GIR, 20th in driving distance and 31st in driving accuracy in 2020; with other runners-up, Ally Ewing and Lydia Ko very strong iron players.
The putter was a pivotal club on these tricky greens last year, with winner, Korda, ranking 4th and Lexi in 2nd ranking 1st. Lydia Ko and 2020’s 3rd-place finisher, Stephanie Meadow also excel with the flat stick.
Finally, you have to get the better of the twelve par 4s here. Evidence for this was incredibly striking last year, as the top 3 ranked 2nd, 3rd and 1st on the par 4s respectively.
CORRELATING EVENTS (COURSES)
There aren’t a great deal of courses all that similar to Pelican Golf Club on tour, therefore it was a challenge to find strong comp events, though two did stand out: the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship (Superstition Mountain Golf Club) and 2023 Chevron Championship (The Club at Carlton Woods).
Both are pretty open courses with large bermudagrass greens and wide fairways. Carlton Woods also leans on strong bunkering as a major defence. Nelly Korda and Allisen Corpuz both hit the top 5 in the Chevron, whilst Ally Ewing finished 5th in the LPGA Drive On.
Whilst not all that obvious on paper, with smaller greens and different grass types – though it does have relatively generous fairways - the Meijer LPGA Classic (Blythefield Country Club) had a huge amount of form-ties and may be worth checking out.
The only two players to win at Pelican Golf Club, Nelly Korda and Sei Young Kim, have also won at Blythefield CC; as have Lexi Thompson, and Canada’s Brooke Henderson, who has finishes of 5th and 6th here.
Florida is set to provide the players with some fine golfing conditions this week, with the forecast scheduling warm, dry and sunny weather every day of the event. Accompanied by a mild 8mph breeze, there is little to deter the players from playing some quality golf.
This is our final full-field event of the year and gives players a final chance to break into the top 60 in the season-long rankings to make it into next week’s Tour Championship. It is also important for players looking to retain status on tour for next season, with a spot in the top 100 needed for a full card.
A strong field heads to Florida, with eight of the world’s top 10 in attendance. This includes world #1, Ruoning Yin, #2 Lilia Vu and #3 Celine Boutier; #6 Nelly Korda is the defending champion and the only former winner in the event with Sei Young Kim absent.
Lexi Thompson makes her first start since her impressive performance in the Shriners Open on the PGA Tour, though expectations may be low with her not pain-free from a wrist injury.
Other entrants of interest include the #1 and #3 ranked players on the Epson Tour, Gabriela Ruffels and Auston Kim; as well as the current 11th-best amateur, Rachel Kuehn.
Atthaya Thitikul is the 9/1 favourite in Florida, with two-time winner, Nelly Korda next at 10/1. There were a few that appealed at this top end of the betting, but none more so than the elite ball-striking world #1 Ruoning Yin; who goes in as my main selection this week.
2 pts Ruoning Yin each way (1/4 – 5 places) – 25/1
21-year-old Yin turned pro in 2020 after running riot on the Chinese amateur scene in 2019, winning nine events. She transferred that winning ability to the China LPGA in 2020, winning three events on the spin in her first three starts and at the end of 2021 she finishing 4th in the LPGA Q-School to earn her first stab at the LPGA last year.
She initially struggled in 2022 but looked to have started to get the hang of things towards the end of the year. A 4th in the Dana Open was a standout performance and she has broken through in a major way this year.
Yin won her first LPGA title on just her second start of 2023 in the LA Open at Palos Verdes and has barely looked back since. She has recorded just one missed cut in eighteen starts and hit the top 5 on another five occasions; becoming a major champion with victory at Baltusrol in the Women’s PGA Championship.
Her swift rise to the top of the world rankings was completed following a fourth 3rd-place finish in five starts at the Kroger Queen City Championship. A position she regained two weeks ago by finishing 17th in the Maybank Championship in Malaysia.
She is a terrific ball-striker, ranking 2nd in approach and 9th off-the-tee this season, also possessing plenty of power as a top 25 player in driving distance.
Yin finished 17th on her debut here last year, hitting the ball predictably well and looks a nice price to go even better this year, now ranked as the best player in the world.
1.5 pts Allisen Corpuz each way (1/4 – 5 places) – 28/1
Allisen Corpuz finished 3rd at Pelican Golf Club on debut last year and as another player who became a first-time major winner this year, her undoubted confidence can see her go two better this time around.
Corpuz is a former top-10 amateur and made her way to the LPGA via Q-School in 2021. She performed well in her rookie season in 2022 and had hit the top 50 in the world by the end of the year.
She made a promising start to this year, finishing 3rd in the HSBC Women’s World Championship on her second start; then recording a first major top 5 when 4th in the Chevron Championship four starts later.
Corpuz’s early season promise took a big step forward at Pebble Beach in July, as she produced an impressively composed final-round performance to not just win her first pro title but her first major in the US Women’s Open by three strokes. She finished 2nd on her next start following this in the Dana Open and though results have been a little more inconsistent over recent months, she recorded another top 10 when finishing 6th in the Women’s Open and comes into this week off the back of consecutive top 25s in the LPGA’s tour of Asia; finishing 15th in the Maybank Championship on her latest start two weeks ago.
She does everything to a decent level but particularly excels in approach, ranking 12th. Her driving is a solid 44th and she scores the par 4s well, ranking 11th in par 4 scoring.
Corpuz held a one-shot lead in this event entering the final round on her debut last year, after opening with two rounds of 65; before eventually finishing 3rd. Her 4th in this year’s Chevron Championship franks her suitability to this test and I’m expecting her to go just as strongly this week.
1.25 pts Maja Stark each way (1/4 – 5 places) – 35/1
Maja Stark made her way to the LPGA last year thanks to winning the co-sanctioned ISPS Handa World Invitational. She has continued to perform well in her first full year on the tour in 2023 and can improve on her encouraging debut effort in The ANNIKA last year.
Stark made an excellent start to this year, following a 2nd-place finish here in Florida in the Tournament of Champions with a sixth Ladies European Tour victory in the Lalla Meryem Cup and then finished 4th in the Honda LPGA Thailand on her third start of the year.
She hit a bit of a slump in form after that but rediscovered it with a 9th-place finish in the US Women’s Open and has continued to perform strongly since, with another top 5 coming when finishing 4th in the Women’s Scottish Open.
Stark comes into this week after some positive performances in Asia, as she finished 8th in the Buick LPGA Shanghai four weeks ago and was 20th in Malaysia on her latest start, where she hit the ball well.
This strong ball-striking is what her game is about, as she ranks 15th in approach and 34th off-the-tee on the LPGA this season. She is not short on length, ranking 44th in driving distance and though the putter can be an issue, she produced her 2nd-best putting display of the year during that top 10 in China.
Stark finished 10th in this event last year, entering the final round just one off the lead after a scintillating 63 in round two. Her high-class iron play was the biggest factor in that performance, ranking 4th for the week and can take her to another contending effort this year.
1 pt Patty Tavatanakit each way (1/4 – 5 places) – 70/1
Patty Tavatanakit has finally started to turn her form around after enduring a difficult previous twelve months and sitting at #61 in the season’s rankings, she needs another good performance to make it into next week’s final event of the year.
Patty started last year strongly but completely lost form in the second half of the year, where she missed eight of her last fourteen cuts and recorded no finish better than 29th over that period.
Despite finding a 3rd-place finish in the LA Open at the start of this campaign, her overall results remained poor but they started to improve after she finished 27th in the US Women’s Open, with her showing a greater level of consistency.
Tavatanakit has only missed one cut in her last eleven starts and has recorded two top 10s, which came when 6th in the Women’s Scottish Open and 2nd in the Hana Financial Group Championship in Korea four starts ago; in a field that included Minjee Lee among other LPGA players.
A theme of her recent performances has been a return to form with the driver. She ranked 16th off-the-tee when finishing 36th in the Buick LPGA Shanghai three starts ago and ranked 11th when finishing 28th in in the BMW Ladies Championship on her second-last start. Both times using that immense power that served her well in the early stages of her pro career. Combine this with her consistently strong putting – ranking 39th on tour this season – and she’s a player who can go well at Pelican Golf Club.
She certainly showed this on her debut in 2021, as Patty finished 6th owing to excellent rounds of 65 and 64 in rounds two and three. Her missed cut in the event last year is easy to forgive, as her game was at its lowest point and with the improvements in her game over recent months, I’m expecting something a lot more like that first effort this time.
0.5 pts Pauline Roussin each way (1/4 – 5 places) – 250/1
Q-School beckons for former #1 amateur, Pauline Roussin unless she can find a good performance in Florida this week. I’m confident that she can do just that - at a place where she finished 17th on debut last year – due to her quality and length off-the-tee, as well as recent advances she’s made on the greens.
Roussin is currently in her second season on the LPGA, after gaining a tour card at Q-School in 2021. She performed solidly last year, finishing 69th on the rankings and comfortably retaining her card for this season but currently sitting 131st this time around, it’s obvious to see this year has been a struggle.
She actually started the year extremely positively on the LET, finishing 17th in the Saudi Ladies International against a top class field; following that with a hugely taking four-stroke win in the Aramco Series – Singapore, leaving stars such as Danielle Kang and Lydia Ko in her wake.
However, the Frenchwoman hasn’t been able to transfer this level of form to the LPGA, where she’s missed nine cuts in seventeen starts and recorded just one top 10, when finishing 8th in the Meijer LPGA Classic back in June. Though she does arrive here with a little something to build on, having finished 15th in the Aramco Series – Riyadh on her latest start amidst a strong field of contenders.
She is at her best with the driver, ranking 45th this season and is 11th in driving distance, meaning she has more than enough power to take it to this course. While her results haven’t been great on the LPGA, she did produce two of her three best putting displays of the year on her last two starts, ranking 18th in Arkansas and then 16th in The Ascendant.
If Roussin can maintain that newfound level on the greens she can make a mark at Pelican Golf Club. Her 17th on debut last year – which including a first-round 65 on her first look at the course – should give her confidence that she can find that much-needed performance here; her solo top 10 of this year in the Meijer LPGA Classic can also act as a positive.