Jamie Worsley went close again last week on the LPGA. Our expert golf tipster picked up back to back winners in Rose Zhang and Ashleigh Buhai and was unlucky not to hit a couple of places last time out. Next up, it’s a big one with the Women’s PGA Championship. 

Women’s PGA Championship 2023 Tips

  • 4 pts Jin Young Ko win only  – 12/1 
  • 1.25 pts Carlota Ciganda each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 40/1 
  • 1 pt Sei Young Kim each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 70/1
  • 1 pt Megan Khang each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 80/1
  • 1 pt Grace Kim each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 125/1

This week sees the first of back-to-back majors on the LPGA. Before the players tackle Pebble Beach and the US Women’s Open in two weeks, they first head to New Jersey for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course.

Tournament History

Established in 1955 as the LPGA Championship, the Women’s PGA is the second-oldest of the five majors currently played in the women’s game.

The tournament changed its name to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2015 and brought about a change in host courses. Having previously spent several years at the same course before moving on, the event now enjoys a nomadic status, moving to a different course every year – much the same as the US Women’s Open – which has seen it take in some of the best courses in the states in recent years.

13-time major winner, Mickey Wright’s four wins (1958, 1960, 1961, 1963), makes her the most successful golfer in the event’s history. She’s closely followed by a group of six with three wins apiece: Kathy Whitworth (1967, 1971, 1975), Nancy Lopez (1978, 1985, 1989), Patty Sheehan (1983, 1984, 1993), Annika Sorenstam (2003, 2004, 2005), Se Ri Pak (1998, 2002, 2006) and Inbee Park (2013, 2014, 2015).

Wright was also the first player to retain this title, a feat that was repeated by Sheehan and Juli Inkster, though they were all surpassed by Sorenstam and Inbee Park, whose three wins each all came in consecutive years. Making them two of just three players in the history of the women’s game to win the same major in three straight years, along with Patty Berg who won the now defunct Titleholders Championship in 1937, 1938 and 1939.

The third of Inbee Park’s wins in 2015 at Westchester Country Club saw her equal the tournament record winning score of -19; a record she shares with Nelly Korda (2021), Yani Tseng (2011) and Cristie Kerr (2010); Kerr’s 12-stroke success that year also the biggest winning margin in the event.

Korean golfers have had a bit of a stranglehold on the event over recent years, winning six of the last ten renewals. Most recent of these was last year’s victory for In-gee Chun at Congressional, as she claimed her first Women’s PGA title and third major overall, with a 1-stroke win over Minjee Lee and Lexi Thompson.

Chun is back to defend after recently returning from injury and will be hoping to become the sixth player to retain the Women’s PGA Championship. Though a strong field awaits to deny her this feat at Baltusrol Golf Club.

The Course

Course History

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will be taking its first trip to the A.W. Tillinghast designed Baltusrol Golf Club (Lower Course) this week, though this historied golf club is no stranger to major championship golf.

Baltusrol hosted the 1961 US Women’s Open – won by Mickey Wright – here at the Lower Course and returned 24-years-later in 1985, though this time to the Upper Course (also designed by Tillinghast), at which Kathy Baker won her one-and-only major title.

There have also been seven men’s US Opens held at Baltusrol (1903, 1915, 1936, 1954, 1967, 1980, 1993) and two men’s PGA Championships (2005, 2016); plus a host of high-class amateur events to boot, including both women’s and men’s US amateur events.

A.W. Tillinghast completely overhauled the original golf course here at Baltusrol in 1922, creating both the Lower and Upper Courses. Both courses have been tweaked over the years by Robert Trent and Rees Jones, most recently in 2014 in preparation for the PGA Championship.

Though in 2018, Baltusrol called on the expertise of top golf course renovator, Gil Hanse – whose work we saw on display at Los Angeles Country Club last week – who finished his work on the Lower Course in 2021.

Gil Hanse’s Baltusrol Restoration

Hanse has described the alterations he’s made at Baltusrol’s Lower Course as much more of a restoration than a renovation, with his intention being to recapture quirks of the original Tillinghast design that have been lost over the years.

Much of the work focused on restoring the original green complexes and bunkering. He stated they had both gotten smaller over time, thus work was done to recapture their original size and shape. Additionally, he moved the majority of the greenside bunkers back out to the sides to open up the fronts of the greens; whilst also brought them below the level of the elevated putting surfaces, as they had risen up to be too level to the greens over time.

In contrast to the greenside bunkers, the fairway bunker restoration focused primarily on bringing them more in-play, as the original design – and very much a feature of Tillinghast – is that fairway bunkers should impede and put pressure on your driving ability.

This is no more evident than the “Sahara Bunker” on the par 5 17th, where a large, sandy oasis halfway up the fairway will make layup shots into that longest hole on the course extremely challenging.

How Will It Play?

Baltusrol’s Lower Course will this week play as a par 71, measuring 6621 yards; made up of eleven par 4s (ranging from 363-400 yards) four par 3s (ranging from 162-210 yards) and three par 5s (ranging from 483-550 yards).

The loosely tree-lined course has relatively wide – occasionally doglegged – fairways, though that doesn’t make them easy to drive, with those aforementioned strategically placed bunkers deep and penal; whilst thick 3” fescue rough provides additional protection.

The poa/bentgrass greens are huge (8.300 sq. ft.); many are two-tiered, and they are more sloped – often back-to-front – rather than abound with undulations. More of those challenging bunkers surround most of the putting surfaces; whilst false fronts and run-off areas add further protection, requiring players to hit ultra-precise iron shots to avoid getting into trouble.

The final defence of the course comes from water, which is in-play on six holes. These include the Signature Hole par 3 4th, where water is short of the heavily bunkered and massive, two-tiered green. While it also plays a decisive factor at the business end of the event; hugging the left-hand side of the fairway on this doglegged closing par 5.

It’s a brute of a course but one that favours creativity, and I’m excited to see how it will play this week following Hanse’s restoration of the original Tillinghast ethos.

The Stats

Key Stats:

  • SG: Off-the-Tee
  • SG: Approach
  • SG: Around-the-Greens
  • Sand Saves

This is a major championship at a historically challenging course, as such I think it will require the complete all-round performance to win this week. Though first-and-foremost, I think the tee-to-green game needs to be on point.

The best way to avoid some big numbers around here is to avoid the trouble. Whilst the fairways are of generous width they’re extremely punishing should you miss and require you to be precise to evade those impeding bunkers.

Get your ball into play off-the-tee and you’re then tasked with a difficult approach. Although the greens are big, the multi-tiered, sloping nature of them doesn’t just require you to hit them to avoid the trouble that hugs them, but hitting the right spots to steer clear of potential three-putts will also be hugely important.

Greens are bound to be missed and the challenges around the putting surfaces means we’ll need to lean on sharp short-game players too. Especially those most likely to get up-and-down from the deep bunkers.

Secondary Stats:

  • Driving Distance
  • SG: Putting (poa/bent) with Putts per GIR

Whilst I’m not keen on bombers who spray the ball all over the place, due to the generosity of some fairways, I believe distance can be a big asset this week, providing it’s as part of a strong, controlled driving performance. Some of these holes are pretty lengthy and if you can take it past/over a couple of the fairway bunkers, you can set yourself up for a much kinder approach into the well-protected greens.

I’d be very keen on a 3-putt avoidance stat this week on these greens. Unfortunately no such stat is available for the LPGA but a combination of SG: Putting – as well as players who have gone well in events with poa/bent surfaces – plus putts per GIR, will give us the best idea of who is able to manage these huge, sloped greens.

Correlating Events (Courses)

It’s always tough correlating a course that is new to an event. Looking at the different attributes of many courses used on tour in recent years I found little – with much confidence at least – that could look a true comp course this week.

The one that did stand out was Upper Montclair CC, that has hosted the Founders Cup since 2022. Though a smaller, narrower course, this is another Tillinghast design in New Jersey that shares many similarities. Such as the large, sloped poa/bentgrass greens, thick fescue rough and strategic bunkering that is positioned much in the same way as here at Baltusrol.

KPMG Women’s PGA Championship Trends

  • Nine of the previous ten winners had finished top 25 in the Women’s PGA Championship before; seven had finished top 20 and six had finished top 10.
  • Each of the last ten winners had a previous major top 20; eight had a top 5 and seven had finished as high as 3rd.
  • Nine of the last ten winners had finished top 25 in their three starts prior to winning; eight had finished top 15 and seven had recorded a top 10.
  • Eight of the last ten winners were already LPGA winners; seven had 3 or more wins.

The Weather

There has been plenty of rain about before the start of this event, which will carry over into tournament play and looks to stay over the course of the week.

We could be in for some unfortunate stoppages over the weekend too, as the humid conditions are forecast to bring about some thunderstorms over the second half of the event.

The Field

Despite being a major, this is essentially just an elite LPGA field, with extra spaces in the field given out to the top-8 LPGA national championship professionals; the leading player from the LET last year: Linn Grant and a couple of invitees: Mariah Stackhouse and Gabriela Ruffels.

Still, an elite LPGA field pretty much translates to the very best in the world all being in attendance, which is what we have this week. Each of the top 10 in the world – headed by #1 Jin Young Ko – are all set to tee it up in New Jersey; with the JLPGA’s Miyu Yamashita the only player from the world’s top 25 not stated to be in action. A further seven ranked 26-50 are also absent meaning Baltusrol will host 42 of the world’s top 50 this week.

It will also be generational talent, Rose Zhang’s first major appearance as a pro. Is it conceivable that she can instantly follow her pro-debut win three weeks ago with a win in her major pro debut within the same month? She sure has the talent to do it and I’m excited to see what she brings to the table this week.

Selections

I’m diving in right at the top this week and taking current world #1 Jin Young Ko – who last week tied Lorena Ochoa’s record of 158 weeks atop the world rankings in total – to claim her third major and first Women’s PGA Championship title this week.

After initially looking a little off-the-pace at the end of last year as she returned from an eight-week break spent nursing a wrist injury, the winter break seemingly did Ko the world of good, as she now looks back close to her best this year.

Signs were positive on her first start this year, as she finished 6th in the Honda LPGA Thailand and made good on these positive signs on her next start. Winning the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore.

Since then, Ko hasn’t missed a cut over her next six starts and has only finished outside the top 25 once; recording a further three top 10s and claiming her second win of the year two starts ago in the potentially correlating – to this week’s test – Founders Cup.

The irons have been the star of the show for Ko this year, as she ranks 3rd in approach, whilst she’s also looked very sharp around-the-greens, ranking 24th and is a strong bunker player, ranking 32nd in sand saves.

Her putter has been solid too, as has the driver; where I was encouraged to see that she has reclaimed a little of the distance she lost last year.

Though failing to crack the top 10 yet in the PGA, Ko has never missed a cut in the event and recorded two top 15s. However, as a two-time major winner – both coming in 2019 at the Chevron Championship and Evian Championship – and finishing runner-up in the other two, her major credentials are unquestionable.

Ko ranked 1st in my model this week and has won at the only correlating course I mentioned for this event; she ticks all the boxes and is the one they’ve all got to beat at Baltusrol.

Spain’s Carlota Ciganda has been in excellent form of late and looks well placed for a major breakthrough this week at a course that should suit her strong-driving game.

Ciganda has actually been pretty solid all year. She started 2023 with just one finish outside the top 30 in her first six starts – including a 5th in the LA Open. Though following with a couple of missed cuts in the LA Championship and Founders Cup, she’s upped her form over the last month or so.

She picked up her first win of the year in the Aramco Team Series – Florida, in a strong field that included Lydia Ko in 3rd. Since then she got to the last eight of the Bank of Hope Match-Play and over her last two starts has finished 21st in the Mizuho Americas Open and was 8th last week in the Meijer LPGA Classic.

As always, the driver has been the best club in the bag and sees Ciganda rank 14th on tour, whilst she’s a lengthy 18th in driving distance. The short game has been strong too, particularly out of the bunkers where she ranks 14th and is putting well, ranking 30th.

The Spaniard has recorded a top 7 in each of the five majors throughout her career; a top 5 in all barring the Women’s Open. Whilst her best Women’s PGA finish to date came when 3rd at Aronimink in 2020.

A 5th-place finish in the Founders Cup last year ties her in with one of the more recent Tillinghast courses used on tour and if continuing to play as well as she has so far this year, Ciganda can finally turn one of those major top 5s into a major victory this week.

Sei Young Kim has been enjoying a steady if unspectacular year so far. Though with the quality of her driving and all-round solidity of her tee-to-green game, she can peak for a big major performance this week.

Kim hasn’t missed a cut in nine starts this year and recorded four top 25s, though will be disappointed to have not got closer to the leaders; having not recorded a top 20 yet.

A ranking of 20th tee-to-green shows that her game has been there though, where she has looked particularly strong with the driver, ranking 18th and is not short on length, sat inside the top 40 in driving distance.

It’s the putter that has been holding Kim back, an area she ranks 100th on tour but I’d much rather have a player who has the T2G game going strongly and needs to just find a hot putting week to contend, than the other way around.

Her won this event in 2020 by a huge five strokes, the same year Ciganda finished 3rd and has never finished outside the top 25 in the tournament in eight tries, including three further top 5s; one coming last year when 5th.

Kim’s major prowess is further on show in having to go back to the 2019 Chevron to find when she last missed a cut; one of just three in over 40 appearances. She simply excels in these events and if finally able to find something on the greens this week, she’d look a big danger.

Megan Khang is starting to amass a strong major record despite an LPGA win still eluding her. With that, she’ll be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Hannah Green in 2019 and Danielle Kang in 2017, in making a Women’s PGA Championship win their first win on tour.

Khang has been solid this year, with just one missed cut in nine starts, though much like Sei Young Kim, has struggled to really break onto the first page of the leaderboard. She does however have a top 10 to her name in 2023, which came at our first major: The Chevron Championship and at least tells of a player who can pick themselves up for the biggest occasions.

This has been the case throughout much of Khang’s eight-year pro career so far, where though she hasn’t got a regular LPGA win over the line as yet, has recorded top 10s in four of the five majors – the Women’s Open the exception – and has twice finished top 5 in the US Women’s Open; a 10th in 2019 her best finish in the Women’s PGA.

Khang’s game is all about precision and she has a superb tee-to-green game, ranking 7th on tour this season and is 33rd or better in each of those recorded areas. Along with a ranking of 24th in sand saves, this should more than make up for her lack of power here this week.

Her strong tee-to-green game and major record would’ve been enough to tempt me on their own, though a 6th in last year’s Founders Cup is another big tick next to her name and completes a strong profile for major contention this week.

Australia’s Grace Kim only turned pro in 2021, so has very limited major experience. Though the way she’s impressed so far in her pro career – including winning on the LPGA this year in her rookie season – gives me confidence that she won’t be overawed as she makes her Women’s PGA Championship debut this week.

Kim’s potential was evident in the early days of her amateur career, as she won the Youth Olympics title in 2018; besting a leaderboard that included major winner Yuka Saso and LPGA star Atthaya Thitikul in behind. She carried this right through to the end of her amateur career, as in her final year she finally won – after many previous strong performances – the Australian Women’s Amateur and by a hugely impressive seven shots.

After winning a couple of pro events in Australia – one when still an amateur – Kim achieved status on the Epson Tour (the LPGA’s development tour) and wasted little time getting to work, winning on her 5th start. Which helped her towards finishing 5th on that tour’s money list; this earning her instant promotion to the LPGA this season.

She finished last year with a promising 4th-place finish amongst a strong field in the Women’s Australian Open; carrying that form over into this year when finishing top 10 amongst her first three starts of 2023 across the Aussie and Epson tours.

Kim was then able to kick of her rookie career on the LPGA as the events returned to full-field tournaments stateside and much like her start on the Epson Tour in 2022, she wasted no time letting people know what she was about.

On just her third LPGA start, Kim won the LOTTE Championship in Hawaii, beating China’s Yu Liu and Korea’s Yu-jin Sung in a playoff. A win in tough conditions which should serve her well this week.

She followed that with a couple of missed cuts but sprung back into life three starts ago when 10th in the Founders Cup – which should also bode well for her chances this week – and was 20th last week in the Meijer LPGA Classic.

Kim is a solid ball-striker, ranking top 50 OTT and though not long, is not problematically short. However, it’s her touch around the greens which impresses most, as she ranks 2nd in sand saves and 14th in SG: around-the-greens this season.

Those short-game skills will serve her well this week and along with her impressive integration into pro golf so far, should make her lack of major starts little of an issue at Baltusrol.

 

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