LPGA Starts A New Season With Plenty Of New Faces In Winners-Only Field

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — As a new LPGA season gets underway on Thursday, here is one clue the tour is in the midst of change: There are lots of new faces (11) at the winners-only event.

And lots of faces (35), period.

The only predictable pillar to lean on as the LPGA begins its 74th season with the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions is that golf fans are highly likely to see some unpredictable things.

A year ago, Lilia Vu and Allisen Corpuz of California, Ruoning Yin of China and Celine Boutier of France all began the year having never won a major. The 26-year-old Vu won two of them, the Chevron Championship and Women’s British Open, and now makes her TOC debut at Lake Nona.

Who will be next to break through? And what seasoned players — standouts such as Nelly Korda and Lydia Ko — will bounce back after 2023 seasons that fell short of expectations? Missing from the field is Lexi Thompson, who hasn’t won since 2019.

“I think it’s great to see that, like as a competitor, you’re playing and you’re not sure if the world No. 1 Lilia Vu will win or it might be a name that we are not as familiar with,” said Ko, a former No. 1 who now is at No. 12.

“I think that’s just the name of the game. It’s like golf, you just never know who’s going to win. We’re definitely seeing a bigger variety of players, and obviously a lot of American players that are playing really well.”

On top of that list is Vu, last season’s LPGA player of the year, who starts the season atop the women’s world ranking. She was the first American since Stacy Lewis in 2014 to win LPGA player of the year. In addition to two majors, Vu also captured two other LPGA titles.

The season opener features LPGA winners from the last two seasons playing alongside a field of celebrities from the sports and entertainment sectors. It’s a relaxed way for the LPGA players to start anew, getting in four rounds in a no-cut event at a well-kept venue that played host to the very first Solheim Cup in 1990.

It also serves as a great perk for winning, which is no small accomplishment given the depth of today’s game.

Brooke Henderson of Canada won the event a year ago, with all parts of her game working nicely at Lake Nona. But she didn’t win again in 2023. She is hoping to recapture some winning vibes as she returns to the course this week. Henderson is No. 13 in the world.

Eight of the top 14 players from the rankings are at Lake Nona, including four of the top 10 (Vu, Yin, Korda and Charley Hull of England).

“This is a great way to start out the year,” Henderson said. “It’s an amazing atmosphere. It’s really fun. There are concerts three nights this week, big parties. It’s just a little bit more chill and great vibes and great way to kind of start out the year.”

The LPGA welcomed 12 first-time winners in 2023, 11 of whom have made the trip to Orlando to play this week. (Yin is injured.)

The first-timers include Rose Zhang, the former U.S. Amateur and Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion who won in her LPGA debut last season at the Mizuho Americas Open. Zhang, 20, still is attending classes at Stanford — four this fall — but is excited about having a full schedule. She will tee it up this week, head back to Stanford and then resume her LPGA schedule in March.

Another first-time LPGA winner was Mone Inami of Japan, the silver medalist from the Tokyo Olympics. She wasn’t a tour member when she won the Toto Japan Classic in her home country in November and since has taken up membership. She is a 13-time winner on the Japan LPGA.

This will be a busy season for the LPGA, which has 33 events (four in Florida) on its schedule and will compete for more than $118 million in prize money in 2024, a record. Golf returns to the Olympics in Paris in early August, and the 19th Solheim Cup is scheduled for Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Manassas, Virginia, in September.