Rancho Mirage, CA-The first major of the year kicks off in the desert of Palm Springs this week for the LPGA. The best players from around the globe will battle for the opportunity to jump in Poppies Pond, a twenty-five year old tradition bestowed upon the victor of the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Last year Sun Young Yoo defeated I.K. Kim in a playoff after Kim missed a short putt for the win in regulation. Here is a look at which players to watch this week.
Stacy Lewis: The newly minted number one player in the world has one major to her credit and it was here at Mission Hills Country Club in 2011 that she overtook Yani Tseng by three shots to win the championship. Since then Lewis has been one of the most consistent players on tour and earned the Rolex Player of the Year award in 2012. Last month the Arkansas graduate claimed the top spot from Tseng when she won her second title of the year in Phoenix. Reason why Lewis is a great bet this week: her worse finish this year is T15.
Yani Tseng: Much has been made of the steady decline of the now #2 ranked player in the world. Hard to believe that it was only two years ago that Tseng won 7 LPGA events including two major championships. At the time Tseng appeared to be unbeatable and although she won three times last year her inconsistency overshadowed her victories. It has now been over a year since Tseng has been in the winner’s circle and 2013 has been up and down for the Taiwanese player. After starting the season with a second place finish at the Australian Open followed by a T3 in Thailand, Tseng hasn’t finished in the top 25 in two other events. Set to defend her title at the KIA Classic two weeks ago in San Diego, Tseng overslept and missed the pro-am tournament, which is an automatic disqualification for the week. However this might be the perfect set up for Tseng who is a player with a lot to prove and has good memories from winning here in 2010. The 6,700-yard course will also favor long hitters such as Tseng who is averaging 270 yards off the tee this season.
I.K. Kim: It would be an incredible story of redemption if Kim could somehow win this week after her near miss last year. What appeared to be a tap in putt measuring only 14 inches turned into a nightmare for the South Korean player. Somehow her ball caught the lip of the cup and spun out forcing a playoff, which she eventually lost. Kim for her part has been very up beat when interviewed about the loss and has chosen to focus on her second place finish last year being her best finish in a major championship. Kim also lost in a playoff to Beatriz Recari at the KIA Classic two weeks ago but does hold three LPGA titles to her name. She is known as one of the most generous players on tour having famously donated her entire first place check to charity when she won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in 2010. No doubt she will have a lot of supporters this week when she tees it up.
Suzann Pettersen: A ten-year veteran, Pettersen won the LPGA Championship in 2007 and it has been a bit of a surprise that she hasn’t won a few more majors since then. Pettersen’s best finish this season was a T13 at the KIA Classic last month but she did win in China on the Ladies European Tour at the beginning of March. Although she is an emotional player who can struggle when her temper gets the best of her, she can also handle the length of Mission Hills. She hits a lot of greens (third on tour in GIR) and if she can putt well this week expect her to be in the mix this weekend.
Na Yeon Choi: If Lewis is looking over her shoulder to see who might grab the number one spot from her, most likely her eyes will stop when she spots Choi. Ranked third in the world Choi is the model of consistency and picked up her first major title last summer at the U.S. Open. Choi goes by her nickname ‘NYC’ and has quietly become a fan favorite in her five years on tour. Hard to root against someone who is great at every facet of the game and rarely has a bad week.
Karrie Webb: Webb has seven major titles on her resume and two of them were won at the Kraft. Although it has been seven years since Webb last jumped into Poppies Pond, the Australian native has continued to play well the past couple of years and is ranked 14th in the world. A T6 at the KIA Classic a few weeks ago showed that Webb with 37 LPGA victories is sharp heading into Mission Hills this week. Webb knows how to win and the odds are that the World Hall of Fame player notches at least one more major championship before her career is over.
Lydia Ko: It will be the first appearance at the Kraft Nabisco for the 15 year-old Korean player who makes her home in New Zealand. She is the top ranked amateur in the world and already owns an LPGA victory after winning the Canadian Open last summer making her the youngest winner in LPGA history. Ko also owns a couple titles on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf tour as well as one from the Ladies European Tour. So far Ko as demonstrated talent far beyond her years on the golf course and a win in Palm Springs isn’t impossible to imagine. Bet on her at least playing the weekend-she has participated in 14 professional events so far as an amateur and has yet to miss the cut.
Michelle Wie: Wie has had a very rough start to 2013 with her best finish resulting in a T45 in February. She has picked up a very uncomfortable looking putting stance and has found herself ranked 88th in the world heading into the first major of the year. On paper there isn’t a lot favoring Wie to pick up the trophy on Sunday. However the Kraft has some good memories for Wie. It was ten years ago as a 13-year-old amateur that Wie finished T9. And a sixth place finish two years ago propelled Wie to one of her most consistent years on tour with seven top-ten finishes. Perhaps Wie can conjure up a little more magic in the desert to kick-start what so far has been a lack luster year. Consider Wie the dark horse who might just surprise everyone with a great week and her first major title.