ANA Inspiration Preview
It's time for the year's first major championship, the ANA Inspiration. This week marks the 48th edition of the tournament, back when it was the most lucrative on the LPGA Tour, and the 37th since it became officially designated as one of the game's elite events in 1983. There is perhaps a greater allure to the U.S. Women's Open and British Open, due to that naturally associated national prestige, but there is something unique about this showpiece from Mission Hills in California, the long-standing venue that provides a player and viewer connection reminiscent of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament.
For 30 years, the winner of the event has been encouraged to take a triumphant leap into "Poppie's Pond", a tradition started by Amy Alcott, an unusual conclusion, but one that does lend itself to the iconic nature of Mission Hills. From Juli Inkster to Dottie Pepper, Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam and Inbee Park, many of the greats have won here, but it was Sweden's Pernilla Lindberg who was the surprise champion of 12 months ago, overcoming Park and Jennifer Song following a lengthy playoff.
European success this time around, however, could be a stretch, but Carlota Ciganda and major champion Georgia Hall will be the most likely candidates to contend, as will England's Charley Hull, who has a strong record at this venue, including a runner-up finish in 2016. Considering how long she has been a fixture at the highest level, it's easy to forget that she has only just turned 23, with time ahead, but this particular major could be her best chance of picking up that elusive title. Jodi Ewart Shadoff and Azahara Munoz have also performed strongly this season, flying the flag for Catriona Matthew's Solheim Cup team.
American hopes will be rested on the shoulders of young Nelly Korda, who has impressed on the LPGA Tour in recent months, most recently winning the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open. The 20-year-old - younger sister of Jessica - currently ranks second on the money list and is eighth in the Rolex World Rankings, the best placed player from the US. It would be remiss to exclude the older Korda from the list of favourites too, with her own consistent major record deserving note, while home fans will also look to Danielle Kang and veteran Cristie Kerr as possible winners, and this could be the stage we see Lexi Thompson rekindle the form that saw her become a major champion five years ago.
Ultimately, this season on the LPGA Tour has been about the continent of Asia, and you feel that the leaderboard will be dominated by players from Korea and Japan. Nasa Hatoaka is the most recent winner on the circuit, while Jin Young Ko leads the money list, but the powerful world number one Sung Hyun Park does have the sense of a favourite, twice a major champion and prodigious. The legendary Inbee Park has the considerable depth of experience to contend on the biggest stages, and Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn will be hoping to emulate her extraordinary season of last year.
Elsewhere, the formidable Minjee Lee is looking to capture her first major title, while former winner Lydia Ko (who is still only 21) is looking to rediscover the form that made her perhaps the most successful teenager in the history of golf. Former U.S. Women's Open champion Michelle Wie is hoping to compete following an injury affected period, but the 29-year-old remains capable, if healthy, of making an appearance on the leaderboard.
Much of the golf world is gazing ahead to the Masters at Augusta, but there is a great deal to enjoy before we head down Magnolia Lane. The first major title of 2019 will be determined at Mission Hills and the ANA Inspiration.
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