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ORLANDO, Fla. – Emma Talley arrived at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club at 7 a.m. ET on Tuesday for the first full-field event of the LPGA Tour season. As the sun began to set later that day, Talley was still at the course, chatting up her fellow pros she hadn’t seen for two months. She wasn’t alone. Players were happy to reconnect with one another at the Gainbridge LPGA, many having quarantined in their respective states and countries since the 2020 season wrapped up in December.
Jin Young Ko, who won the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, is eager to pick up where she left off last year. Ko makes her season debut this week, having skipped the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January. The No. 1 player in the Rolex Rankings has held the top spot for 86 weeks, but she is beginning to feel the pressure from current world No. 2 Sei Young Kim, who also makes her season debut in Orlando. Kim is arguably the hottest player on tour heading into the season. In 2020, the South Korean enjoyed a career best campaign that saw her earn her first major victory at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and claim the Rolex Player of the Year award.
“Golf is just a personal sport, not a team, so if [she] plays better she can win; if I play better, I can win,” Ko said about Kim. “I don’t want to [have a] rivalry with her. I want to fight just by myself on the course.”
Annika Sorenstam, who knows the challenge of holding on to the world No. 1 ranking, is making her first start on the LPGA Tour in 13 years. Lake Nona is her home course; she lives just off the 16th hole.
For many players in the field, the opportunity to compete against the World Golf Hall of Fame member wasn’t possible. Sorenstam retired in 2008, at the age of 37, in order to start a family. Much of the current generation on tour grew up watching the 72-time LPGA winner on television, but this week will get to experience first-hand what it’s like to play alongside one of the great players in golf history. Thursday, defending champion Madelene Sagstrom will get that opportunity. The all Swedish group of Sorenstam, Sagstrom and Anna Nordqvist will tee off at 12:25 p.m. ET in Round 1.
“I know she’s going to go in full-hearted,” Sagstrom said about Sorenstam. “Just being able to see that spirit on the golf course and playing with, who might have been the best golfer of all-time, is going to be amazing and an experience that as a little girl I could never have dreamed of doing.”
Seven of the top 10 in the Rolex Rankings are in the field at the Gainbridge LPGA, including the top-ranked Americans, No. 4 Nelly Korda and No. 5 Danielle Kang. Amateur Alexa Pano received a sponsor invite. The 16-year-old is hoping to build on the success she found last season, when she made her first cut on the LPGA Tour, in preparation for the upcoming Augusta National Women’s Amateur in April. Gabi Ruffels, the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, also received a sponsor invite prior to turning professional. She’ll make her pro debut this week.
“Even though I’ll be nervous, I’ll be excited,” Ruffels said. “It’s one of the most exciting things right now I feel like in my life and I can’t wait to get out there.”
The Gainbridge LPGA moved from Boca Rio Golf Club to Lake Nona Golf and Country Club for the second playing of the event. GolfChannel.com will live stream the first round beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET.