AIG Women's Open Preview: Korda back in action

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All eyes are on world No. 1 Nelly Korda as she returns to action following her gold-medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics and takes aim at a second major championship – and fourth title this season – at the AIG Women’s Open at the historic Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland.

The fifth and final major of the season kicks off Thursday with $5.8 million up for grabs – the richest purse among the women’s majors – and marks the championship’s return to Carnoustie after a decade. In 2011 at age 22, Yani Tseng became the youngest player to capture her fifth major and the first to successfully defend her title at the fabled track, perhaps best known for Frenchman Jean Van de Velde’s triple-bogey meltdown in the 1999 Open Championship.

The 23-year-old Korda arrives in Scotland as the betting favorite, listed at +850 by PointsBet Sportsbook, and will make her fifth start in the event. She’s made two cuts with two finishes inside the top 15 including a T-9 in 2019 at Woburn. The six-time LPGA winner broke through for her first major title in June at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and prior to her victory in Tokyo, she finished T-19 at the Evian Championship, the season’s fourth major. In 13 starts this season, she’s missed just one cut – at the U.S. Women’s Open in June, but Korda rebounded to win back-to-back starts at the Meijer LPGA Classic and KPMG.

“It's definitely very linksy,” said Korda regarding her assessment of Carnoustie after the pro-am on Wednesday. “Probably the most links golf course I've played to this date. You know, it's going to be very important to minimize your mistakes off the tee and see how the wind is, but it's a very, very nice golf course and (we’ll) see what kind of test we have these next few days.”

Odds to win AIG Women’s Open via PointsBet Sportsbook:

+850: Nelly Korda
+1300: Lydia Ko
+1800: Atthaya Thitikul
+2200: In-Bee Park
+2500: Ariya Jutanugarn, Sei Young Kim, Jeongeun Lee6
+3000: So Yeon Ryu, Danielle Kang, Leona Maguire, Nasa Hataoka, Yealimi Noh, Yuka Saso
+3300: Lexi Thompson, Charley Hull, In Gee Chun, Minjee Lee
+4000: Amy Yang, Brooke Henderson, Georgia Hall, Paphangkorn Tavatanakit, Hannah Green
+5000: Jessica Korda, Moriya Jutanugarn, Matilda Castren

Korda will have to contend with a supremely competitive field that includes eight past champions – England’s Georgia Hall (2018, +4000), Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn (2016, +2500), Stacy Lewis (2013, +9000), Mo Martin (2014, +30000), Europe Solheim Cup captain and Scotland native Catriona Matthew (2009, +20000), South Korea’s Inbee Park (2015, +2200), defending champion Sophia Popov of Germany (2020, +12500) and Japan’s Hinako Shibuno (2019, +20000) – as well as 17 of 19 winners on the LPGA this season.

But perhaps the player to watch for is New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, who listed at +1300 and is arrives at Carnoustie off a T-2 finish at the Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open. The 24-year-old, 16-time LPGA winner recently won her second Olympic medal in Japan, adding a bronze to go with her silver medal from the 2016 Rio Games. Her resurgent season includes a win in April at the LOTTE Championship, three runner-up results (Gainbridge LPGA, ANA Inspiration, Scottish Open) and four other top 10s.

“For me, my goal -- well, one of my I guess strategies at the Olympics was to play a little bit more aggressively, especially because there is only three medalists, and I think that was kind of the mindset and then I continued that for when I played last week,” said the world No. 6, who will make her 10th start in the AIG Women’s Open. She has made eight cuts (missing only in 2019) with a best finish of T-3 in 2015 for her only top 10. Ko finished T-11 in 2018 and T-14 in 2020..

“…Yeah, I think I'm just trying to stay in that kind of strategy of playing aggressively but at the same time, if I am out of position, making sure that I'm not making careless mistakes. So, yeah, I'm a little longer I think in general off the tee than I was I think a couple years ago. So that obviously makes it a little bit different to play.”

Recent AIG Women’s Open winners (including scoring total, venue):

2020: Sophia Popov, 277 (-7), at Royal Troon
2019: Hinako Shibuno, 270 (-18) at Woburn
2018: Georgia Hall, 271 (-17) at Royal Lytham & St. Annes
2017: In-Kyung Kim, 270 (-18) at Kingsbarns
2016: Ariya Jutanugarn, 272 (-16) at Woburn

Never far out of the conversation is world No. 3 Park (+2200), as the 2015 champ will make her 13th start in the event where she’s made 10 cuts with six top 10s, including a second in 2012 and fourth in 2015 and 2020. The 33-year-old added win No. 21 to her resume at the start of her season, capturing the Kia Classic in March, and has since added six other top 10s in 2021.

“Since this is the last major, I really want to give it all I have, and I've done really, really good over the season,” said Park, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist who most recently finished T-23 at the Tokyo Games. “Obviously probably a little bit disappointing in the Olympics, but except for that, I think everyone's done a really, really good job.

“Being the last major and thinking that we have to wait a few minutes to wait for another major really gets me to bring all I have in this week.”

Last year at Royal Troon, Germany’s Popov came in under the radar, having started 2020 without LPGA Tour status and just three weeks prior to the AIG Women’s Open, had caddied for friend Anne Van Dam in the LPGA Drive-On Championship. She earned a place in the field via a T-9 finish in the Marathon Classic and defeated Jasmine Suwannapura by two strokes for her first career LPGA Tour win and her first major championship title.

The 28-year-old Popov, ranked No. 28, hasn’t visited the winner’s circle since, but she’s notched three top 10s this season, including a runner-up at the LPGA Match Play at Shadow Creek. She finished 67th at the 2011 event and looks to draw on familiarity for her title defense.

“I think that's going to be a little bit different,” she said Tuesday. “I think I didn't really realize that quite as much in 2011 how tough that final stretch really is, so that's kind of something that's definitely noticeable this year. But other than that, I think it's playing very similar. But it all depends on the wind. We're playing in a different wind than we're going to have starting on Thursday. It all depends on that.”

Carnoustie, site of eight men’s Open Championships, one Women’s and two Senior Opens, will play as a par-72 at 6,850 yards.

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Solheim Cup spots on line at Carnoustie

Teams for the 2021 Solheim Cup will be finalized after the conclusion of the AIG Women’s Open. Nelly Korda and Danielle Kang have already clinched spots on the U.S. team, which will include the top seven players on the Solheim Cup standings and the top two Americans on the Rolex Rankings not already on the team. American captain Pat Hurst will also have three captain’s selections.

The European team, led by 2009 AIG champion Catriona Matthew, will include the top two players on the Europe Solheim Cup standings, the top four players on the Rolex Rankings not already eligible, and six captain’s selections.

"I think on paper the Americans are always the stronger team, but 18 holes match play, anyone can win," Matthew told media on Wednesday. " “I’m sure we'll probably go in as the underdogs, especially with it being an away game. But I think we are going to have a great team, a real mixture of some experienced players and some new, younger, exciting players. I'm really looking forward to it.”

American Zhang leads charge for amateur honors

Like the U.S. Women’s Open, the AIG Open welcomes the world’s top amateur players competing for the prestigious Smyth Salver award, presented to the low amateur who completes all four rounds.

Leading the charge is American Rose Zhang, who enters the week as No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking for a second consecutive year. The 18-year-old has enjoyed success on the big stage, having won the 2021 U.S. Girls’ Junior and 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur championships and also recorded a T-11 finish at the 2020 ANA Inspiration.

“Carnoustie has a reputation as being one of the toughest tests in golf and it is an exciting challenge for me to see how my game holds up against some of the world’s best players,” said the California native ahead of her tournament debut.

Other amateurs in the field include local favorite Louise Duncan of Scotland, who won the 118th Women’s Amateur Championship at Kilmarnock in June, Japanese teenager Tsubasa Kajitani, who won the second edition of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur earlier this year, Germany’s Aline Krauter, Sweden’s Ingrid Lindblad, who will compete for a second time, and Ireland’s Lauren Walsh.

The Smyth Salver boasts an impressive honor roll that includes Michelle Wie West (2005), Anna Nordqvist (2008), Danielle Kang (2011), Lydia Ko (2012, 2013) and Georgia Hall (2013). Hall is the only Smyth Salver recipient since 2001 to go on to win the AIG Women’s Open: She won her first major title at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2018 just five years after finishing as the top amateur at St. Andrews.

Picks:

To win: The breakneck pace of travel and play hasn’t seemed to bother Lydia Ko (+1300), who recorded her third runner-up result of the season in Scotland last week. The 24-year-old Ko told reporters on Tuesday that plans to retire by age 30 and she’s got a few clear-cut goals she’d like to accomplish before then, and that includes a achieving a career grand slam. With major wins at the 2015 Evian Championship and 2016 ANA Inspiration, a win this week would put her over the halfway mark.

Best bet: Ireland’s Leona Maguire (+3000) has quietly had a breakout season in 2021, finishing runner-up twice (LOTTE Championship, Meijer LPGA Classic) with three other top 10s and only two missed cuts in 14 starts. The 26-year-old shot a record-tying 61 in the final round of the Evian Championship en route to a T-6 finish, a career best in 15 major starts. More recently, she finished T-23 at the Olympics and T-15 last week at the Scottish Open, and appears poised for her breakthrough victory.

Dark horse: American Jennifer Kupcho (+8000) has yet to win on the LPGA Tour, but she’s on the bubble of making her first U.S. Solheim Cup team, which should serve as added motivation this week. The 24-year-old, who won the 2018 NCAA title and inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019, has notched three top-10 finishes in her last six starts.

How to watch:

Tune in to watch the AIG Women’s Open, Aug. 19-22, on Golf Channel, CNBC and NBC as well as live streaming on the NBC Sports app and NBCSports.com (all times Eastern):

Thursday: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Golf Channel
Friday: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Golf Channel
Saturday: 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., Golf Channel; 12-2 p.m., CNBC
Sunday: 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., Golf Channel; 12-2 p.m., NBC

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