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The LPGA season ended last weekend in Naples, Fla., with the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship, a spirited day with some of the game’s best players fighting for a win and a variety of season-long awards in the women’s game.
It was a year that saw the LPGA go through some big changes, and also a year that saw the tour try to get back to what it was in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic started to take a huge toll on the women’s game with tournament cancellations.
Here are five of the biggest stories from the women’s tour in 2021:
A true battle for No. 1
Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko at the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA Presented By CTBC at Miramar Golf Country Club on October 31, 2019, in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images
The LPGA battle for player of the year and the No. 1 ranking in the Rolex Women’s Rankings was brilliant from the start to the finish. Nelly Korda played great for the first half of the year, Jin Young Ko, who barely played on the LPGA in 2020 because of travel restrictions, was great in the second half of the year. It literally came down to the final round of the final tournament of the year, with Ko getting a win at the Tour Championship to edge out Korda in the points race. It is the kind of competition that gets fans excited and gets casual fans to tune in on television.
A changing of the guard
Mollie Marcoux Samaan, LPGA commissioner.
It surprised many around the tour when Mike Whan announced early in the year he was leaving as commissioner after 11 years, not knowing he would quickly become the executive director of the United States Golf Association. Whan worked hard to secure the five major championships on the tour as well as keeping other tournaments solid during his time. He was replaced by Mollie Marcoux Samaan, who had been athletic director at Princeton and has a background in sports administration. She did not come from a golf administration background, but she seems to already understand that with the tournaments relatively secure, the next step is to increase the purses at LPGA stops across the schedule.
The return of Lydia Ko
Lydia Ko walks to the 18th green on Sunday, April 4, 2021, at ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Okay, the New Zealand star was never really gone, but she was not the sensation she had been when she won for the first time on the LPGA in 2012 when she was just 15 years old. By the middle of 2016, she had won 14 times and was the biggest attraction on the tour. But she didn’t win in 2017, won just once in 2018 and didn’t win in 2019 or 2020. But this year, Ko was again a force, winning on tour in April in Hawaii just weeks after she fired a brilliant 62 in the final round of the ANA Inspiration only to finish second. By the end of the year, Ko had won the Vare Trophy for scoring and was again getting fans excited about the LPGA. Women’s golf needs Ko, now 24, to remain a force into the future.
A big name comes aboard (and might move a major)
A statue to honor the late singer and actress Dinah Shore is seen off the 18th green during a practice round prior to the ANA Inspiration on the Dinah Shore course at Mission Hills Country Club on September 10, 2020, in Rancho Mirage, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Everyone knew a new sponsor was coming to the LPGA major at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage with All Nippon Airways struggling during the global pandemic. Chevron was a big name, a name so big that it could dictate some terms that other sponsors couldn’t dictate. That includes moving the tournament out of Rancho Mirage after next April to the Houston area. The tournament known to many LPGA players through the years as the women’s Masters will leave the desert after 51 years, and that’s a lot of history and tradition, most of which can’t be recreated overnight in Houston. It might be the right thing for the tour, but it was still a big story to hear a major championship was moving.
A sense of normalcy — finally
Fans walk between holes nine and ten during the final round of the LPGA CME Group Tour Championship on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Naples, Florida. Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
The LPGA, perhaps more than any other sporting organization in the world, was hammered by COVID-19 in 2020, starting with three tournaments that were canceled in Asia before any sports were canceled in the United States. The LPGA knows there is big money for women’s golf in Asia, but that reliance on Asian money and sponsors has continued to be a problem in 2021. More tournaments have been canceled because of the pandemic, and Asian sponsors like All Nippon Airways were hurt badly by the pandemic and that in turn has hurt the women’s tour. 2022 can’t come soon enough for the LPGA in that regard.