The 2021 LPGA season kicks off Jan. 21-24 at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, a mere four weeks after the 2020 season concluded in Naples, Florida. World Golf Hall of Famer Judy Rankin joined the LPGA as a teenager in 1962 and still keeps as close an eye on the tour as anyone as lead analyst for Golf Channel. Golfweek caught up with 75-year-old Rankin to talk about the upcoming season and her thoughts on some of the biggest names in golf.
Which player are you most curious about going into 2021?
I had had a hunch that we would see a real battle between Sei Young Kim and Jin Young Ko. Just seems fairly obvious to me. These are the two that play the hard courses well and they seem to have a tremendous consistency.
These are just hunches on my part. I think Brooke Henderson has been awfully quiet. I feel like she will come back with a vengeance. And I really don’t think we have seen how the good the Korda sisters are. I can’t say that we are going to immediately, but that’s what I think.
Obviously both (Nelly and Jessica) had some physical ailments, but what else is holding them back, do you think?
I don’t know. I think it’s getting in the mode that you really believe you can win every week.
Jin Young Ko poses with the CME Globe trophy after winning the CME Group Tour Championship. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Jin Young Ko made quite the statement to end last year. What do you like most about her game and how high is her ceiling?
From what I can understand, in the last year and a half she decided that she wanted to hit the ball a little farther and she accomplished that. She seems to take little pieces of her game that she thinks she can improve on … she seems to take on that mission and do it. There’s a fine line between that and the player who says ‘I have to hit it farther to compete’ and destroys themselves. She seems to have an extremely measured way of considering what needs to be better and getting it done. I think that’s all a part of how we see her play under pressure and so on because there’s such a calmness about her.
Let me equate it to my television. I can remember way back in the very beginning when I was trying to memorize everything. At some point, I don’t know if it was divine intervention or what is was, but I quit trying to memorize things and I could think. When I could actually have my brain work a little bit and think, not only did I enjoy it more, but I’m told I got better.
To me, that’s a little bit how you see some people trying to play. They’re trying to think about all those things that are working or not working, they’re fixated with their golf swing. It takes up too much space, where they can’t just have the instinctual things, and the things they would see that help them to react to a shot or how they play it. That stuff doesn’t happen like it should.
With her, it looks like it’s always happening the way it should.
She seems to have a maturity that’s beyond her years.
To some degree, that’s what I’m saying. It’s a maturity. When you say that about somebody, you’re saying that they play as though they’ve had a lot of experience, yet we know they haven’t had those experiences.
Inbee Park in the final round of women’s golf during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Where would a gold medal rank for you in the scope of a career?
Huge. A gold medal is every bit of a major championship if not a grand slam. Now, if you look at it in a more rational sense, the people you have to beat and the test and all that, it isn’t anywhere near as hard as a grand slam. That’s our perception of the Olympics and a gold medal, which clearly over all these years has been built over all sports.
Will Lydia Ko ever be No. 1 again?
I don’t think so. I think she can be a significant player and certainly a winner again. But I think that was a gift and a moment in time. It’s not that I don’t think she’ll ever be good again, because I do think she will be. But I don’t think she can be a dominant player. And one reason is when she played with the skills she had – and she was so skilled – that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t knock-your-socks off long. And that’s hard to get back again.
Lydia Ko of New Zealand tees off on the 17th hole during the first round of the LPGA Drive Championship golf tournament at Inverness Club. Photo credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
You said a moment in time, do you think everything was going so perfectly for her at that time that without the advantage of length, she can’t get back there?
I don’t mean to use fantastical words, but she was young. She really didn’t know any defeat. She didn’t know about not trusting herself. And she had perfected what she did to a great degree where the consistency was unbelievable. She was also a very good putter.
It’s funny that this not very big girl, became a little bit of an intimidating factor to young women on the tour.
Who is your favorite player to watch right now?
Well, I tell you, I like when I talk with her and spend a little time with her, I very much like Sei Young Kim. I don’t know if people grasp that watching her play. She has a bit of a sense of humor. It’s a fun conversation.
As far as beauty of the game, I like to watch Nelly.
Nelly Korda plays a shot on the second hole during the third round of the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club on November 23, 2019 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
What do you admire the most about Nelly’s game?
Her golf swing. The taller people tend to have golf swings that are more graceful. To me, it’s very powerfully graceful. … I think when Michelle Wie was 14 and 15, she might have had the swing that Nelly has now. Then her swing changed so many times and got so different. Nelly’s is the swing we would all have if we could all be 5-foot-11, long-limbed and all these things.
Who is underachieving the most right now?
Ariya Jutanugarn, there is no doubt as far as talent-wise. I don’t know why. I don’t know what’s gotten into her head.
How would you fix Lexi Thompson?
I really do think a big part of it is in her head. I think if she could play more relaxed, if she could play and not worry about putts. And believe me, I’ve had plenty of moments of my own that I wish I could have, so I don’t know how to tell her. But I think there’s a terrible stress in her game, that sometimes she doesn’t acknowledge. … I don’t know, you just can see it. … I think she just needs to play with a little reckless abandon, and I don’t think she can do that. With the people around her and this and that, that’s pretty hard to do.