Hard, fast conditions await golfers at LPGA's first major

The Associated Press

The ANA Inspiration, the LPGA Tour's first major tournament of the 2017 season, gets underway Thursday on a course at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., that is both the meatiest these players have faced this season and the most severe.

The 108-player field includes top 80 in the world and every winner from this season's six tournaments to date. They'll be competing for a $2.7 million purse, a chance to hoist the Dinah Shore Trophy and the opportunity to leap into Poppie's Pond.

The course is set up to play 6,763 yards, the longest on tour so far this year with the rough high and lush because of a rainy winter. To increase the challenge, a recent dry spell has hardened the fairways and greens on the famed Dinah Shore course.

"That's how this course should be played -- it should be played firm and fast where you have to worry about how far your drive is going," said Stacy Lewis, who won this championship in 2011. "It's a major. It should be hard."

Thursday's forecast is for high winds in the desert, with the weather expected to settle down for Friday-Sunday.

In 2016, world No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand birdied the 72nd hole to get to 12 under par and finish one shot ahead of Charley Hull of England and South Korea's In Gee Chun. The victory resulted in her second consecutive major championship.

Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn was in prime position to capture her first career win, but bogeyed her final three holes to finish fourth at 10-under.

Ko is one of 10 past champions in the field, three of whom have won this event multiple times -- Brittany Lincicome in 2009 and 2015; Karrie Webb of Australia in 2000 and 2006; and Juli Inkster in 1984 and 1989. World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam is the only player to successfully defend her ANA Inspiration title (2001-2002).

Lexi Thompson, the winner of this event in 2014, is the highest-ranked American in the field and in the Rolex Rankings. She's finished in the top seven the last three years and welcomes conditions this week that work to her length and precision off the tee.

"With the course playing hard and fast, it kind of favors the long hitters," Thompson said. "I do hit a lot of drivers out on this golf course, but it's really all in just keeping it in the fairways because they always grow the rough up pretty deep, and you don't want to be hitting out of the rough to these firm greens this week."

Thompson relishes this event as one of her favorite wins and career experiences.

"Just this whole week in general, I would say is my favorite week," Thompson said. "Both my parents come here. We rent a house and my mom cooks, so it kind of feels like I'm at home. And it's just beautiful here and the course is in amazing shape. It doesn't get any better than this."

Ko has spent 75 consecutive weeks as the No. 1 player in the world after reclaiming the top spot in the Rolex Rankings in October 2015. Jutanugarn has emerged as a true challenger to Ko's reign after having spent 35 consecutive weeks ranked at No. 2. Seven months ago, the average points differential between No. 1 and No. 2 was 6.57; this week, the difference is 1.33.

This week's ANA Inspiration will mark the seventh event in the season-long Race to CME Globe. With four finishes inside the top eight, including two seconds, Jutanugarn is the early leader in the standings with 949 points.

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