Lizette Salas

LPGA Grand Finale: CME Group Titleholders

The 2013 LPGA Tour season reaches a crescendo of an ending this weekend with the CME Group Titleholders at the Tiburón Golf Club in Naples, Florida.  The best of the best LPGA Tour players — the top 3 finishers in all 28 Tour events — are competing for a $700,000 check in this 72-hole competition that begins Thursday, November 21.

South Korean Na Yeon Choi is the 2012 defending champion in an event that has its roots in the Titleholders women’s golf tournament that was played from 1937 to 1966, and one additional year in 1972 in Southern Pines, N.C.  Past Titleholders champions include LPGA founders Patty Berg, Louise Suggs and Babe Zaharias.

This has been a dynamic year for a number of LPGA Tour players.  Records have been made, tournaments have been hotly contested, and there have been some moments of fierce competition.  The game of golf is a fickle sport.  Stacy Lewis watched a tournament that was won trickle away on Shanshan Feng‘s lucky bounce.  Flat sticks that were white-hot last week have gone stone-cold and betrayed players without warning.  Inbee Park watch putt after putt roll past the cup at St Andrews when just weeks before her balls had rolled with laser-like accuracy to the center of the cup.  But every moment of dismay has been counterbalanced by the euphoria that comes with victory.  Lexi Thompson, winless until Malaysia, danced the winner’s dance twice at the end of the season.  Now comes the end of the season, the final opportunity to convert personal best to victory.

Let’s take a look at the players who are warming up their sticks in Naples, Florida today and tomorrow.

The Headliners: Park, Pettersen, & Lewis

Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen, and Stacy Lewis have dominated golf headlines in the months leading up to the Titleholders as they’ve jockeyed back and forth for top Rolex rankings.  There’s every reason to expect that the drama of their competition will be played out one final time over the 4 rounds that are about to unfold.

Rolex Ranked No. 1 Inbee Park began the 2013 season ranked No. 4.  She’d had s solid 2012 season, recording 12 top-10 finishes and two victories.  But that was just a prelude to Park’s 2013 record-setting season.  She made her first statement of the season when she clinched the Honda LPGA Thailand title in February.  After that the South Korean was simply unstoppable, at least through June.

Park went on from her Thailand win to capture five additional victories, including the first three majors of the season.  With her win at the US Women’s Open in June Park became the first player since Babe Zaharias in 1950 to do capture 3 majors in a single season.

Park made history again last weekend at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational.  With her fourth-place finish, Park earned seven points to put her 39 points ahead of No. 2 Suzann Pettersen heading into this week’s season-ending CME Group Titleholders, mathematically securing the Rolex Player of the Year and making her the first South Korean to achieve this prestigious award.

After her win at the US Women’s Open Park cooled off and  Norway’s Suzann Pettersen stepped in and dominated the second half of the LPGA season. With back-to-back wins at the Safeway Classic and then the Evian Championship in September, the LPGA Tour’s fifth major, Pettersen went hot and nailed three top-5 finishes and a successful title defense at the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship.  She secured the No. 2 spot in the Rolex Rankings and trails Park by a small fraction with the potential to take over the top Rolex rank with a solid finish this week.

With Pettersen winning $2.2 and Park $2.3 millions this year, they’re competing closely for top money winner of the season.  Stacy Lewis, at $1.9 millions, could pass them both by winning the Titleholders.

Coming off a career best 2012 season when she clinched four victories and became the first American since 1994 to win the Rolex Player of the Year Award, Stacy Lewis carried her relentless performance through 2013.  She earned top-player stats early on in the season when she captured back-to-back victories at the HSBC Women’s Champions and the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup.  She was No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings for four weeks, until Inbee Park took over in early April.

Lewis went on to win her second-career LPGA major championship at the RICOH Women’s British Open in early August.   Lewis will end the season with 18 top-10 finishes, securing the Kia Drive to the Top award, which is given to the player with the most top-10 finishes of the season, for the second consecutive season.

The competition between Park, Pettersen, & Lewis at the Titleholders, a Shakespearian play-within-a-play, is going to be intense.

The Solheim Standouts

Caroline Hedwall. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Solheim Cup showcased European and American golfers who gave fans a week of breath-taking, and for some heartbreaking competition.  For many of the players, the Solheim experience was a confidence-builders that has fueled a new level of playing excellence.

Sweden’s Caroline Hedwall, Team Europe’s MVP, is at the top of my watch list for this season-ender.  Hedwall played – and looked fresh for – all five matches and became the first player to go 5-0 in Solheim history. Hedwall closed the week by beating Michelle Wie in singles, which retained the cup for Team Europe.  Although Hedwall has yet to earn her 1st LPGA victory, she’s had 8 top-10 finishes this year in LPGA events, and her strong game makes her a contender in every event she enters.

Carlota Ciganda. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Spain’s Carlota Ciganda started her Solheim Cup debut in four-balls teamed with Suzann Pettersen and contributed in only two holes for the Europeans.  But a different player showed up the next day when Ciganda was teamed with Azahara Munoz and played with laser-like accuracy from 100 yards. By Sunday Ciganda had been nicknamed “little Seve” and claimed the European award for best overall comeback, especially after her singles victory against Morgan Pressel.  Like Hedwall, Ciganda has yet to earn her 1st LPGA win, but her victories on the LET signal a future at the top of the leaderboard.

Lizette Salas has had 7 top-10 finishes this year and just missed earning her 1st victory at the Lotte Championship in April.  Salas played a solid game for Team USA at the Solheim Cup.  She was the obviously strong link when she was paired with Stacy Lewis and held her ground against two heavy hitters, Catriona Matthew and Suzann Pettersen.  Salas is primed for that 1st win.

Captain’s Pick Michelle Wie was judged by many as the strongest member of Team USA.  Wie’s singles match against Caroline Hedwall, which went 18 holes, was a showcase for her ability to deliver under intense pressure.  Hedwall was relentless and Wie did not give ground.  Wie’s 2013 season, with only 4 top-10 finishes and no victories, has been somewhat disappointing.  But Wie has a top-finish game in her bag and she’s remains worth watching.

The Youngsters

Either of the two teenagers, Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko, could easily steal the Titleholders spotlight from the Big Three, Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen, and Stacy Lewis, and the Solheim standouts.

Thompson, who had an impressive Solheim Cup debut this year, has followed it with some impressive individual stroke play.  Her win at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia followed by a win at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational have been downright breathtaking.  She’s coming in to the Titleholders with 7 top-10 finishes and 2 victories, and she’s hot.

Lydia Ko, who’ll be making her pro debut at the Titleholders, has been hot every time she’s stepped up to the tee box.  As Ko begins her professional golf career, she’s already compiled a resume many veterans could envy.  She became the youngest person to ever win a pro golf tour event with her 2012 New Zealand Women’s Open at the age of 14.  She won the CN Canadian Women’s Open in 2012 and again in 2013, and became the only amateur to win 2 LPGA Tour events.  In 25 pro event entries she’s never missed a cut, and she’s ranked 5th by Rolex, before she plays her 1st event as a professional.

The CME Group Titleholders could be full of surprises when Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko tee off!

The Golf Channel will provide daily coverage of the Titleholders from Thursday, November 21 through Sunday, November 24, 1:30-4pm, ET, and I’ll provide a daily wrap-up as well.  Don’t miss this one!

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Tags: CME Titleholders Golf Inbee Park Lexi Thompson LPGA Lydia Ko Suzann Pettersen