More Contenders and Some Players to Watch For
In our last preview of Golf’s First Major, we look at a couple of more contenders to win and a few players to watch for – players who are quite capable of playing well enough to finish with a Top – 10, and with a good bounce here and there, could win.
Brooke Henderson (Canada)
Age – 23, Rolex Rank – 6.
9 wins ( 1 – major)
There are not many players on the LPGA who can be considered a contender at nearly every major championship in which she tees it up, but the pride of Smith Falls, Ontario is one. Since her childhood days and her career as a youthful prodigy, winning her first professional event at the tender age of 14, Brooke Henderson seems like she has been destined to forge not only a career, but a legacy in professional golf. In fact, of all the players aged 23 or younger, only Lydia Ko has notched up more victories.
As for Henderson, she is like Nelly Korda, returning to Rancho Mirage with some ‘unfinished business’, having come so close to winning last season’s ANA Inspiration. Both Korda and Henderson were in the final pairing last season’s event, seemingly with their destiny in their own hands. Play well and one wins a major championship. That is until Mirim Lee snuck up out of nowhere to miraculously chip in for an eagle on the 72nd hole to tie the leaders before winning in a playoff.
With an underlying competitiveness, it is rest assured that Henderson will be out to finish the job that she started last year. Her game is very solid, driving the ball well off of the tee to set herself up for approaches into the green. Her iron game is exceptional, and she remains one of the best iron players on tour as she is at or near the top in Greens in Regulation, birdies made and scoring average. For her to capture her second major trophy though, she will need to keep finding the fairways with her driver and take advantage of her distance so that she can attack the par -5 holes in two shots; this is even more relevant this year as the ANA will be moving some of their tee boxes up to entice players to attempt reaching those greens in two. If her iron game is good, then Henderson will be a force to reckon with come Sunday. Her only glaring weakness though, is her putting and bunker play, where she usually gives up strokes to the rest of the field. If Henderson gets off to a good start on Thursday, then look for her to be in contention come Sunday.
“I think Brooke, she's probably at that stage in her career where she's gonna define herself by majors. So, I wouldn't look too much into the fact that she's maybe not started as well (as previous years). Like we said before, there hasn't been that many events. But also she's a major player; that's kind of where she is in her career right now and that's what she wants to do so I would always put her to compete; she plays well on tough golf courses and majors are normally tough sells.”
In Gee Chun (South Korea)
Age – 26, Rolex Rank – 50
3 LPGA wins ( 2 – majors)
So how does one consider the 50th ranked player in the world as a potential contender? Simple. When it is a player with multiple wins on the LPGA, including two major championships – the US Women’s Open which is regarded as the sternest test in all of women’s golf and the Evian Championship, which she won in record-setting fashion. These achievements alone would merit some consideration, but one could be excused if they concluded that these were a few years ago and not too recent.
Nonetheless, In Gee Chun has returned this season after having dealt with depression the past few years – a disease that is often debilitating. After returning to her normal self after her bout of depression – what she calls ‘normal In Gee’, she has started this year remarkably well. In three events that she completed, she finished with three top 10s, ( 2 – Fourth place finishes and a share of 8th in the other) and in the KIA Classic, she was in a share of 3rd spot after the first round, carding a 68 (-4), before a scorecard mishap after round 2 resulted in her disqualification.
Our take on In Gee Chun, or ‘normal In Gee’, is that she appears to resemble the player that won two major championships within an 18 month stretch. In this young season, Chun was tied for first with the most rounds under par, she was second on tour with a scoring average of 69.00 and her putting was extremely solid – 5th overall with “putts per GIR (1.70) and 9th overall with her “putting average” (28.08).
With the proven ability to win major trophies, coupled with her best start to a season in recent years, It would not be surprising to us if In Gee was a winner on Sunday. But given her improved mental health, a ‘normal In Gee’ can be another formidable player to look for on Sunday – and even if she doesn’t hoist the trophy, there is still much for her to celebrate for having dealt with her depression.
Amy Olson – United States
Age – 28, Rolex Rank – 39th
LPGA Victories – none
If you found it perplexing that we considered the 50th ranked player in the world as a potential contender for the ANA Inspiration, then you may also have questions regarding our inclusion of Amy Olson. While her world ranking is 11 – eleven spots higher than In Gee’s 50th ranking, Amy doesn’t have any LPGA wins to her credit.
Yet, over the past few years, Amy Olson, has performed very well in major championships. She has finished with a share of second place on three occasions – once at the Evian Championship (2018) and twice at the US Women’s Open (2019 & 2020), most recently accomplishing it last December in Houston. At the KIA Classic, she finished with a share of second again, this time with Lexi Thompson. Her ball striking has been at the centre of her game as her approaches to the green have been spectacular. At the KIA, she finished the event with an 84.72 % “Greens in Regulation”, hitting 61 greens out of 72 opportunities. On the season, she is second overall in GIR at an astounding rate of 81.94% She is also leading the LPGA in Eagles entering the ANA Inspiration.
Given the strength of her iron play, Olson will definitely have plenty of opportunities for birdies at Mission Hills. The only questions for her will be how she handles the greens as they are a Bermuda grass base that has been over seeded with poa. It takes some getting used to for players, but Olson has played at the ANA previously and she now has a good knowledge of these greens and how to pace her putts. Again, if you are a punter or participate in a fantasy golf pool, you may want to take a long look at Olson as she will represent good value. And, who knows, if she sinks a few more eagles this week, that could be all she needs to spur her on to her first win and should she win, her victory will not be as surprising as it was with Pernilla Lindberg’s 2018 victory.
Players to Watch
Jennifer Kupcho – United States
The 23 year-old American player has been steadily improving her play since making the transition from collegiate golf to the LPGA. Last season arguably, marked her best season though it was shortened considerable compared to 2019. In major tournaments, her best finish was a share of second spot at the 2019 Evian Championship where she finished two shots behind winner Jin Young Ko. She finished T7 at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship last season at Aronimink after finishing a solo second the week prior at the ShopRite Classic. She could be a player to watch and represents pretty good value for punters and fantasy pool players.
Carlota Ciganda – Spain
Ciganda is somewhat of an enigmatic player. Her ball striking is very solid, both with her driving game and her iron play. She putts well, and she scores well. But to date, she only has two wins on the LPGA and her record in majors is a bit sporadic – missing cuts to a top-10 finish. At 30 years of age, Ciganda will be determined to focus on winning a major and if she can just pull her game together both physically and mentally, she could succeed in winning.
“Carlota Ciganda. I mean, this girl is so good. I mean that you will not see anyone hit a golf ball better than she will. It's amazing. how well she hits the golf ball. Terry Mack on the bag, Annika's ex-caddy will know, Carlsbad well, he'll certainly know Mission Hills like the back of his hand. So, I'm expecting Carlota to really kind of step up this year. And I can see a winner. If she's gonna win a major, I can see it being the ANA.”
Bianca Pagdanganan – Philippines
Coming out of nowhere to fire back to back 65’s at a major championship is often the stuff of legends and having accomplished it at the 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at a difficult venue like Aronimink, speaks loudly about Bianca Pagdanganan and her game. She hits a long ball off the tee and when her iron game is on, she has shown that she can go low when it matters. Having enjoyed some success at the KPMG event and a few weeks later at the LPGA Drive On event at Lake Reynolds, Pagdanganan will be looking to improve her play this season so that she can move herself up the money list and secure priority for the 2022 LPGA season. A win may be a stretch for her, but she could make things interesting and that is worth watching.
Yuka Saso – Philippines
While not much of the golf world expects much of Yuka Saso in her first ANA Championship, like her compatriot Bianca, Saso will be carrying the hopes of her native Philippines with her. While not a member of the LPGA, Saso has played professionally on the Japan LGPA where she has won twice in 2020 and qualified for the 2020 US Women’s Open, finishing with a share of 13th spot. Yuka is also long off of the tee and has a solid iron game to go with her putting and short game. A win may be too much to expect of her, but definitely, she and Bianca are two players to watch.
Sophie – Sei Young Kim, Jin Young Ko or Carlota Ciganda
Douglas – In Gee Chun, Lexi Thompson or Jin Young Ko