The LPGA’s first major of the season – the ANA Inspiration – tees off on Thursday at Mission Hill Country Club’s Dinah Shore Tournament Course in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Sweden’s Pernilla Lindberg returns as the defending champion after a scintillating victory a year ago, where she holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the eighth hole of a playoff to claim her first career major.
It was – and remains – Lindberg’s only LPGA win to date.
Before the tournament tees off, we reached out to a LPGA caddie on the ground and asked for a pick to win, a dark horse pick and a player you might want to avoid if you’re looking to put a wager on how things will play out at the ANA.
To protect the caddie’s identity, the picks were made anonymously.
Here they are…
Pick to win: Sung Hyun Park
Why: The best player in the world is playing consistently well going into the year’s first major, finishing T21, 1st, T14 (was joint 36-hole leader in Phoenix before fading on the weekend) and T2 in her last four starts and has a 68.75 scoring average.
And she also tends to rise to the occasion in majors, having won the U.S. Women’s Open and KPMG in her first two seasons on tour, as well as three other top-10 finishes at majors since 2016.
Additionally, in her three previous ANA appearances, she has finished no worse than 14th (T3, T14, T9), including being tied for the 36-hole lead last year and seemingly being in control of the tournament going to the back nine Saturday, holding a two-shot lead over eventual winner Pernilla Lindberg, only to be rattled by her and Lindberg being put on the clock on 12. Park ended the day four shots back of Lindberg and couldn’t recover on Sunday.
Finally, Park has the game for Mission Hills, as she hits it long and straight, setting up many wedges and short irons into the firm and fast greens with her high ball flight. She has the length to reach at least three of the four par 5s in two and when she gets into the thick rough, she has the strength to not only get out, but also hit a quality shot because she hits it so long off the tee and with her irons that she often times won’t have much club in.
Darkhorse pick: Sei Young Kim
Why: At No. 17 in the world and holding the LPGA 72-hole scoring record at 31-under par, it may be hard to be a dark horse; however, seven-time LPGA winner Sei Young Kim does not have a major title heading into her fifth season on the LPGA.
Some can argue outside of Amy Yang and Minjee Lee, SY Kim is the best LPGA player to never have won a major.
But it’s not for a lack of trying and contending, as she has a top-8 finish in all five majors, including two T2s at the 2015 KPMG and 2018 Evian, as well a T4 at the 2015 ANA, her rookie year, where she was the 54-hole leader and led entering the back nine, before shooting a closing 3-over 39 to finish two shots back of the playoff, won by Brittany Lincicome over Stacy Lewis.
And she enters the year’s first major playing steady golf, with finishes of 25th, T15, T10, T21 and T36, along with a 70.063 scoring average.
The only thing that gets in her way at times is wanting that first major too much.
Player to shade: Lexi Thompson
Why: In addition to not playing well heading into the major she has owned the past five years – 1st, 7th, 5th, 2nd (if today’s rules applied in 2017, she would’ve won her second ANA and major, instead of being given a 4-shot penalty during the final round, leading to a playoff loss to So Yeon Ryu, which I’m not sure Lexi has completely gotten over), T20 — Lexi has been shuffling caddies between brother Curtis, dad, and last week at the Kia, Benji Thompson, who won the 2014 ANA with Lexi but has been on the PGA Tour since 2016, after ending his second of two stints with Lexi. Benji is back on the bag again this week.
Lexi’s 2019 finishes so far are T10, T48, T26, T58 and T44.
She’s is 46th on tour in scoring average at 71.125; 58th in total birdies (just a shade over three a round); and is outside the top 100 in putts per round, which has been her career nemesis and held her back from ever ending a calendar year world No. 1 (she recently was overtaken by Nelly Korda as the top-ranked American).
Now I’m not saying she can’t finish top 10, because of her recent track record at ANA and her love of the event. She just seems disinterested at times in regular tour events. So, winning this week is a big ask, in my opinion.