The stars of the LPGA are bracing themselves for the first major of the season, the ANA Inspiration, taking place at the picturesque Mission Hills Country Club in Riverside County, California.
Defending her title is American Brittany Lincicome, who defeated Stacy Lewis in a playoff to earn the coveted trophy for the second time in her career, following an earlier victory in 2009.
One of the tournament’s longstanding traditions sees the winner celebrate her victory by jumping into Poppie’s Pond, the body of water surrounding the 18th green at the Dinah Shore golf course, and the star-studded field will once again be bidding for the honour of getting soaked at the end of this week’s 72-hole test.
“Just jump far, and be prepared because it is cold,” Lincicome advised future winners. “This last year it was a little colder because we went three playoff holes. But even when I won it in ’09, I remember thinking, this is cold and it’s not very deep.”
Lincicome admits the Rancho Mirage course suits her game to a tee, and so she is likely to be a force once again, although there’s no doubt who the favourite is.
Lydia Ko heads into the ANA as the world’s number one ranked player, fresh off a victory at last week’s Kia Classic, where she beat a high-class field by four strokes.
Ko admits she’s striking the ball as solidly as she ever has – albeit with a proviso.
“I mean, last week was probably the most solid I’ve hit to what I can remember. But in saying that I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, so there goes my memory,” she quipped.
Only one of Ko’s 11 LPGA wins have come at a major championship, and she’ll be eager to add to her tally this week.
“I can’t believe it’s already been six months since our last major, and I know I’m obviously really looking forward to this week,” Ko said. “It just goes by so fast, and especially being the first major of the year you kind of want to put yourself in the right position going for the next few majors too.”
Ko doesn’t have the best of records at the ANA, however, with a T25 three years ago her best showing.
Expect one of her main challengers to be Lexi Thompson, who won at Rancho Mirage two years ago and finished in the top ten in 2015. The 21-year-old has made no bones about her intention to be the best in the world, and she’s not that far off.
Thompson leads the tour in average driving distance (258.8 yards) and greens in regulation (83.1%) and is shooting 70 percent of her rounds under par. She also knows how much concentration is required to win a major.
“I’m pretty tired at the end of the day, but that’s golf,” said Thompson. “You just have to learn to let it go and go into the next shot or the next hole and just forget about it.”
Having won the tournament back in 2011 and narrowly lost out in a playoff last year, Stacy Lewis heads into the event with a formidable record. The bookies have her only behind Ko and perennial threat Inbee Park in the latest betting odds.
Park can of course not be discounted. She’s a seven-time major winner, with six of those wins coming within the last three years. The South Korean hasn’t won yet in 2016, and has been playing second fiddle to Ko in recent months, but she could strike at any moment.
All eyes will also be on Canadian young gun Brooke Henderson, who is already displaying remarkable consistency in her first full season on the LPGA Tour.
She comes into the tournament on the back of five top-10 finishes in her first six starts of the 2016 season. That’s the kind of form that suggests a victory may be just around the corner.
Henderson also has the advantage of having played in the ANA before as an amateur, so the experience won’t be totally foreign to her.
“I think coming into this week I kind of knew more what the atmosphere was like,” she said. “Kind of knew what more to expect, which I think has really helped. My confidence level is definitely up a little bit from being the No. 6 ranked amateur to the No. 7 ranked pro in the world. It’s definitely a little bit of a difference.”
The stage is set for what is sure to be an absorbing contest between the best of the best in the women’s game, as they battle it out for one of the biggest prizes of the year.