KPMG Women's PGA Championship: Players to watch at formidable Hazeltine
CHASKA, Minn. -- The KPMG Women's PGA Championship will be staged this week on a course that is no stranger to top-level competition.
Hazeltine National Golf Club, host of two U.S. Women's Opens, two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, five other USGA championships and two Ryder Cups, will bring the LPGA's third major to the rolling hills of Chaska.
A field of 156 players will compete in the 72-hole event with a purse of $3.85 million in prize money. The winner will pocket a cool $577,500 on Sunday.
In the fifth year of the LPGA's association with the PGA of America and title sponsor KPMG, the LPGA Tour will once again stage the rebranded successor to its former LPGA Championship on a world-class golf course. Hazeltine will, no doubt, prove to be a formidable venue playing at 6,807 yards this week.
Sung Hyun Park of South Korea hopes to defend the title she won over compatriot So Yeon Ryu in Chicago last year in a two-hole playoff. Ryu returns hoping for another shot at the title.
Other past champions at this event include Danielle Kang (2017), Brooke Henderson (2016) and Inbee Park, who won the 2014 and 2015 KPMG Women's PGA Championship, as well as the 2013 LPGA Championship before the tournament's change.
Of course the field is wide open, with 13 different LPGA champions already crowned this season. Who has the mettle to master Minnesota's prize course this week? Check out these five players to watch:
Her win Sunday at the Meijer LPGA Classic was Henderson's ninth of her career, surpassing Sandra Post (LPGA) and Mike Weir (PGA) as the all-time highest-winning professional from Canada.
At 21, Henderson has seven top-10 finishes with two wins this season in 13 events. She won the KPMG in 2016 for her only major championship victory and feels especially comfortable this week playing in one of the northernmost states.
"I think growing up in Canada and in any of the northern parts of the United States, the golf courses have a similar feel, similar types of grasses and are usually tree-lined," Henderson said.
Henderson also appreciates the championship's rotating venues on top courses, including this week's staging at Hazeltine, which has hosted competitions she watched on TV as a teen aspiring to play at the highest level.
"I'm always excited because the venues are so historic and there are so many great memories of them from other events," she said of KPMG's host sites. "They always play long. They're amazing golf courses."
Henderson also has posted four top-six finishes in the four previous years she has played the KPMG Women's PGA Championship -- all at different venues. That stretch started with a sponsor's invitation in 2015 for her first event, where she tied for fifth. She returned in 2016 and won, finished second in 2017 and tied for sixth last year.
"It's definitely a really meaningful championship," Henderson said. "Like any major championship, it's going to test everything you've got mentally and physically."
Sung Hyun Park
This event's defending champion has two top-10 finishes in nine starts on the LPGA Tour this year, with one win in February at the HSBC Women's World Championship in Singapore.
Two of Park's six career wins have come at majors, with the 2017 U.S. Women's Open her first win as an LPGA Tour rookie. This will be her third KPMG championship, with her 2018 win after a tie for 14th in 2017.
Typically stoic, Park burst into tears on the shoulder of her caddie following her win at the 2018 KPMG event. It was an action that surprised most, but one that Park said was the result following a season of struggle.
"Last year, right before the KPMG, it was a tough time for me, as I didn't make the cut at the U.S. Women's Open [where she was the defending champion]," she said to media on Wednesday. "So the win at KPMG last year was like a present to me and that's why I burst into tears and hugged my caddie. Right now, it's so fresh in my memory."
Park says she does not feel "that much pressure" at this year's championship. Rather, she feels energized by returning to an event where she's had success.
"It definitely feels good coming back as a defending champion," she added. "I went into the locker room and saw my picture with a label that said 2018 defending champion and I actually took a picture of that, and then coming into the parking space with my name. Stuff like that definitely makes me feel good."
This Japanese player got bumped out of the playoff after one hole in last year's KPMG Championship, but she has three top-two finishes in nine starts this year, including a win at the Kia Classic and a runner-up finish at the Meijer LPGA Classic last week.
The three-time LPGA champion ranked No. 6 in the world is a stealthy leaderboard climber and averages 265 yards off the tee in spite of her 5-foot-2 frame. She is steady and has the ability to keep her emotions under control -- both essential qualities at a major championship and the reason why she contended for last year's title.
Even after she was eliminated in the first playoff hole on a speedy green in 2018, Hataoka showed her respect to the venerable Kemper Lakes Golf Club by turning to the course and bowing.
That was last year. Hataoka may be ready to take a different kind of bow on Sunday.
She's ranked No. 7 in the world but is tops on the LPGA's 2019 money list with earnings of more than $1.5 million in 11 events. Coming into this week's KPMG Women's PGA Championship, South Korea's Lee6 has five top-10 finishes, including her breakthrough victory at this year's U.S. Women's Open and a runner-up finish the following week.
The 2019 rookie also has shown that she is not timid in major championships, recording a tie for sixth at the ANA Inspiration. A top-10 finish at this week's event would keep her record on track and would give her parents a second chance to potentially react to their daughter's win.
"They really didn't know how to react [when she won the U.S. Women's Open] because they didn't think winning was a possibility and we especially didn't expect to win this quickly," she told media on Wednesday. "They felt pretty amazed and proud of me."
Of course, now that she has won a major, Lee6 admits there is more pressure coming into this week's event. She has won, she has contended, and now, even she wants to see what the week holds on a demanding and long golf course.
"Since winning the U.S. Women's Open, I know there are a lot more people who know who I am," said Lee6, making her first visit to Minnesota. "And so now I just want to continue playing well."
This LPGA rookie from Colorado is a long shot with the likes of fellow American Lexi Thompson, ranked No. 2, and top-ranked Jin Young Ko, with two wins this year, always in contention and usually hovering on a leaderboard.
But just for kicks, what if this former individual NCAA champion from Wake Forest University made a run at the title?
Ranked No. 426 in the world, Kupcho has improved in each of her three starts after graduating from college this spring. She tied for 62nd at the U.S. Women's Open in her professional debut, posted a tie for 43rd at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, and tied for 23rd last week at the Meijer LPGA.
This will be only her second major championship as a pro, but stranger things have happened when rookies have won big events. Case in point: rookie Sung Hyun Park winning the 2017 U.S. Women's Open.
If Kupcho were to find herself in the lead by the weekend, give extra credit to the player who opted to stay in school and finish her college degree, playing out her Wake Forest team eligibility before entering the tenuous world of top pay for top play.
Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.