LPGA Tour kicks off its 2021 season with optimism in each swing

With rounds of 71-75-70-69 at the CME Group Tour Championship, Danielle Kang made LPGA Tour history with a scoring average of 70.082 to win the 2020 Vare Trophy. On Thursday, she'll start the 2021 LPGA season at Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

After a 2020 season for the history books, complete with hundreds of COVID-19 tests and social-distancing protocols, the LPGA Tour returns to play this week with the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando in Florida on Thursday.

As the LPGA enters its 71st season, 25 LPGA Tour winners from the past three years will battle it out on the course for the $1.2 million purse over 72 holes with no cut. Three players from the top 10 of the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings will tee it up: No. 4 Nelly Korda, No. 5 Danielle Kang and No. 6 Brooke Henderson. Rounding out the field will be veterans like Brittany Lincicome and Stacy Lewis and first-time Diamond competitors like Madelene Sagstrom and Austin Ernst. Several players have opted out due to COVID-19 related reasons and restrictions.

It's only been one month since the LPGA Tour teed it up at the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida. And the women of the LPGA Tour aren't wasting any time as they get right back into play.

"I don't believe it was really a break," Kang said during a Wednesday media conference. "I think I had less than three and a half weeks to get things kind of organized. It's been a chaotic few weeks. It wasn't really a break."

After the Diamond wraps, the LPGA Tour will have another month-long break before returning to competition for the Gainbridge Championship at the end of February. Then players will embark on a jam-packed season that includes the Olympics and Solheim Cup.

After winning the Vare Trophy at the CME with a scoring average of 70.082, Kang admitted that her off-season was particularly hectic because she moved and was exposed to COVID-19 twice. "I had to quarantine twice. Take six tests in the last two weeks. It's been a little hectic," said Kang, who won back-to-back tournaments and played in 13 events in 2020.

The first tournament of the season will be a reminder that despite the global pandemic and the hurdles that come with COVID-19 cases and safety protocols, women's golf didn't miss a beat in competitive play.

Starting in March, the LPGA Tour begins a stacked schedule with play nearly every weekend. With barely any off-season this year, Kang believes the next month between tournaments will provide her the proper off-season that she needs to feel ready.

Kang focused on rehabbing minor injuries during the brief break. But, as a result of COVID-19, Kang said she hadn't seen her swing coach Butch Harmon in "four, five weeks," and that's "rare" for the player and coach. She sees Diamond as a test run for the season.

"[I'm] pacing myself to have the Florida tournaments as my goal to be ready," Kang said. "I'll use this tournament as kind of a building step."

For Henderson, the 2020 season provided her a moment to reflect and shifts gears for 2021. "It was a really huge change for me, normally playing almost 30 events to only play 10," Henderson said. "I am excited about the way the schedule looks this year. Hopefully I'll be able to compete in many more tournaments and hopefully get back on my winning streak."

Henderson added that she wants to take this season tournament by tournament and not put too much pressure on rankings -- a notion that many on the Tour continually expressed throughout last season due to the global pandemic.

"I'm proud to be in the top 10 of the women's world rankings," Henderson said. "It's hard because a lot of people ask me about trying to become the world No. 1. It's not necessarily a huge goal of mine right now. I would love to move up in the world rankings, but I'm just trying to take it by tournament and small goals along the way."

As the 25-player field swiftly dives back into tournament play, the universal emphasis seems to be on enjoying the competition and setting their sights on the highly anticipated, stacked schedule that starts in the spring. A large part of this week's emphasis on reflection and merriment can be credited to the Diamond Resorts Tournament setup.

Playing alongside the pros, similar to years past at the Diamond Resorts Tournament, 53 celebrities and amateurs from the sports and entertainment worlds will compete for a $500,000 purse of their own using a modified Stableford format. Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, World Series champion John Smoltz, country star Cole Swindell and actor Brian Baumgartner are among the notables competing in the celebrity game.

Sorenstam spoke publicly for the first time this week after accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Jan. 7, a day after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that resulted in five deaths.

Speaking with Golf Channel, Sorenstam called Jan. 6 a "dark day in America's history" but didn't express regret for accepting the honor and attending the ceremony. Adding, "Looking back, I don't second-guess. I like to look forward, not spend energy on what could have been." Notably, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick opted not to "move forward" with accepting the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Trump.

Beyond the rankings, purse and celebrity game, LPGA veteran Brittany Lincicome wants to focus on the hope this week's tournament brings after a tumultuous 2020 season. "I was so glad to see this event didn't have any hiccups," Lincicome said. "It's just so much fun."

Lincicome added, "We're grateful for the tournaments that still happened and still allowed us to play and do our jobs, and here we are in 2021."