NAPLES, Fla. – Talk about setting the stage. There couldn’t be more talent on display if the theaters of Broadway and London’s West End merged. Jin Young Ko, Brooke Henderson and Minjee Lee, paired in Thursday’s first round of the CME Group Tour Championship, showcase what’s been a scintillating season-long Race to the CME Globe.
That trio also exemplifies two other trends on the LPGA – young talent coming from every corner of the globe. Ko, 24, is from South Korea; the 23-year-old Lee hails from Australia and Henderson, 22, is Canadian, meaning they also represent three different continents.
All that is at stake at the Tiburón Resort this week is the $1.5 million first prize – the most ever in women’s golf – and the players who top the point list in the field of 60 going into the Tour Championship earned their way into that final threesome with a full season of great play.
Ko, who tops the CME points list, is No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, has wrapped up Rolex Player of the Year and will likely win the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average since Hyo Joo Kim would have to beat her by 23 strokes this week to steal it from her.
Henderson, No. 2 on the CME list, is seventh in the Rolex Rankings, fourth in money won and fifth for Player of the Year. Lee is CME No. 3, No. 5 on both the Rolex Rankings and the money list and No. 8 in Player of the Year.
And while Ko has a $721,791 lead over Jeongeun Lee6 for the money title, because of the $1.5 million first prize, 10 players are still in the hunt to win the most cash in 2019, going back to No. 10 Danielle Kang, who would need to win the CME and have Ko finish 34th or worse.
A finish that low for Ko seems unlikely. She’s been simply sensational with four victories, including majors at the ANA Inspiration and the Evian Championship. If she captures the Vare Trophy it will give her four LPGA Hall of Fame points for the season – one each for her majors and the POY – toward the 27 needed, which is quite a haul in one season.
For Ko, there were many memorial milestones on her way to the Tour Championship.
“Bank of Hope was first time win [in] the States,” she said about her first victory of the year. “Then second one ANA, first major; Evian, second major; last one, bogey-free round. Also 114 holes bogey-free [holes]. That is really special to me.”
When Ko rattled off 114 consecutive holes without a bogey it was an accomplishment that knocked Tiger Woods out of the record book – and anytime you do that you’ve done something special. Ko says her consistent play was in large part due to her improvement around and on the green.
“I fixed a lot about putting,” Ko said, adding that about 70 percent of her improvement had to do with her work with short-game coach Gareth Raflewski.
“I want to say thank you to Gareth for coming to almost all the tournaments in the States," she said. "He was able to adjust my setups when I'm tired, so he's been really helpful to my game throughout this season.”
Henderson has established herself as one of the most consistent winners on the LPGA. With titles at the LOTTE Championship and the Meijer LPGA Classic, the feisty Canadian has won multiple events for four consecutive years and has nine victories in her five-year career – second-best to Ariya Jutanugarn and Lydia Ko, who both have 10 over the last five seasons.
“Honestly, the last five years have been a dream come true,” Henderson said. “I never could have asked for any of this. I'm just so grateful for my team. We work really hard and set lofty goals and try to chase after them. I feel like every year, my whole team, myself, we just keep getting smarter and better, and hopefully that trend can continue.”
Lee has flown under the radar perhaps better than anyone who has accomplished as much as she has in her brief career. She has five LPGA victories, including this year’s HUGEL-AIR PREMIA LA Open and in 134 career starts has finished in the top-10 on 43 occasions, including eight second-place finishes and seven thirds.
When folks Down Under start comparing her to the best-ever in the history of Australian golf – Karrie Webb and Greg Norman – she cautions them then that she’s still learning the ropes.
“I think I'm just a little bit more mature, more settled down on the tour,” Lee says. “I know what I'm doing in terms of I have my routine. I think just all in all a little bit more consistent in every part of my game.”
Lee, Henderson and Ko have all been very consistent over the course of the season. And now all three have a chance at the $1.5 million first prize. But, so do the other 57 players in the field. And that’s what makes the CME Group Tour Championship a can’t-miss show.