Here are their picks to win, to surprise and an amateur that could make some noise in the season’s first major:
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Beth Ann Baldry
Winner: Stacy Lewis, the World No. 1 and undisputed favorite to once again jump into Poppie’s Pond. Lewis, the 2011 Kraft champion, has six top-11 finishes in her last eight major starts. She has won twice already in 2013 and seems poised to handle the pressure that comes with being the one to watch. And to prove that nothing has changed, Lewis and her family are back at the same Holiday Inn Express.
Dark horse: Gerina Piller, the late-bloomer from Texas, has the tools to get it done this week. One of the longest players on tour, Piller won’t have an issue out of the rough at Mission Hills. Piller, who tied for sixth at last year’s Wegmans LPGA Championship, began working with Angela Stanford’s instructor, Mike Wright, earlier in the year. Wright said that when she and husband Martin Piller (a pro golfer) are hitting balls next to each other on the range, it’s hard to tell their shots apart judging by sound alone.
Low amateur: This one is a no-brainer. Lydia Ko, 15, might win the tournament. The New Zealand prodigy already owns three professional titles, including the CN Canadian Women’s Open and ISPS NZ Women’s Open. She’s eerily straight off the tee and as consistent as they come with her irons. If Ko gets her putter hot, she can handle any player in the field. Watch out, folks. Ko could take a dip in her Kraft debut.
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Winner: Inbee Park. Park brought an impressive record into this season, and won the Honda LPGA Thailand. Park, No. 4 in the Rolex Rankings and No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, won twice in 2012 and six times finished with at least a share of second. Her best finish at the Kraft was a ninth in 2008, the same year she won the U.S. Women’s Open.
Dark horse: Lizette Salas. In her second year on tour, Salas has finished inside the top 10 in three of her five starts this season. She doesn’t hit the ball particularly far, which will be the biggest challenge here (she finished T-46 last year), but Salas has been in the hunt the past two years at the U.S. Women’s Open so she knows how to handle the pressure of a major. Bonuses: Salas has former Kraft winner Nancy Lopez (1981) as a mentor, and she knows Southern California golf after growing up in Azusa, Calif., and playing four years for USC.
Low amateur: Camilla Hedberg. The Florida sophomore from Spain won the Spanish Ladies Amateur before arriving in Gainesville, Fla., and has won two full-field college tournaments so far this season. The last time she and fellow Kraft amateur Lydia Ko were in the same tournament, the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship, Ko finished first and Hedberg was tied for second. Still, Hedberg is a strong, smart player, and her length will serve her well on the Dinah Shore Course.