RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – This year at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the pond is wide open. That one-size-fits-all white robe could be wrapped around the shoulders of any number of players come Sunday.
LPGA Founder Shirley Spork likes Lexi Thompson this week. This year’s champion will be a proven player, Spork said. It’s easy to believe, considering how well so many of the tour’s brightest are playing right now.
While World No. 1 Inbee Park is among the favorites, she’s not a runaway pick. Stacy Lewis has finished top-6 or better at five of six events so far this season. The 2011 Kraft champ called this week “easy” because she has fewer obligations.
“The putting really has been my Achilles heel so far this year,” Lewis said. “It’s been really streaky.”
That’s been the main focus these last few days of practice. With the good vibes she has from toppling Yani Tseng here three years ago, she’s sure to be in the mix this weekend.
Lydia Ko tied for 25th in her Kraft debut last year, earning low amateur honors. That experience should be vital this week as 16-year-old Ko looks to add a third LPGA title and first major.
“I think Lydia is a threat any week,” said Lewis. “She doesn’t realize how good she is.”
Paula Creamer admits to putting too much pressure on herself each time she comes to the desert. While she has never finished worse than T-24 as a professional at the Kraft, she also has never cracked the top 10. That stunning victory in Singapore and a full heart could make the difference this week.
“You know, this golf course actually, if you look at it, really does fit my game really well,” Creamer said. “You have to be able to put the ball in the right spots on the greens, give yourself good looks at putts, hit it the right side of the fairways, especially when the rough is up.”
Both Creamer and Lewis were disappointed the the rough isn’t higher this year.
Morgan Pressel’s white-hot streak at the JTBC Founders Cup makes one wonder if she’s close to making a big run. Pressel came out of nowhere in 2007 to win this tournament at 18 years, 10 months and 9 days. She tied for third here in 2011.
Anna Nordqvist has won two of five events this season, including last week’s Kia Classic. She has three top-10 finishes in four starts at the Kraft.
The sentimental favorite is the only other multiple-winner this season: Karrie Webb. The 39-year-old leads the tour’s money list and is ranked fifth in the world. In a four-year span (1999-2002), Webb won six majors. She won her last, her second Kraft Nabisco title, in 2006 after a dramatic hole-out for eagle on No. 18. She went on to beat Lorena Ochoa in a sudden-death playoff.
“I feel like my game is as good as it’s ever been as far as having the ability to win majors,” Webb said.
For Webb, it’s a matter of understanding herself and her game better than she did early in her career. Mentally, Webb said, she’s never been stronger.
Webb looks at Inbee Park, winner of three majors in 2013, and can imagine the difficulty Park faces in setting goals for this season – particularly at the majors.
“It’s probably hard to set goals for this year, saying, ‘What is achieving my goals when last year I became No. 1 in the world and won three majors,’ ” Webb said. “You don’t keep raising your expectations higher than that because that’s just a career year.”
Park, believe it or not, said the biggest struggle this year has been with her putting. That being said, she has enjoyed the best start to a season in her career (2nd, T-4, T-10, T-6). No wins, but, like Lewis, extremely consistent.
This is Park’s eighth time playing the Kraft, and with that experience comes a great deal of comfort.
“The more you play this golf course,” Park said, “the easier it gets.”