Winning on the LPGA has never been more difficult

INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - OCTOBER 07: (L to R) Misuzu Narita, Nasa Hataoka of Japan, Ariya Jutanugarn and Moriya Jutanugarn of Thailand walk on the 14th hole in the Wild-Card Playoff on day four of the UL International Crown at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club on October 7, 2018 in Incheon, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images) Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Winning on the LPGA has never been more difficult

LPGA Tour

Winning on the LPGA has never been more difficult

NAPLES, Fla. – Ariya Jutanugarn’s three victories in 2018 might not seem spectacular on their own. It’s nothing like the 13 titles Mickey Wright won in 1963, or the 11 Annika Sorenstam snagged in 2002. Not like the 21 titles Lorena Ochoa amassed from 2006 to 2008 or even the five Jutanugarn claimed in 2016.

The efforts that clinched Jutanugarn’s second Rolex Player of the Year title were more of the subtle, consistent variety. In 27 starts, the big-hitting Thai star with the soft hands racked up 16 top-10 finishes. She leads the tour in money, scoring, putting, birdies and total rounds played.

Jutanugarn, even without using a driver, owns the most complete game on the LPGA.

But winning on the women’s tour has never been more difficult.

There have been 25 different winners in 31 events this season, the most since 1995. Of those players, 10 won for the first time.

Here at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, where Jutanugarn won in 2017, only 12 players can mathematically win the $1 million CME Race to the Globe bonus. The overall tournament champion, however, has never been trickier to predict.

“I feel like anybody can win on any given week,” said Brooke Henderson, a two-time winner in 2018. “They just need that special something.”

The LPGA’s global growth has been well-documented since the early aughts. But from the South Korean explosion grew unprecedented worldwide interest in the sport. Seven South Koreans account for nine victories on the LPGA this year, the most of any country.

But three different Thai players account for five victories. Jutanugarn became the first Thai player to win on the LPGA three years ago.

Players from 10 different countries found their way into the winner’s circle this season. Last week in China, Gaby Lopez became the second player from Mexico to win on the LPGA, joining her hero, Ochoa.

Nasa Hataoka, a seemingly fearless 19-year-old, won twice this year and lost in a playoff at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She stepped into the void left by the beloved Ai Miyazato just in time for the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

There are players on this tour from India to Iceland who could hoist a trophy. Maria Torres, the first player from Puerto Rico to earn full status on the LPGA, is in the field this week at Tiburon as a rookie. The dimply-faced University of Florida grad turned heads at the Evian Championship this fall, holding a share of the lead midway through in France.

It’s no longer simply about the number of different cultures and languages represented on the LPGA. These trailblazers aren’t just happy to be here – they expect to win.

Karen Stupples competed on the LPGA as the tour turned global and now has a front-row seat to the depth of talent as a Golf Channel analyst. Going back to 2000, Stupples points out that 20 players had a scoring average of less than 72. Not a single player averaged below 70.

This season 83 players have scoring averages below par, and three are sub-70. In 2017, a record 12 players posted scoring averages in the 60s.

“That’s why you see so many players able to win out here now,” said Stupples.

And why the former Women’s British Open champ calls Jutanugarn’s season “sneaky” good.

Such depth makes all-out domination for a prolonged period of time more challenging than ever.

Which begs the question: Could a Sorenstam still in her prime dominate on the modern tour?

“I think she’d find a way,” said Stupples.

The great ones always do.

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