The LPGA Tour returns to Georgia this week for the first time since 2006, with an event at Reynolds Lake Oconee that that was thrown together at seemingly the last minute.
The tournament, which will be known as the LPGA Drive On Championship –Lake Oconee, will be played Thursday through Sunday on the recently renovated Great Waters course. The event will feature a purse of $1.3 million, a field of 108 players and all four rounds will be televised live on the Golf Channel from 1-4 p.m.
The official announcement of the tournament came only a month ago, as the LPGA has been trying to fill holes in its schedules this year created by the Covid 19 virus.
The tour has lost 17 tournaments, approximately half its schedule, including all seven events on its two Asia swings in the spring and fall. The cancellation of all four fall events in Asia led to the creation of the LPGA Drive On Championship – Lake Oconee, the second Drive On Championship to be played this season.
The LPGA made its return on July 31 with a newly created Drive On event at famed Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, one week before the tour’s previously scheduled annual event in Toledo. Most of the tournaments on the original LPGA schedule in 2020 have been played since the season resumed, with several others moved to later dates, among them two of the tour’s majors – the tournament formerly known as the Dinah Shore Championship in the California desert and the PGA Women’s Championship.
The 2021 PGA Women’s Championship was going to mark the return of the LPGA to Georgia, with next year’s event scheduled for the summer at Atlanta Athletic Club, which served as host for the 1990 U.S. Women’s Open.
Georgia will now have LPGA events in consecutive years, its first stops in the state since a tournament played at Eagle’s Landing from 1992 to 2006 went out of business. That tournament was played for 11 years under the title sponsorship of Chick-fil-A, which stepped in in 2005 after the event lost its original sponsor the previous year.
But Chick-fil-A pulled its title sponsorship after the 2005 tournament and the event lasted only one more year after a last-minute sponsor for 2006 was secured.
Great Waters has hosted professional events in the past, but none that included a sizeable number of spectators. The WGC Accenture Match Play Championship – the predecessor of the current match play event on the PGA Tour schedule, was played at Great Waters from 1995 to ’97, and the course was the site of the 2014 Big Break Invitational.
Both were essentially made-for-TV events, as Lake Oconee’s location about halfway between Atlanta and Augusta off I-20 makes it too removed from a major population center for a tournament requiring arge attendance numbers. This week’s tournament will be played without spectators.
Great Waters has also hosted the Georgia Open for the Georgia PGA and the Georgia Amateur for the GSGA, as well as an annual college tournament – the Linger Longer Invitational.
The course, a Jack Nicklaus design that opened in 1992, was renovated in 2019, with some new back tees added, the bunker design updated and a major tree clearing project. Since its opening, Great Waters has been consistently ranked among the top courses in the state, with its spectacular lakeside setting making it among the most scenic layouts anywhere.
Nine of the last 10 holes are located directly along Lake Oconee, including a pair of splendid holes to conclude both nines and one of the most visually appealing short par 4s you will ever encounter (No. 11).
The new back tees enable Great Waters to play as long as 7436 yards, with the LPGA likely to play the course at around 6550 yards from a combination of the next two sets of tees.
The tournament is the only LPGA event in a six-week stretch from early October through mid-November, when the schedule resumes with four tournaments in five weeks before and after Thanksgiving week. The 2020 schedule concludes with the U.S. Open in Houston Dec. 10-13 and the Tour Championship in south Florida Dec. 17-20.
The field for this week’s tournament, the 14thLPGA event of 2020 will include 19 of the top 30 players on the current money list, along with 17 other players who were the top 50 last year.
Although a number of the LPGA’s top international players will be absent, the event at Great Waters will include many of the tour’s most prominent players.
The highest ranked player in the field is American Danielle Kang, who is third on the 2020 money list and fifth in the Rolex Rankings with back-to-backs wins this year in Toledo, the first two post-Covid tournaments. Kang has five career wins, her first coming in the 2017 Women’s PGA Championship.
Australia’s Minjee Lee is among the international competitors who has played a full LPGA schedule this season, and is fifth on the money list and ninth in the Rolex rankings with five finishes of seventh or better in 11 starts.
Lexi Thompson is the third highest ranked American behind Kang and Nelly Korda, who is currently sidelined with a back injury. Thompson is 10thin the Rolex rankings with 10 career wins and one major, and came close to her second major last month at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Jessica Korda, Nelly’s oldest sister and an annual top-30 money list finisher the last seven years, will also be competing.
After winning 12 times in her first three seasons on the LPGA Tour from 2014-16 including two majors, New Zealand’s Lydia Ko has just one win over the past four seasons. The former world No. 1 has dropped to 39 in the Rolex rankings, but is making a comeback this season, nearly scoring her 16thcareer win at the age of 23 in Toledo.
Thailand’s Ariya Jutanagarn won 10 times including two majors between 2016 and ’18 and also reached world No. 1, but like Ko, has fallen from her perch since then. The 24-year-old is still 19thin the Rolex Rankings, but does not have a top 10 in nine 2020 starts.
Stacy Lewis ended a three-year winless drought two months ago in Scotland, her 13thcareer title to go with two majors. She is currently 12thon the money list thanks to her win and a fifth place finish at Mission Hills.
Veteran Cristie Kerr has 20 career victories and two majors, but after a solid start to the 2020 season, has struggled since play resumed.
Other veteran players of note in the field include Angela Stanford, Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel, all former major champions, and Christina Kim, who is enjoying her best season since 2016 with a trio of top 10s. Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, who is still competing at the age of 60, has 31 wins and seven majors in her storied career, with one of her victories coming in the 2002 Chick-fil-A Charity Championship.
Along with Kang and Lewis, there are four other 2020 winners in the field at Great Waters. Mexico’s Gaby Lopez won the season-opening Tournament of Champions in January, and is coming off a top 10 showing in the Women’s PGA two weeks ago.
American Austin Ernst collected her second career title in Arkansas with a final round 63, and is No. 7 in earnings. England’s Mel Reid, a three-time Solheim Cup player, picked up her first LPGA win in New Jersey earlier this month, and stands 17thon the money list.
The most surprising winner on tour this year is Germany’s Sophia Popov, who began the year playing on the Symetra Tour, but is now a major champion after winning the British Open.
One of the budding stars on the LPGA Tour is Jennifer Kupcho, who won the 2019 Augusta National Women’s Amateur and has played well since joining the LPGA Tour later last year.
The lone native Georgian in the field is Jonesboro’s Mariah Stackhouse, who is in her fourth season on the LPGA Tour. Stackhouse placed among the top 100 on the money list each of the past two seasons, and is currently 80th, matching her career best finish with a tie for fifth in Portland last month. Prior to turning pro, Stackhouse was one of the country’s top juniors and amateurs, leading Stanford to an NCAA Championship in 2015 and competing on a victorious U.S. Curtis Cup team the previous year.
Recent U. of Georgia golfer Jillian Hollis is an LPGA rookie after winning on the Symetra Tour in her first season as a pro last year. Hollis is 122 in earnings, but has missed all six cuts since play resumed after an early T13 in Australia.
Duluth resident Min Seo Kwak has made three of five cuts since play resumed and is 129 in earnings in her fifth season on the tour.
Woodstock resident Jane Park is currently on maternity leave after recently giving birth to her first child.