With the Australia and Asia swing complete, the LPGA heads back to the U.S for the run up to the first major of the year. This week, we’re in the desert for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup at the Wildfire Golf Club, where if you haven’t brought your putting touch, then you need not apply.
The last three winners here have been a combined 73-under-par, with Sei-Young Kim the pick of the bunch two years ago when she managed to get to -27. Basically, every hole presents a birdie opportunity and this golf course can be seriously overpowered with the added bonus of perfectly true greens.
There’s no surprise to see Jin Young Ko heading the market; she’s probably the best putter in the women’s golf at the moment and she’ll absolutely love these putting surfaces. She leads the tour in birdie average and ticks all the boxes in terms on par-4 and par-5 scoring average. Even if the wind does get up, which it is forecast to do on Thursday at least, she’s an accomplished wind player evidenced by her British Open exploits at Turnberry. She’s the standout option at the top of the market and if you’re that way inclined, fill your boots, I certainly can’t put you off her. Personally though, I’m not going to get involved. I’m already on her for the Money List which she’s currently leading and, while I’m a huge fan, even I would be surprised to see her win twice in just four starts as a full member of the tour.
Sung Hyun Park, Brooke Henderson and Ariya Jutanugarn make up the other three that are vying for favouritism, and while plenty of claims can be made for Jutanugarn, the former two look well too short and can be taken on. Park is a class act but she’s out of sorts at the moment and has finished outside the top-10 on both occasions that she’s played here. I’ve backed Henderson in the last three tournaments and enjoyed some returns last time out where she was denied a playoff by Michelle Wie’s huge putt on the 18th, but her putter has a tendency to get very hot and cold and a poor week on the greens will pretty much take her out of the running; at 14/1, I’m not interested.
Anna Nordqvist won last year at upwards of 40/1, and even though the favourites tend to do very well here, I’m hoping for a similar outcome to the last renewal and so my eyes are immediately drawn to Lizette Salas, who has really strong claims at the 50/1 mark. Already an LPGA winner back in 2014, the American’s game really started to click last season and a return to similar form that saw her pick up five top-10 finishes in six starts before the season finale would see her go close this week, on a golf course that she has performed well at on nearly every occasion. Indeed, Salas missed the cut in 2016, but in her other five starts, she’s finished outside of the top-12 only once. Salas enjoyed her best season yet last year, so it would make sense that if she continues that upturn in form into this year, a significant improvement is entirely possible around this desert layout to push her into contention.
While Salas provides the value, I’m weary of the Korda sisters here. Jessica was sensational in Thailand three weeks ago, and a top-10 finish the following week proved that this form could be set to continue. As mentioned, the winner will get to the mid -20s, and Jessica managed to get to -25 when she won, so she’s one of only a few in this field that has the potential to score low in all four rounds. Similarly, I’m expecting Nelly to win imminently. She narrowly missed out last time out and she’s yet to really be convincing when in contention; we mustn’t forget that she is still only 19 though – the first victory will likely lead to a few more in quick succession.
Leaving both out proved to be difficult, but I’d prefer to scatter some loose change around others at much bigger prices. We’ll start with Seon Woo Bae, who looks worth chancing at anything more than 80/1, with 100/1 available with one firm. This Korean, who predominantly plays on the KLPGA Tour, will be making her season debut this week which is of course a slight concern, but at the prices, I’m more than willing to pay to find out if she can get off to a flyer. She’s made a name for herself in Korea as a consistent sort – a player that hits lots of fairways and greens and tends to dominate par-4s, which should come in handy around Wildfire GC.
Another one that looks overpriced is Nasa Hataoka, a brilliant Japanese youngster who is surely heading right to the top of the game within the next few years. The 19-year-old won the LPGA Tour qualifying tournament in October and got her season off and running with a 16th place in the Australian Open after missing the cut in the opener. A quick return to the JLPGA followed, finishing 3rd in her last tournament and improvement on the missed cut here last year looks certain. The main concern is the level of scoring – she may find it difficult to pile up enough birdies to win, but a top-5 looks entirely possible, and at 125/1, we should pay to find out.
That’ll conclude this week’s picks, with the only other that made the shortlist which I haven’t mentioned being Angel Yin, who finished 19th as an amateur here last year, and has desert form with the win in Dubai at the end of last season. I backed her a few weeks ago, but she’s started the season really poorly and I would’ve been all over her had she entered this week with a slight glimmer of an upturn in form.
1.5pts E/W – Lizette Salas at 50/1
0.5pts E/W – Seon Woo Bae at 100/1
0.5pts E/W – Nasa Hataoka at 125/1
Total staked = 29pts
P/L = -6.75pts