Auckland, New Zealand (AP) — Lydia Ko’s return home for the New Zealand Women’s Open will give the former world No. 1 a chance to sustain her recent improvement in form and perhaps collect her first LPGA title in more than a year.
Ko has won her home open in three of the last four years — 2013, 2015 and 2016. However, she faces a stronger challenge when the latest edition starts Thursday, as the tournament has become part of the LPGA Tour for the first time.
The strongest field in the tournament’s history includes seven major winners; an eighth, American Paula Creamer, withdrew Tuesday with a wrist injury.
The 20-year-old Ko will endeavor to become the first non-American to win an LPGA tournament in their home country since South Korea’s Kyu Jung Baek in 2014.
Ko has gone 29 tournaments since her last win at the 2016 Marathon Classic. Her world ranking has dropped to No. 8 during a 2017 season in which she has had nine top-10 finishes in 20 starts without adding to her list of wins.
She comes into the New Zealand Women’s Open in good form after finishing second at the Indy Women in Tech Championship in Indianapolis and third at the Evian Championships in which she missed a playoff by a shot.
Ko’s earlier slump this season followed her decision to make changes to her swing, clubs, caddie and coach. She remains confident that those changes will bear fruit.
“I really feel like all changes were good changes and there are no regrets,” she said. “Sometimes you might not see results right away but you have to keep with it and find what’s best for you. It felt like there were a lot of positives but I was just not able to execute it when I was playing… You just have to be patient, and patience is the hardest thing.”
Ko’s main challenges this week are expected to come from Canada’s Brooke Henderson, American Danielle Kang, Australian veteran Katherine Kirk, who tied Ko for third at the Evian Championship, and 15-time tour winner Yani Tseng of Taiwan.
World No. 22 Kang has the advantage of local knowledge after securing Tiger Woods and Adam Scott’s former caddie, New Zealander Steve Williams, to carry her bag this week.
“I needed a local because my caddie isn’t able to be here so I said ‘okay I’ll just hire a local’,” Kang said. “Somehow someone said ‘would you mind having Steve Williams on the bag?’ I thought it was a joke at first.
“He’s as local as it gets so I think I did pretty well there. He’s a really cool guy. He knows all the numbers, he knows everything. He is like a walking yardage book. I don’t even need to ask, he just tells me what I am thinking.”
Henderson said weather conditions would be critical at the newly-established Windross Farm course east of Auckland.
“It’s playing very firm, which is partly because it’s so new of a golf course,” Henderson said. “I think if the wind stays up like it is right now, it is gonna be a challenge for the girls.
“If the wind dies and the conditions are still suitable, then the scores might be very low.”