Brooke Henderson goes wire-to-wire at LPGA season opener
By JEFF BABINEAU
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Brooke Henderson sets a goal of winning multiple LPGA Tour titles at the outset of each season. She didn't wait long to collect her first trophy of 2023.
Henderson was dominant throughout and delivered a 2-under 70 on Sunday at Lake Nona to complete a wire-to-wire victory in the season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.
In windy and sometimes difficult conditions, the 25-year-old Canadian played steadily, making sure not to give much hope to a group behind her trying to mount any sort of challenge. She began her day leading by three and eventually won by four, finishing the event at 16-under 272. It was her 13th LPGA victory.
"It is so exciting," Henderson said. "I always try to win a couple times each year, so to get one right way out of the gate takes a little bit of pressure off. ... It's exciting to be in contention, and even more exciting to hoist trophies."
Henderson has had her eye on a Tournament of Champions title for a while. She hadn't finished outside of ninth in the event the past four seasons, and she was a runner-up to Danielle Kang a year ago. Sunday marked her 16th consecutive round under par on the LPGA dating to 2022, and her 16th consecutive score under par in this tournament.
Winning also helps her put to rest a frustrating end to 2022. She withdrew with a back injury in her second-to-last start at the Pelican Women's Championship in November, and managed the pain enough to tie for seventh in the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
From there, it was rest and rehab before switching into new clubs. There were 14 new clubs in the bag at Lake Nona, including the putter, which helped to produce 19 birdies on a very strong test of golf.
Henderson entered the week at No. 7 in the women's world ranking. She was asked if her season-opening triumph might open the door to other big goals, such as being No. 1, or being the LPGA's player of the year.
"That would be awesome," Henderson said. "Obviously, I had the dream start."
Second-year LPGA pro Maja Stark of Sweden showed a nice finishing kick by shooting 5-under 31 on her final nine. She tied for second alongside England's Charlie Hull. Both shot 69, Hull doing so for the fourth consecutive day.
Stark has committed herself to adding multiple hours each week to her time spent practicing putting, and it showed in her hot play over the final nine holes. Three over through seven, she birdied six of her final 10 holes.
"It gives me a lot of confidence," Stark said. "I feel I've had a good week with my driver and some good irons. The putting, too. I feel like if it keeps going like this, could be the best year yet."
Hull was pleased with her finish given the challenges of trying to get her game ready in England in mid-winter. She spent three days practicing in Morocco before continuing on to Orlando.
Henderson was patient on Sunday, doing most of her damage on Lake Nona's par 5s, making birdies on three of them. When she birdied the ninth hole, she had a four-shot lead over Nelly Korda, and she rebuilt the lead to four once again with one last birdie at the par-5 15th.
Korda, at No. 2 the highest-ranked player in this winners-only field because No. 1 Lydia Ko skipped the tournament after getting married, made only three birdies and settled for fourth for a second consecutive year. For Korda, the week was a tale of two nines; she played the front nine in 1 under par for the week, and the second nine in 10 under. Henderson was 10 under on the front nine.
"Yeah, the front nine and I didn't really get along too well," said Korda, who shot 72 on Sunday. "Hopefully next year we'll become better friends."
Korda said she was disappointed with the outcome, but having played her first tournament with new equipment, at least she had a game plan going forward.
"What's good is that I have a lot to work and I'm very excited about it," she said. "I have four weeks (off from the tour) to kind of grind and see where my game is."
Tennis player and former Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish ran away with the celebrity division, making 152 points in the Modified Stableford format. Fish also won the title two years ago. Former MLB pitcher Mark Mulder (136 points) was runner-up.
Annika Sorenstam, a 72-time winner on the LPGA and Lake Nona resident who played among the celebrities and athletes, tied for third with military veteran Chad Pfeifer.
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Updated January 22, 2023