World No. 1 Ko set for Australian Open

World No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand will make her first appearance of the LPGA season when she tees it up at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open beginning Thursday on the Seaton course at The Royal Adelaide Golf Club in Adelaide, Australia.

The 144-player field will compete for a total purse of $1.3 million, with $195,000 to winner, and 500 points in the Race to the CME Globe. They will have their hands full with the links-style 6,681-yard, par-73 layout at one of Australia’s iconic golf clubs in the sixth year for this event.

The field includes, Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn, the world’s second-ranked player, plus two others from the top 10 in Brooke Henderson of Canada and South Korea’s Ha Na Jang. Also playing are American Michelle Wie and all the top Australians such as Perth’s Minjee Lee, the world No. 17, and five-time winner Karrie Webb, a Queensland native who made her first professional appearance at the 1994 Australian Open.

The 29-year-old Ko, who won this event when it was contested at Royal Melbourne GC two years ago, was runner-up to Japan’s Haru Nomura here last year, with Nomura shooting a remarkable 65 in the final round to win by three strokes. Ko comes into this tournament with a new coach, South African Gary Gilchrist, and a new caddie, Gary Matthews, as well as new equipment in her bag.

Ko said the changes were made after she was unhappy with the way she concluded her 2016 season, even though she won five times last year and garnered the silver medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“It’s great to be back in Adelaide and hopefully we’re going to have some great weather alongside some great golf,” Ko said Tuesday. “A lot of things have changed (for me), but it’s exciting times. I’m confident in the team that I’ve chosen and equipment-wise, too.

“Even though I might be the No. 1-ranked player I still feel there’s a lot of aspects of my game that I can improve on. No matter what ranking you have, you’ve got to have that mindset. There’s always a position for you to get better.”

Like most of the top players, Henderson has the No. 1 ranking and Ko in her sights.

“Everybody’s goal on the LPGA Tour is to be No. 1 but it’s very difficult to do,” Henderson said. “Lydia Ko has done an amazing job — her career is incredible. Being in the No. 2 position (which Henderson held for several weeks last year) was really exciting, and watching it slip away was heartbreaking. Hopefully I’ll get off to a little bit faster start this year and see my world ranking climb.”

While the links-style golf that Royal Adelaide offers up is not necessarily Henderson’s favorite course style, she takes it as a challenge. Henderson finished tied for ninth, nine strokes behind Nomura’s winning score of 16-under-par.

“It’s a great course — it’s in incredible condition,” Henderson said. “It’s going to be interesting. You’ve got to know where you’re hitting it. Placement and having a good caddie with good yardages is going to be really important.”

Royal Adelaide joins The Ocean Club (Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic) and Reignwood Pine Valley (Alisports Reignwood) as the only par-73 layouts on the 2017 LPGA schedule.

One of the quirks of Royal Adelaide GC is the Grange line train that bisects the course, running on the half-hour beside the clubhouse and adjacent to the first tee and the practice putting green. Fortunately for the players, the train service is being shut down for the duration of the tournament, but it was in service during the practice rounds.