The LPGA Tour returns to Orlando for the second year to open its 2020 season and a new decade of women's professional golf.
This week's Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions will welcome 26 LPGA tournament winners from the past two seasons in a low-key $1.2 million limited-field event that pairs the LPGA's top performers with celebrity stars from the sports and entertainment worlds.
The 72-hole, stroke-play event is set for Thursday through Sunday at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and is the first of 34 tournaments on the tour's schedule this year.
South Korean Eun-Hee Ji returns as the tournament's defending champion after a 2019 season that featured one win and seven top-10 finishes.
Ji's win was the first of 15 LPGA titles for eight South Korean players in 2019, a national group that led the tour in victories followed by six wins by five Americans, three wins by three players from Japan, three wins by two Australians and two wins by Canadian Brooke Henderson, currently No. 8 in the world rankings.
Players from France, England and Thailand rounded out the LPGA's 2019 global-season performance that featured 22 players from eight nations raising tournament trophies.
The LPGA's 2020 tournament schedule will open with two events in Florida before launching into five weeks of global travel, starting in Australia in early February and ending in China before returning to the United States in mid-March. The tour will compete in 12 U.S. states and 11 other countries this year, with two inaugural tournaments listed on the 2020 schedule.
Here are five things to watch as the 2020 LPGA Tour season kicks off this week:
Jin Young Ko aiming for fourth year as a winner
Nobody had a hotter hand last year than South Korea's Jin Young Ko, who finished 2019 with four wins, including major championship victories at the ANA Inspiration and the Evian Championship. It was a season highlighted by 12 top-10 finishes, three as runner-up.
Ko also racked up honors as the LPGA's 2019 Rolex Player of the Year, season money winner (more than $2.7 million), Rolex ANNIKA Major Award winner (for winning two of five majors), and Vare Trophy winner (for a low season scoring average of 69.062). And as the 2019 money-title winner, along with status as the world's top-ranked women's player, Ko joined Yani Tseng, Lorena Ochoa and Ariya Jutanugarn as the LPGA's only players in history to win top-player honors and the Vare Trophy during the same year.
In addition, she led the tour in rounds under par (64), rounds in the 60s (47) and greens in regulation (79.5 percent).
Keep in mind that this is the same 10-time winner on the Korean LPGA Tour who won her first U.S. LPGA title at the 2017 LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship as a non-member. That win came in October, so Ko opted to use her resulting automatic LPGA membership in 2018.
And in that rookie season on the U.S.-based LPGA Tour, Ko won her tour debut at the 2018 ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open. She went on to post 13 top-10 finishes in 2018 and earned the LPGA's 2018 top rookie honors.
During her 2019 awards-dinner acceptance speech last November in Naples, Florida, Ko made it clear she has big plans for 2020, and that she hopes to win on the LPGA Tour for the fourth consecutive year.
"At this very special occasion, I want to say that this is not the end, but only the beginning," said Ko, who already has six LPGA wins and 27 career top 10s. "I will work even harder to become a better golfer."
Breakout 2019 season sets table for 2020
The LPGA celebrated six first-time winners in 2019, with a new wave of young talent grabbing coveted trophies last year.
Australia's Hannah Green led that group with a wire-to-wire victory for her first LPGA win and first major championship at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship. Mentored by fellow Australian and World Golf Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, Green added a second tournament win at the 2019 Cambia Portland Classic.
Jeongeun Lee6, so named because there are five other players with the same name back home in South Korea, picked the 2019 U.S. Women's Open to win her first title as an LPGA member. Lee6 recorded 10 top-10s in 2019 with three runner-up finishes and top-10s in two major championships to earn the LPGA's 2019 top rookie honors.
Other first-time winners in 2019 and former collegians were Celine Boutier of France, North Carolina's Cydney Clanton, Cheyenne Knight of Texas and England's Bronte Law.
Who will step up for the Americans in 2020?
Only five players from the United States won in 2019, with Florida's Nelly Korda finishing as the sole American with multiple season wins (two). Korda enters this week's opener as the top-ranked American at No. 3, followed by Danielle Kang, who won one event in 2019, at No. 4.
Tenth-ranked Lexi Thompson experienced a roller-coaster year in 2019. She recorded eight top 10s with a win at the ShopRite LPGA Classic and three runner-up finishes, including a tie for second at the U.S. Women's Open. She also finished third at the ANA Inspiration -- a major in Rancho Mirage, California, where she won in 2014 -- but the Floridian also missed five cuts in 21 events and took time off to regroup.
Kang was the spunky American who seemed to keep her foot on the gas all year with 11 top 10s, including a win at the Buick LPGA Shanghai and second the following week in South Korea at the BMW Ladies Championship. She recorded three runner-up finishes and tied for third with Korda at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in November.
"I had a really good season finale last year, but I hope it has a good rollover [effect] for a good start to this season," Kang told the media last week. "I've always told myself that good golf will take care of everything and I can't look too far ahead."
Cheyenne Knight was a surprise American winner in 2019 with her victory at the Volunteers of America Classic in Texas. The rookie missed nine tournament cuts and her only top-10 finish all season was her win, but that win kept her from returning to qualifying school and pushed her to 80th in the world rankings.
Cydney Clanton also shared a team victory with Thailand's Jasmine Suwannapura, a previous tour winner, at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, rising to her current world ranking of No. 219. Clanton also missed two cuts in 12 tournaments and, like Knight, had only one top-10 finish with her win.
Rookie Kristen Gillman showed some flashes of what made her a two-time All-American at Alabama and a two-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion prior to turning professional. Currently ranked No. 45, she recorded four top 10s with a tie for sixth at the ANA Inspiration and a season-best tie for third at the Buick LPGA Shanghai in spite of five missed cuts in 26 events.
Jennifer Kupcho, who deferred her LPGA membership to graduate from Wake Forest last spring, tore into her rookie LPGA season in 2019, posting a season-best tie for second at the Evian Championship and a tie for fourth at the TOTO Japan Classic. The 2018 individual NCAA Division I champion is currently ranked No. 51.
And while youthful American talent will be fun to follow in 2020, watch for tour veterans and new moms Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Lewis and Gerina Piller in their return from maternity leave. Lincicome will return to action this week.
California's Lizette Salas is also itching to add a second tournament win since her inaugural victory at the 2014 Kingsmill Championship. Ranked No. 19, Salas recorded three top-10s in 2019, including a tie for fifth at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship and a runner-up finish at the AIG Women's British Open.
Jutanugarns hope to get back on track
It's hard to believe, but neither Ariya nor Moriya Jutanugarn recorded a victory in 2019, a far cry from 2018, when then top-ranked Ariya won just about every LPGA honor she could grab and posted three wins and 17 top-10 finishes.
The sisters from Thailand contended individually a few times last season -- even pairing up to tie for third in the inaugural Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational team event -- but they fell short of winning.
Ariya posted 10 top-10s in 2019, with one runner-up finish and solid performance in the majors, finishing fifth at the Evian Championship and tying for 10th at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship. The 10-time career winner finished 2019 ranked first in birdies (418), eagles (23), sub-par holes (441) and total rounds played (111) in 29 events.
But even as a statistical tour leader, Ariya finished 11th in scoring average (70.00), ninth in putting average (29.29 putts per round) and 48th in greens in regulation (70.6 percent). The LPGA's career two-time player of the year and two-time season money winner struggled on the greens -- something she will have to rectify this season to climb back into top form.
Older sister Moriya recorded seven top-10s in 2019, including her season-best runner-up finish at the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open and her best 2019 finish at a major with a tie for sixth at the Evian Championship.
Moriya cracked the LPGA's top 10 statistically at No. 5 in season birdies (383) and No. 7 in sub-par holes (390). She finished second to her sister in total rounds played (106) in 29 events.
Moriya also tied for fourth at the 2019 Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions. The sisters will have a chance to improve on that this week, as both are in the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions field.
Never, ever count out the Queen Bee
Hall of Famer Inbee Park has made a rather substantial career of quietly making putts when she needed and winning tournaments with her steady style of play.
It's a mistake to count out this 13-year LPGA veteran, as Park has proven with 19 career wins, including seven major championships. Starting this week, she will be looking for her 20th tour victory and 100th career top-10 finish. She also would like to bust out of her No. 4 spot in LPGA career earnings at $15,356,126.
And while Park's last win came at the 2018 Bank of Hope Founders Cup, she recorded six top-10s last year, including two runner-up finishes. Park hopes to round off some career stats and again show why her record boasts three Vare Trophies, three money-winner titles, one Rolex Player of the Year award (2013), one Rolex ANNIKA Major Award and one Olympic gold medal (2016) that came during a season that sidelined her with a thumb injury for most of the year.
If Park is healthy and her trademark can't-miss putting is on target once again, the World Golf Hall of Famer will be in the hunt for more wins in 2020.
Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.