The 34th edition of the ANA Inspiration – the renamed first major championship of the golf season – starts Thursday at the Mission Hills Country Club’s Tournament Course. Recent winners have included most of the top women in the game – Lexi Thompson (2014), Inbee Park (2013), and Stacy Lewis (2011). Notably, however, current women’s #1 Lydia Ko has stumbled to finishes of T25, T29, and T51 in her first three trips to the event.
Lydia Ko is the betting favorite at 4/1 and after answering questions about her ability to win majors by edging out Lexi Thompson at the Evian Masters last year there shouldn’t be any questions about her holding that spot this week. As a bonus, she enters off a four stroke win at the Kia Classic last week.
Right now the gap between Ko and the rest of the field is immense. By my predictive ratings, Ko has never enjoyed the advantage (0.76 strokes per round) that she enjoys right now over the 2nd ranked Inbee Park. Since a four tournament cold spell last spring, Ko has played dominant golf, beating the LPGA field by over 3.5 strokes per round (about the level of peak Tiger Woods). While she hasn’t reached Tiger’s level of dominance over the long haul, Ko is the clear favorite this week despite the lack of results here.
The next favorites are veterans and winners of this event: Inbee Park (8/1) and Stacy Lewis (11/1). Park has dealt with injuries this spring, but may have found some form at the last moment – finishing runner-up to Ko at the Kia Classic this week. Her game was good enough to win five titles last year including a 1st-T3-1st run at the Women’s PGA, Women’s US Open, and Women’s British Open last summer.
The big story with Lewis has to be her continued quest to finally win another tournament. Despite ranking as one of the three best in the game, her last win was in June of 2014. Over that period she’s finished second nine times – a streak that puts Henrik Stenson’s winning woes to shame. Lewis’s problem has been not generating the kind of truly elite events that win tournaments. She had four events where she’s gained around 4.0 strokes per round on the field just since last summer, but none at the 4.5 strokes per round level that wins the average LPGA Tour event. We know she’s capable of that level though as she hit 4.5 strokes per round or better in five events in 2014.
Big hitters Lexi Thompson and Sei-young Kim sit next in the odds sheet. Both have massive wins on the year; Lexi in Thailand by six strokes and Kim at the Founders Cup in Arizona by five. Lexi won here in 2014 and Kim led for two rounds last year before fading with a final round 75.
Sung Hyun Park is one to watch after last week. Park is young Korean woman who has played great golf in all three LPGA starts in the last year. She has shown well on the Korean LPGA (the second best women’s tour and a steady source of top golfers) in recent years, finishing between a pair of major championship winners (Hyo-Joo Kim and In Gee Chun) in scoring average in 2013 and 2014 before winning four times in 2015. Park has delayed her arrival on the LPGA full-time, but may have to accelerate her time table with a high finish this week.
Further down the odds sheet, my numbers love the consistent recent play of Minjee Lee. Lee showed great length off the tee last year, winning once and finishing in the top 20 on the money list as a rookie.
Here are scoring average leaders (adjusted for the field) since the start of 2016 (LPGA rounds only)
Ha Na Jang’s run to start the year has her as high as #3 in my predictive ratings (though she would be dragged down slightly based on a so-so 2014 season on the Korean LPGA Tour).
Historical Performance at Mission Hills
And these are the historical scoring averages versus expectations (so performance compared to a weighted scoring average in the events leading up to each season’s event).
Pettersen is a two time major champion and has five top fives in ten trips to this event. Her and Anna Nordqvist stand out as top golfers here who haven’t won.