76ºF

Mission Hills familiar place in an familiar spot on schedule

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – From the backdrop of the Santa Rosa Mountains to the top of 50-foot palms waving gently in the wind, Mission Hills looks like it does every spring when it hosts the best women in the world for the first major of the LPGA Tour season.

Except this is September.

A slight break in the heat means it will be only in the low 100s for the ANA Inspiration, enough for the LPGA to take the extraordinary precaution of allowing caddies to ride in carts. The first major was last month at Royal Troon for the Women’s British Open. And the best in the world? Not all of them are here.

That starts with Jin Young Ko, the defending champion and No. 1 player in women’s golf. She headed home to South Korea when the COVID-19 pandemic brought a halt to golf in March, and she has stayed there. Ko is among seven players from the top 20 in the world — six from South Korea, one from Japan — who didn’t come over.

Ko, who has played three times on the Korean LPGA this year, likely won’t see an LPGA event his year.

“It’s a little strange, but with COVID, everything is strange this year, right?” Stacy Lewis said Wednesday. “The way the fields are set, the time of the year that we’re playing, who is here and who is not here. I mean, if I lived in Korea and I could go play every single week and not have to travel, I wouldn’t come over her and play, either.”

Even without spectators, being at Mission Hills brings some degree of normalcy, at least until they get on the course.

Without grandstands, especially the ones framing what effectively is an island for the 18th green, the sight lines are different. The biggest change is the Bermuda grass in the summer, punishing in the rough and lush on the fairways that limit some of the roll on tee shots.

Lewis has seen this before in entirely different circumstances. She played Q-school here more than a decade ago and realizes adjustments are required for chipping. The fairways are lush enough to keep slightly errant shots from running into the rough. And the rough off the fairway is far more difficult.

“You’re going to see a lot of players be 2 and 3 feet from their ball and looking for it, versus April you can kind of get some lies that it sits up and you can get it out of there,” she said. “But there’s places here if you hit it in the rough you’re going to be chipping out and trying to get up-and-down for par. But again, that’s what a major should be.”

Only four players finished under par in the first major last month at Royal Troon, with Sophia Popov of Germany winning at 7 under. She is not in the field because the ANA Inspiration was supposed to be played in early April and the field was set, similar to the circumstances of the Masters in men’s golf.

The ANA Inspiration presents an opportunity for Nelly Korda, who reached No. 2 in the world after last year, to pick up her first major. Danielle Kang, who won in back-to-back weeks when the LPGA Tour resumed after a five-month shutdown, is now No. 2 and looking for her second major

Kang has experience on Mission Hills that dates to her junior days, including one she thought she was going to win.

“There was a whole jumping in the Poppie’s Pond thing during that event, and I ended up three-putting and lost in a playoff,” she said. “They wanted to actually throw me in the lake regardless. And I said, ‘No, maybe that opportunity will come one day.’ That’s something I remember about this place.”

Given the heat, a chance to take a splash might be more motivating than ever.

The road to Rancho Mirage also is different. Instead of going from Phoenix to San Diego to the first major of the year, the women were in Scotland for two weeks, straight to Arkansas and then a week off before the ANA Inspiration.

This marks a start for Sung Hyun Park, who ended last year at No. 2 before going home to let an injury to her left shoulder heal. Park, like Ko, also missed the Women’s British Open. This is her first LPGA event since November, and only her second event this year — she played once on the Korean LPGA. Expectations are not high.

“I think I’m more nervous than excited to be back,” Park said. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a competitive environment, and I’ve got to keep that in mind playing while the four rounds this week. ... I just hope to kind of get some momentum. There aren’t that many tournaments this year, but I do hope to win at some point and finish the year on a high note.”