RANCHO MIRAGE, California (AFP) ― World No. 1 Park In-bee returns for the first of her three major title defenses this season, seeking a first victory this year at the LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship.
After her stunning 2013 campaign, Park has yet to win on the LPGA Tour in 2014, but she has posted four successive top-10 finishes and won a Ladies European Tour title at the World Ladies Championship in China in March.
Although she hasn’t broken through for an LPGA win so far this year, the 25-year-old South Korean leads the tour in scoring average (69.25), rounds under par (14) and rounds in the 60s (8).
Park will be trying to become the first player since Swedish great Annika Sorenstam in 2001 and 2002 to earn back-to-back Kraft Nabisco titles.
|Korea’s Park In-bee plays a shot during a practice round ahead of the LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship on Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap)|
She captured the second major title of her career here last year with a final-round 69 on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club that gave her a four-stroke triumph over compatriot Ryu So-yeon.
It proved to be the springboard to a spectacular 2013. Her six victories included the first three majors of the season. Although she couldn’t keep it going at the fourth, the Women’s British Open, Park’s string of top 10s seems to signal a return to the consistency that pushed her to the top of the world rankings.
Another past champion who arrives at Rancho Mirage in the California desert near Palm Springs enjoying an impressive season includes Australian Hall of Famer Karrie Webb.
Webb, the 2000 and 2006 champion, goes into the year’s first major after victories at the Women’s Australian Open and the Founders Cup in Phoenix.
Webb, 39, has played in the Kraft Nabisco 19 times and finished in the top 20 all but three times.
World No. 2 Suzann Pettersen of Norway is a notable absentee. She withdrew on Tuesday with a back injury.
“It’s so unfortunate that I can’t compete this week,” Pettersen said.
“I dearly love this event and would do anything to play. At this point, I just need to be smart and not make a bad situation worse.”
World No. 3 Stacy Lewis of the United States is a likely contender.
The 29-year-old won this title in 2011 for her first official LPGA trophy.
She added a second major at the Women’s British Open last year, and has posted top-10 finishes in 16 of her last 17 events.
Lewis said all of her early season efforts are directed toward the first major of the year.
“Really over the last couple months, all of my work has gone into this week, having everything sharp,” she said.
“A major obviously tests a little bit of everything. Early in the season I wasn’t hitting the ball the way I wanted to. I didn’t have the height on my shots I normally have. That’s something you need on this golf course.”
Lewis has also been working on her putting, which she said had let her down this year.
“I feel like I’m really getting a lot more comfortable with it,” she said.
Anna Nordqvist warmed up for the event with a second LPGA title of the year in the Kia Classic on Sunday. In addition to that confidence-boosting victory in Carlsbad, California, the Swede has three top-10 finishes in her last four visits to Mission Hills to draw on.