MIAMI: Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn plans on having fun this season even with greater expectations upon her as the LPGA Tour opens its 2017 campaign Thursday (Friday in Manila) at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic.
The event on Paradise Island launches a year of 34 LPGA tournaments plus the Solheim Cup with a record total purse of $67.35 million, $4.35 million more than last year.
Second-ranked Ariya had a spectacular 2016 season that caught fire after she squandered a two-shot lead with bogeys on her last three holes to lose the first major of the year to top-ranked Lydia Ko of New Zealand.
But the Thai star rebounded by winning three consecutive tournaments in May, adding her first major at the Women’s British Open in July and following that by taking the Canadian Women’s Open.
Her share of fourth at the Tour Championship was enough for her to clinch the LPGA Player of the Year award, the money title with $2.55 million and a $1 million bonus for winning the season-ending Race to the Globe — setting a high bar to try and match in 2017.
“I know there will be more pressure for me. There are more expectations,” Ariya told USA Today. “But I will try and not think about the outcome. This year I’m going to try and have more fun. It’s going to be harder for me to have fun because of the expectations, but I will make sure I have more fun.”
Ariya is the field’s top-ranked player with Ko skipping the event. Also in the Bahamas will be world number five Lexi Thompson of the United States and eighth-ranked Brooke Henderson of Canada. None have ever won the Bahamas event, Ariya coming closest with a playoff loss as a rookie in 2015.
South Korea’s Kim Hyo-Joo is the defending champion, but has slid from fourth in the rankings a year ago when she won her third career LPGA crown to 25th as the year opens.
There will be 13 LPGA rookies making their tour debuts this week, including Nelly Korda, the younger sister of Jessica Korda, the 2014 Bahamas winner who tweeted, “We’re super excited” about the siblings both playing on the circuit.
They are both daughters of retired pro tennis standouts Petr Korda and Regina Rejchrtova.
Iceland’s Olafia Kristinsdottir will become the first LPGA player from her homeland while England’s Mel Reid is a member this season after past turns at the Solheim Cup and International Crown events.