The first-ever LPGA tournament was the Tampa Open in January 1950.
The last time the Tour played in the Tampa Bay area was 1989 for the St. Petersburg Women’s Open.
This week, the Tour returns for the Pelican Women’s Championship presented by DEX Imaging & Konica Minolta at Pelican Golf Club in Belleair. It’s a wonderful welcome home.
The 2020 LPGA season began in Florida at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions Presented by IOA at Lake Buena Vista way back in January with Gaby Lopez of Mexico needing seven playoff holes to hold off Nasa Hataoka of Japan. Soon after, Covid-19 got in the way and now January feels like it was years ago.
Like many things, the Pelican was put on hold, pushed back from its original date in May. And, appropriately, the area where the Tour started 70 years ago will be where the No. 1 player in the Rolex Rankings, Jin Young Ko, makes her 2020 LPGA debut after remaining in South Korea during the pandemic.
“I think it’s important for not only the area, but women’s golf and women’s sports in general, given everything that’s going on,” Scott Reid, the tournament’s executive director, told the Tampa Bay Times about rescheduling the event.
“I think it’s going to be wonderful for the community here that’s hosting it, in addition to the greater Tampa area and really the whole state of Florida,” Reid said.
Once again, there will be no spectators.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming fans back next year, hopefully,” Reid said, “and building this event on something that will stay here for a long time.”
The field is loaded as players position themselves for the homestretch of a very demanding season. Eight of the top 10 in the Rolex Rankings will be at Pelican, including Ko, Sei Young Kim, Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang, Hataoka, Brooke Henderson, Minjee Lee and Sung Hyun Park.
Two of the three major champions from this year – Sophia Popov at the AIG Women’s Open and Kim at the KPMG Women’s PGA – are also in the field. Lopez will also be on hand, along with Maria Fassi, who is also from Mexico, as they look to ride a little Masters mojo.
The Tour was off last week but that didn’t stop an LPGA legend from getting a little love at Augusta National where Abraham Ancer of Mexico was in the final group on Sunday at the Masters. Ancer was not shy about telling anyone who asked that one of his inspirations as a kid was LPGA legend Lorena Ochoa, the most successful professional golfer from Mexico.
“Lorena Ochoa motivated me to get here,” Ancer said at the Masters, where the leaderboard on the weekend was proof of the changing nature of the game with 10 countries among the top-13 going into the final round.
“It opened my eyes and showed me that we can,” Ancer said. “Golf is growing in [Mexico], but we need to work harder to generate more players in the future,” Ancer said. “Lorena Ochoa was an amazing thing for us and she inspired many like myself to know a Mexican can be the world No. 1. I hope I can do something similar.”
Ochoa, who retired at the age of 28 – the same age Augusta National and Masters founder Bobby Jones stopped competing – won 27 times on the LPGA Tour, including the 2007 AIG Women’s Open, the first time women professionals competed on The Old Course at St. Andrews, and the 2008 ANA Inspiration.
Ancer was born in McAllen, Texas, and his family moved back to Mexico when he was young. Then, recognizing his son’s interest in golf, Abraham Ancer Sr. moved the family back to McAllen for his son’s high school years. After high school, he went to Odessa Junior College and then to the University of Oklahoma. A dual citizen, Ancer represents Mexico.
“I’m from a Mexican family, I was raised in Mexico and I’ve always considered myself to be Mexican,” he said. “I’m obviously very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in the United States, but I feel Mexican.”
The impact Ochoa had on golf was enormous. When she played in places like Phoenix or Palm Springs – where many of the golf course workers are Mexican-America – she’d go to the maintenance facilities early in the week and thank the workers for their efforts and for how well they represent their homeland.
When Ochoa first started playing the LPGA event in Phoenix, the workers would follow her on Sunday – their day off. After several years, hundreds of Mexican-Americans from the community – many of whom knew nothing about golf – would come out to watch Ochoa play because she was from their homeland.
Golf has an amazing way of tearing down borders and uniting people from diverse backgrounds. And it has a way of pulling people together even in a time when a terrible virus is keeping them apart.
This week, that international community gets together again, this time at the Pelican Women’s Championship presented by DEX Imaging & Konica Minolta. The LPGA is back where it started the season – in Florida. It’s back in the Tampa area, where the LPGA started 70 years ago. Something about all that just feels right.