ORLANDO, Fla. — The LPGA’s 75th season kicked off Thursday with the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, where champions from the past two seasons played alongside celebrities in a fusion of talent and fun.
The 35-player field at this year’s TOC includes 12 first-time participants, including World No. 1 Lilia Vu. Japan’s Ayaka Furue holds a two-stroke lead in the LPGA division after a record day, while LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam leads the celebrities on her home course, Lake Nona Golf and Country Club.
After a shorter than usual offseason for most of the field, here are five takeaways from the LPGA kickoff:
Rose Zhang's devastating loss
Rose Zhang revealed a midseason snafu last year that helped explain why her momentum slowed down after four top-10 finishes in her first five starts as a professional, including a victory. Simply put: Her dad left her putter on a train in London. It didn’t have her name on it, though there was an Evian head cover on it.
“From then on, even at AIG (Women’s British Open), I could not putt because the specs were wrong, the putter was an inch shorter, wrong shaft. Every weight was wrong. So I just didn’t know where the putter was going to go,” said Zhang.
“Throughout the season obviously everyone is talking about my putting, how it low-key deteriorated. And it was because it was hard for me to visualize the putts going in again.”
At the Grant Thornton Invitational, where she finally had a replica of the putter she’d used for two years to basically win everything in amateur golf, she noticed – after the round – that the face had been altered during travel.
An exasperated Zhang said she couldn’t look at that Odyssey O-Works putter again and decided to go in a difference direction.
“We’re slowly getting there,” said Zhang, who opened with a 3-under 69. “I’m very grateful for the experience. It just reminds me to check, check, check.”
Gaby Lopez's epic offseason adventures
Gaby Lopez birdied the first four holes of the 2024 season, perhaps an extension of the cloud she resided on throughout much of the offseason. The Mexican player married Santiago Carranza on Dec. 16 in front of 500 of her closest friends and family and then headed on a three-week honeymoon that stretched from Africa to Spain to Mexico.
Lopez, who trails Furue by two after a sparkling 67, took in the pyramids of Egypt, went on safari in Tanzania and enjoyed good wine and jamón in Spain. They ended the trip with a stay at Punta Mita in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where she got to work with intense training for the season.
Her a favorite adventure?
“I’m going to say safari is just a different planet,” said Lopez. “Just seeing the behavior of the animals in the wild, the pure behaviors, I think that was spectacular.”
Furue's fabulous start
Ayaka Furue’s 7-under 65 is a tournament record at Lake Nona. The Japanese star hit 14 fairways and 17 greens in her bogey-free opener.
“All of my play today, that was really fantastic for me,” said Furue, who won the 2022 Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open as a tour rookie to qualify for this event. She tied for 18th at the TOC last year.
The 23-year-old Furue owns eight titles on the JLPGA.
Dreyer's marquee return
One of the most popular celebrities in the field at the TOC is “Today” show co-host and meteorologist Dylan Dreyer. The mother of three young boys made her debut in the event last year and hoped she’d be less nervous the second time around, but that didn’t happen.
Dreyer, who began the day with a hit on “Today,” played alongside 2023 champion Brooke Henderson and two-time celebrity champion John Smoltz in the opening round.
“When I saw it I thought this must be an error of some kind,” Dreyer said laughing. “There’s no reason I should be playing with this caliber of golfer. But it’s just so much fun to be back.”
Between the frigid New York City weather and three boys under the age of 7, practice isn’t usually on her to-do list ahead of the TOC. Dreyer said she has to remind herself that no one really cares how she plays at these events.
“It’s funny, when I’m on the “Today” show, I’m very open, I speak my mind, I say what I want to say,” said Dreyer, “and I need to transition that to the golf course and just be me. Here’s my game, here’s what it is and not get myself down on it.”
Sorenstam, a 72-time winner on the LPGA and resident of Lake Nona, holds a two-point lead in the celebrity division after an opening 68. Sorenstam accumulated 40 points in the Modified Stableford format and is two points ahead of MLB All-Star Jeff McNeil.
“Yeah, no, I’m super pleased with my round,” said Sorenstam. “Thought I hit the ball very well. Putted well, too. Just it’s not that often nowadays that I have a round that I feel like I really made the most out of it.”
Two years ago, Sorenstam lost in a playoff at this event against Derek Lowe. She has yet to win the TOC – as a celebrity.
“I think in the press conference here I said I play OK, and then it’s always a few holes and few shots and I kind of throw it away,” she said.
“I never used to do that but I do that nowadays. Today, I didn’t. It’s like, well, this is fun again. I go back and forth. How much am I going to play. You have one round, this is exciting. Next day it’s back to earth again.”