LPGA's major at Rancho Mirage returns, with new name — ANA Inspiration

ANA Inspiration, new name for LPGA major at Rancho Mirage, returns with defending champ Lexi Thompson

Until about five months ago, no one on the LPGA Tour was certain whether there would be five major tournaments, as usual, or four.

Since 1983, Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage has hosted the first major of the year. But in 2014, Kraft Foods ended its sponsorship of the tournament, leaving its financial future in doubt.

Players began hearing rumors.

"We had heard it was going to be the last year," Michelle Wie, last year's runner-up, told reporters Tuesday. "There is always uncertainty. You never know what might happen. There might be a one-year lull in it."

Without a sponsor for the event, Mike Whan, the LPGA commissioner, scrambled. He projected confidence, but said he knew the situation was dire.

"I probably have told the players a hundred times we're not going to lose this event," Whan said. "But players know how this process goes. There wasn't a name on top of the event, and that is difficult. Somebody's got to pay the bills. We were prepared to continue playing if we didn't have a title sponsor, but that's a formula that couldn't last forever. I don't have those kinds of resources to be able to do that forever."

Then, in November, there came news. The tournament was safe until at least 2019 after the LPGA partnered with the Japanese airline All Nippon Airways. The tournament, which begins Thursday, has a new name, the ANA Inspiration.

The purse, which will increase from $2 million to $2.5 million, is still the smallest among the five majors. But traditions that come with the long-running tournament will continue.

The winner will still jump into Poppie's Pond, near the 18th hole. Afterward, she will still be presented with a robe.

Last year, Lexi Thompson made the jump. She was just 19 at the time, which made her the second-youngest winner of a major. This year, she'll try to become the second person to defend her win in this major tournament. Annika Sorenstam won in 2001 and '02.

Wie, one of the sport's biggest names, was tied for the lead with Thompson after three rounds last year but finished three strokes behind.

"I was heartbroken afterwards," Wie said. "But at the same time, I played as hard as I could. Lexi played so great last year."

Thompson finished tied for 10th at the Kia Classic last week, but the favorite this year is probably Lydia Ko, who tops the golf rankings.

Ko, who finished third at the Kia Classic, has shot 28 consecutive rounds under par.

"There is not a weakness in her game," Thompson said. "She's very straight off the tee and has a great short game. You can't ask for anything better than that."

Ko, who is 17, has won 10 pro events worldwide, but her best finish in a major was second place in the 2013 Evian Championship. Three of the last four winners of the Rancho Mirage event have been first-time major winners.

The No. 2-ranked player, Inbee Park, can overtake Ko in the rankings if Park wins and Ko finishes third or lower or in a five-way tie for second.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
45°