Lynne Sladky / AP, file
Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023 | 9:49 p.m.
ORLANDO, Fla. — A year ago, it took mental toughness for Danielle Kang to get across the finish line to win the LPGA’s season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.
The conditions were unseasonably cold and breezy, and Kang was ready for everything that came her way. Mental toughness would come in handy later in her season, too, as Kang dealt with a spine on her tumor that kept her out of golf for three months.
Likewise, Nelly Korda experienced a 2022 season that at times featured golf in her life and at times did not. Korda, who started last year at No. 1 in the women’s world ranking, had surgery to alleviate a blood clot in a subclavian vein that formed in her left arm.
Coming off a monster 2021 season — four victories, her first major, the No. 1 ranking and an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo — the 24-year-old American spent four months on the sideline early in 2022. She returned in June, struggling to find a rhythm before winning the Pelican Women’s Championship in November an hour up the road from her home in Bradenton.
Kang and Korda are looking for fresh beginnings and good health as the 2023 season starts anew at Lake Nona on a well-manicured golf course in a rare format.
The 29 LPGA players in the field, all tournament winners from the past two seasons, will play for a purse of $1.5 million in this no-cut 72-hole event. The pros are joined by 56 celebrities and athletes from other sports who compete for their own purse of $500,000.
That leads to a first-round grouping on Thursday featuring LPGA player Marina Alex, former NFL receiver Victor Cruz and Larry the Cable Guy. Former MLB pitcher Derek Lowe won the celebrity division in 2022, defeating Lake Nona resident Annika Sorenstam (competing as a celebrity) in a playoff.
Kang said Wednesday that thinking back to her 2022 TOC victory leads her to reflect more on her disappointing 2021 season — she went winless — than looking to what was ahead of her, when a tumor was detected on her spine. It led her on an emotional journey and inspired her to do some things in the offseason that took her away from golf. She went on safari in Kenya, finding the awe upon being charged by a rhino.
“Where I’m at is I just don’t want to be known as a player that’s injured or was injured, so I kind of want to move forward with it,” said Kang, 30, a six-time winner on the LPGA. “I feel good. I’ve hit low points. I don’t think we … this isn’t a therapy session, so I’m not going to go right into that.
“I feel good. I learned a lot of things. I think only people that struggle in whatever it is, it’s all relative. You just got to find out why you’re going through what you’re going through. All I can tell people is they can make it out and figure it out and use it to their advantage.”
Korda, who also owns a victory at Lake Nona (2021 Gainbridge LPGA), played late into the year and did not have much of an offseason. She took only one week off from playing and one week off from the gym. Korda said fitness will be a big focus for her this season, wanting to avoid the fatigue and burnout that can accompany a long season.
In addition to playing the QBE Shootout in Naples as one of two women in the field and the PNC Championship with her father, Petr Korda, she spent her time “off” testing new equipment. She signed a deal with TaylorMade. She also signed a deal making her a Nike athlete, wearing the company’s clothes, which fulfills a childhood dream of hers.
Korda played three events in Florida to start 2022, then did not play again until the U.S. Women’s Open in early June. The time away made her think about how fortunate she is to do what she does for a living, and how much she truly enjoys it.
“I think I was just a little bit more grateful to be playing, to be traveling, to be doing what I love,” said Korda, at No. 2 the highest-ranked player at Lake Nona.
“Obviously, appreciation grows when it’s taken away from you in that sense, so for sure I think I’ve just grown to appreciate it a little bit more,” she said. “Just simple things of getting to go on the range, and hit some balls, hit some putts and traveling.”
And, of course, get back to winning.