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‘This year has been a gift’

NAPLES, Fla. – Inbee Park, the only LPGA Hall of Famer currently playing full-time on tour, has the chance to become the 2020 LPGA Rolex Player of the Year. She currently leads the points list by six. The seven-time major winner who has won everything there is to win on this tour, said it would be a nice “souvenir.” Needless to say, she’s not getting too worked up about it.

“This year has been a gift,” said Park. “I’m just happy that we got to play.”

There’s $1.1 million on the line for the winner at the CME Group Tour Championship. That’s life-changing money for most in the field. There will be nerves and desire, but the overwhelming feeling is one of gratefulness.

Not just for a Christmastime finale that offers a no-cut $3 million purse, but for the fact that they’ll get 18 tournaments in this season, including four majors.

“It looked pretty bleak there kind of (in) April, May, tournaments getting canceled,” said Stacy Lewis, “and we just kept getting pushed back, pushed back. Really to play all that we have, and to have enough that we’re giving away Player of the Year, and we’re having year-end awards – it’s a great thing.”

Only three players have a chance at the POY award: Inbee Park (112), Sei Young Kim (106) and Danielle Kang (87). Kang needs to win to have a chance; Kim must finish at least in the top five.

Kim and Kang are the only two-time winners this season. Kim has won two of her last three events, including the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Park won her only title, the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, all the way back in February and has seven additional top-seven finishes, including three runner-up showings. Park also leads the money list with $1,365,138.

LPGA: CME Group Tour Championship Pro-Am
LPGA: CME Group Tour Championship Pro-Am

Danielle Kang at the 2020 CME Group Tour Championship Pro-Am at the Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida. Photo by Chris Tilly/USA TODAY Sports

Kang came out of the LPGA’s 166-day COVID-19 break as the hottest player on tour, winning the first two tournaments back in Toledo, Ohio.

“This year has been a lot of ups and downs for me personally,” said Kang, “because even playing well comes with consequences, whether it’s pressure of wanting to be the Player of the Year or not playing well and losing the Player of the Year and then playing well just in the reach of being world No. 1, yet dropping again.

“That’s part of it, though, and I think whether I do it or not, I’m OK with having the opportunity to have almost done it. Because I don’t think it’s just going to be once or twice that you have to have the opportunity. … It’s more so giving yourself the constant opportunity to be able to reach that goal.”

That perspective came courtesy of Kang’s biggest opponent this week, Park, who Kang considers calls a mentor.

While Park feels like she’s never been able to conquer the greens at Tiburon Golf Club, Kang carries a tremendous amount of confidence here, saying she tends to get greedy.

“I just get really excited to play this event,” said Kang, “and I even said to people that I took seven weeks off before U.S. Open.

“U.S. Open is great, but I wanted it to be kind of a steppingstone for this week. I know the golf course pretty well. I know how the greens break. There are some par-3s that I have made doubles out here with 8-irons because I got so cocky on the tee box and thinking I could hit it to 5 feet. Just going to go to the middle of the green now. So I think just going to be smarter and I think I should be able to contend.”

Kang actually leads the Vare Trophy race even though she ranks fifth in scoring (69.978). The CME is a no-cut event and Kang must complete at least three rounds to meet the minimum number of rounds needed to be eligible (70 percent of official tournament rounds or 48).

Moriya Jutanugarn must be least 24 strokes better than Kang this week to claim the Vare.

Kim actually leads the tour in scoring 68.677, but the CME is her ninth event of the season. She wouldn’t be the first player to lead the tour in scoring and not win the Vare Trophy, joining the likes of Annika Sorenstam (2003, 2004), Laura Davies (1996) and Nancy Lopez (1993).

No one carries better vibes about this place than Kim, who sank a 25-foot putt on the 72nd hole in 2019 to clinch the largest check in women’s golf history – $1.5 million.

“That moment very special,” said Kim.

Park didn’t even know she was in contention for POY until her parents mentioned it a few weeks ago. Of those in the mix for year-end awards, Park is the only one who already has them all in her cabinet and she’s playing it cool.

At this point – in this year ­­– everything feels like a bonus.

Greg Hardwig of the Naples Daily News contributed to this article.

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