PHF: Storylines that set the stage for 2022-23 hockey season

PHF player and Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey celebrates with teammates after scoring during the Isobel Cup playoffs
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), previously known as the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), had a busy offseason filled with signings, expansion, and new hires coming aboard. Here are a few of the biggest storylines that set the stage heading into the 2022-23 PHF season, the eighth in league history.

Some PHF players able to focus on hockey full-time thanks to higher salaries 

PHF players will benefit from higher salaries this season, the result of a $25 million, three-year commitment from the league’s Board of Governors, which was announced in January. In addition, this season marks the first time players will receive full health care benefits.

While each PHF team is allowed to have 25 players on a roster, most teams are closer to the league minimum of 20, which comes out to an average of $37,500 per player (assuming each team is spending to the cap limit).

Buffalo Beauts defender Dominique Kremer, who has the highest officially disclosed salary ($65,000) of any PHF player, said the impact of that salary cap boost has been huge.

“Just the difference in how we trained this past summer was exponential,” said Kremer, a Merrimack College grad who enters her third season with the Beauts.

“In the past, I was working an 8-to-5 job, coming home and working out… my mom would make me dinner so I didn’t have to cook. And I would go to bed and do it all over again the next day. So this was the first summer where I could completely dedicate everything I did to hockey and I think — I hope — it’s reflected in my play.”

“The salary cap increasing is very exciting because it’s allowed more opportunities for players,” said Boston Pride captain Jillian Dempsey, who has played in the NWHL/PHF since the league launched in 2015. “And with that extra compensation and extra training obviously (brings) in some players who are going to have those increased opportunities that I think we’ve all been working towards.”

That said, many PHF players still won’t be paid enough this season to focus on hockey full-time, at least not without some other financial safety net.

The PHF confirmed that it will impose an individual salary minimum ($13,500) as well as a $562,500 salary cap minimum for each team (75 percent of the $750,000 team cap). Still, that doesn’t cover PHF practice players, who make $150 week, do not receive benefits, and are required to sign a liability waiver, according to the league’s bylaws.

PHF expands to seven teams with addition of Montreal Force

The Montreal Force joins the PHF as the league’s seventh team. While a Montreal PHF/NWHL team has long been rumored – dating back to the league’s inaugural season – the team was made official over the summer.

Montreal’s roster is captained by Ann-Sophie Bettez, who previously played with the CWHL’s Montreal team(2012-2019) before joining the PWHPA when that league folded. On making the jump to the PHF and the Montreal Force, the 35-year-old Bettez said it was the right choice for her at this moment in time.

“I’ll put it this way: it’s a selfish decision. It’s where I am in my life, this is what fit for me,” she explained. “I don’t want to compare the association (PWHPA) with the league (PHF). … For me, the opportunity of having a franchise in Montreal, it was the right fit for me to be part of a team and work towards a common goal. This is what I have been lacking in the last few years and that’s what I wanted to do. So I didn’t have any resistance (from the PWHPA) whatsoever.”

While the Montreal Force will train at Centre 21.02 in Verdun, the team’s home games will be played across the province of Quebec.

“When you look at our schedule, you realize that we play 23 out of 24 regular season games on the road, if you will,” said Montreal Force head coach Peter Smith.

“There’s two sides to that. For a first-year team, I think it’s a really good opportunity to spread the word across the province. … The downside is that we’re on the road 23 out of 24 games.”

The team’s furthest “home” game will be played in Sept-Îles, Quebec — a 10-plus hour drive (or one-and-a-half hour flight from Montreal) — and the hometown of Bettez.

“Even the traveling will be good team bonding,” said Bettez. “Every time we go away on the road, it will be a chance for us to get to know each other even more.”

Team ownership further complicated after Toronto Six sale fizzles

The PHF made headlines last spring when it announced that a BIPOC-led group including Anthony Stewart, Angela James, Bernice Carnegie, and Ted Nolan had purchased the Toronto Six, but that deal quietly fell through over the summer.

The PHF finally confirmed this detail last month when it announced Sami Jo Small had been hired as Toronto Six President. According to the PHF release, the Toronto Six will continue to be owned by BTM Partners, while the new BIPOC-led ownership group will hold a minority stake in the franchise. The league’s release did not mention whether the four new owners announced in March — Stewart, James, Carnegie, and Nolan — were still involved. On Her Turf reached out to the league for clarification in September and was told that the team is “planning a separate announcement that relates specifically to ownership in the coming weeks.”

With the news of the Toronto deal falling through and the addition of the Montreal team, BTM Partners now owns four of seven PHF teams (Montreal and Toronto, plus the Boston Pride and Metropolitan Riveters).

While the PHF has said that the long-term goal is for every team to be owned by a separate group, in the interim, the current ownership structure has the potential to create actual and perceived conflicts of interests, especially now that the group holds the majority of seats on the Board of Governors.

The dynamic is also complicated by the fact that BTM Partners is led by John Boyntonwho is also chairman of Yandex, Russia’s largest tech company. Yandex has played a role in suppressing factual information and promoting propaganda related to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine (more here).

Influx of European hockey players join PHF

Thanks in large part to the increased salary cap, the PHF has seen an increase in the number of European players signing with teams. (Due to visa rules, it is difficult for players to work additional jobs if they are on a visa to play hockey.)

Just under 15 percent players in the PHF this season hail from outside of the United States and Canada, up from about six percent last year.

“I’m just looking forward to the whole experience and to play on such a high level,” said Hungary’s Reka Dabasi, who signed with the Metropolitan Riveters after team president Digit Murphy reached out to her over the summer.

“You can see the improvement of the league, year-by-year… It’s nice to see that we have the chance to play professionally,” Dabasi added.

“(This will be) the first time in my 26 years that I’m going to make some money from (playing hockey),” said Czechia’s Dominika Laskova, who signed with the Toronto Six. “(To) call hockey as my job is something we’ve been dreaming for.”

Getting players across the ocean has had its challenges, though, particularly when it comes to player visas.

“Our immigration lawyer (helped with) all of the that, said Buffalo Beauts head coach Rhea Coad, who has four players from outside of North America on her roster (Lovisa Berndtsson of Sweden, Antonia Matzka of Austria, and Emma Nuutinen and Jenna Suokko, both of Finland).

“It’s a little bit nerve wracking because there (were) still times where they could get denied coming into the country.”

PHF players head into 2022-23 season with new Players’ Association leader

Nicole Corriero took over as the new head of the PHF Players’ Association shortly before last season’s Isobel Cup playoffs, though her hiring wasn’t made official until after the PHF season concluded.

“What (the players) emphasized to me is that we’ve got a good, positive relationship with the board, with the league, with the office,” Corriero told On Her Turf after coming on board this spring. “We obviously need to be able to know that we can hold the league accountable, when need be, but we’re sort of working out of a place of mutual goals, mutual objectives.”

Corriero, a personal injury lawyer based in Canada, played collegiate hockey at Harvard. Her first introduction to the PHF came from fellow Harvard alum and PHF owner Johanna “Jojo” Boynton (wife of John) at a Friends of Harvard Hockey event.

“She had done a presentation just for a group of the alumni to sort of say, ‘You’re a group of people who have consistently supported women’s hockey for all of these years. This is what we’re doing. This is our vision,’” Corriero recalled. “They talked about options for ownership because they wanted independent owners for all the different teams and other options that might be available. Being a team owner is not an option for me. I mean, I’m not a sultan or anything like that. But I just sort of said, ‘I think this is amazing’ and I started following the league.”

After the previous Players’ Association leader, Alex Sinatra, was hired and then let go in January 2022, “I was notified by Jojo that the players were in need of a player rep,” Corriero explained.

Toronto Six forward and Players’ Association representative Shiann Darkangelo said the PA was in touch over the summer, going over its goals for the future.

“Working with the Board of Governors and the other teams as a group to go over the player agreements and different things,” Darkangelo said. “We have monthly calls, sometimes twice a month, to go over all of that.”

Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps move to new arenas

Of the six returning PHF teams, three are playing in new arenas this season.

The Metropolitan Riveters’ new home got the most attention after the team announced it will be playing its home games at the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

“For us that’s an investment in marketing,” John Boynton, the principal owner of the Riveters, told Sportico, noting that the team is paying 2x-3x more to play at the mall than it would at a traditional suburban rink. “We need to build visibility for this team. We need to build brand. And playing in a facility like this is going to be a big leap forward for us.”

The team plans to set up around 1,000 seats for each game, while shoppers will also be able to stop and watch games from upper levels of the mall.

Still, the goal of turning shoppers into PHF fans may be hindered by the team’s game schedule. The Riveters play seven straight games on the road from before Thanksgiving until after the New Year, meaning the team will miss out on the holiday shopping bump.

The Minnesota Whitecaps also changed venues, moving from Tria (the Minnesota Wild’s practice rink) in downtown St. Paul to Richfield Ice Arena, which has 1,300 seats and standing room for another 500 spectators. The move means the team will have access to their own locker room and training space.

“Now having our own space, you’ll walk in the rink and you’ll notice it is the Whitecaps rink, our logo was just put on it,” said Minnesota head coach Ronda Engelhardt. “You see a place you can call home and the players can call home. … There’s a lot more time at the rink now than there was previously.”

The Connecticut Whale also have a new home at the International Skating Center of Connecticut (ISCC) in Simsbury, where the team will play on the NHL-size rink. Whale general manager Alexis Moed told On Her Turf that the arena will fit around 600 fans.

While many PHF teams were on the move during the offseason, the Toronto Six remain at Canlan Sports’ York facility, a 1,200-seat, Olympic-size rink. The team’s new head coach, Geraldine Heaney, is quite familiar with the venue, having played there in the early 1990s in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL).

“It’s actually kind of funny because when I played with the Aeros, my home rink was what is York. It used to be called the Ice Gardens,” Heaney said. “So it’s kind of ironic that I’m back at the same facility that I started with the Aeros.”

(For context: The COWHL pre-dated the first iteration of the NWHL, which pre-dated the CWHL, which pre-dated the current NWHL/PHF. The longer history of these women’s hockey leagues folding and launching can be found here.)

Heaney went on to note how that the facilities have gotten a major upgrade in the intervening three decades. “I think it’s great to see how far it’s come and just the facilities alone,” she said.

PHF expands front office, while some hires spark questions

During the offseason, the PHF hired several big names to its front office, including new commissioner Reagan Carey, Scout and Player Relations Liaison Kacey Bellamy, and part-time Team and Player Development Advisor Brianna Decker.

Other hires, however, have raised eyebrows.

Digit Murphy, a Senior Vice President at BTM Partners, went from being President of the Toronto Six to President of the Metropolitan Riveters, a move that received backlash from some PHF fans and staff members.

The Buffalo Beauts announced that Jeff State would be joining the team as an assistant coach. State played hockey in the AHL/ECHL in the early 2000s, but the team’s press release mentioned no prior coaching work or experience in women’s hockey. Asked why State was hired for the role, Beauts head coach Rhea Coad said this week that the team was looking for someone with pro experience, but that they also liked his personality and ability to relate to players.

“Something that he shared is that he really has a good understanding of reading players,” Coad said. “For me, I can’t see everything. Having someone on the staff who understands exactly what we want for our culture… We really do have something special and unique in Buffalo.”

The Boston Pride has a new general manager in Maddie Rigsby, who previously served as the team’s equipment manager.

Finally, the Connecticut Whale posted a job listing for a new head athletic trainer. The required qualifications made no mention of athletic training certifications or sports medicine experience, but did specify that the position required “demonstrated expertise in minimizing workers compensation claims.” While the person ultimately hired for the role, Hailey Rock, is a board-certified athletic trainer, the terminology used in the listing still raised red flags for reporters and fans about the team’s commitment to player safety.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Utah Royals FC announce NWSL return as new ownership addresses Utah’s abortion restrictions

Real Salt Lake owner, Ryan Smith, left, and NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman pose at a press conference where they announced the return of Utah Royals FC.

SANDY, Utah – The 2023 NWSL season kicks off Saturday and there’s one thing we know for sure: This is the last year the league will be 12 teams after the Utah Royals FC recently announced its return to the league for 2024.

“I knew that this was going to be one of the most important things that we do,” Jessica Berman said at the announcement March 11 regarding her priority initiatives over her first year as NWSL commissioner. “I lead on behalf of the NWSL, who is making sure that we bring this team back because we know the NWSL fans here are avid, and they care and they’re passionate, and that’s why we’re so excited to bring this team back to the community that’s been asking for [it].”

The Royals ownership group includes Ryan Smith, owner of Smith Entertainment Group, a sports, technology and entertainment investment group whose portfolio includes the Utah Jazz (NBA), Real Salt Lake (MLS), Vivint Arena, America First Field, the Salt Lake City Stars (NBA G-League), Real Monarchs (MLS NEXT Pro) and management of the Salt Lake Bees (Triple A baseball); and David Blitzer, owner of sports investment group Global Football Holdings, which has interests in the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA), New Jersey Devils (NHL), Cleveland Guardians (MLB) and seven European soccer entities including Crystal Palace (England) and FC Augsburg (Germany).

Also joining the ownership is Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman and Philadelphia 76ers exec Daryl Morey, who are part of a five-investor consortium named 42 Futbol Group. Rounding out the group are Netflix vice president Amy Reinhard, former Ernst & Young partner Jim Steger and Eleanor Health CEO Corbin Petro. Gelman will serve as the team’s alternate governor alongside Blitzer, while Michelle Hyncik has been named the club’s president. Hyncik has served as RSL’s general counsel for the past three years and spent five years working as a senior legal counsel for Major League Soccer.

In a recent interview with Sportico, Gelman said the group believes that analytics was being underutilized in leagues such as the WNBA and NWSL, noting “there was a natural fit between 42 Futbol Group’s vision and the commitment from Utah Soccer to dedicate appropriate resources toward the new women’s franchise.”

“This is the right opportunity, with the right overarching ownership group, which has the same vision as us: to empower women, affect change and to do it right,” Gelman said. “Alignment of values is so important.”

The new club is returning to a state with a very different landscape following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last June. Just four days after the Royals’ announcement, Utah’s Gov. Spencer Coxsigned into a law a bill that bans all abortion clinics by Jan. 1, 2024.

Berman stated last summer that a state’s abortion laws would factor into the league’s decision regarding expansion cities: “It’s one of the things that we’re actually currently analyzing, which is looking even at our current markets to see where we have some differentiation between our values and what we stand behind relative to where we have teams located, and what are the solutions we can put in place that we feel comfortable we can commit to and execute on,” she said.

Berman, Smith and Hyncik talked with On Her Turf about how they plan to address Utah’s reproductive health-care laws within the Royals organization, plus we unpack Utah’s new legislation and take a look at what’s new for the club’s second iteration.

Current Utah abortion legislation counting down to 2024 ban on clinics

Cox signed H.B. 467 into law on March 15 and it takes effect May 3, when abortion clinics will be required to close either by the end of the year or when their license expires, whichever comes first. Additionally, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services will not be allowed to grant or renew abortion clinic licenses starting May 2. The full ban goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024.

The bill does include exceptions for victims of rape and incest, when the mother’s life is in danger or when the fetus has a “lethal fetal anomaly.” It also classifies violations of Utah’s abortion laws as “unprofessional conduct” for health-care providers, requires doctors to offer perinatal hospice and palliative care options as alternatives to abortion for women facing a fatal anomaly, and prohibits abortion for victims of sexual assault and incest after 18 weeks.

“This bill clarifies that so that those abortions can continue. They will continue in a hospital setting, but there’s nothing to prevent those from continuing,” Cox said at a recent news conference.

Under the legislation, all abortions will be required to take place in a hospital, which is defined as “a general hospital licensed by the state.” Critics warn that moving abortions to hospital facilities will likely raise the cost of accessing an abortion in Utah, even when medically necessary, as out-of-pocket costs in a hospital can reach into the thousands compared to costs at abortion clinics.

How Royals ownership, NWSL are addressing Utah’s abortion laws

Both Smith and Berman addressed head-on the concerns over players’ and female staff health-care access in light of Utah’s restrictions. Smith noted that it’s something his companies have already addressed and implemented a policy for.

“Similar to what we’ve done with the Jazz and what we’ve done with all the employees that work in this organization: If there’s healthcare that is not provided by the state, we’ve offered a stipend, we’ve offered consideration for them to go receive whatever treatment they want elsewhere,” he said. “This is one of the greatest reasons why Michelle (Hyncik) is in this spot, because we worked hand-in-hand with her to develop all of this and roll it out.

“There’s a lot of opportunity we have to push forward what the women in this state can go do. I’m incredibly proud of the women that we have in the state, Look at the entrepreneurship and this platform – it’s way bigger than soccer. And as a girl dad, that’s what I want to see — I want my daughters want to work here. I want our stats department and our analytics to be the best in women’s sports, and I don’t know why we can’t officially own that. And with Jessica (Gelman) coming on board – that’s what she’s done out of Boston and with all of their analytics background, like, that’s right here.”

Berman expressed confidence in the Royals’ ownership, noting: “It’s something that we talk about often and in particular with Meghann Burke (executive director of the NWSL Player Association), and we know that it’s on players’ minds. It’s our responsibility to offer that safety net for players, and we know that the Royals ownership group is completely aligned to ensure that if an athlete’s medical needs are not able to be addressed in their home market, that we have the mechanisms and the tools to offer them the support they need, even if they have to leave the market. We’re going to work closely with the union and with our players and our health-care providers to make sure that our players are taken care of.”

In a statement to local Salt Lake City news outlet, a club spokesperson stated that: “For all employees enrolled in our benefits plan, we have had a policy in place where if there is a medical procedure that is not provided in the state of Utah, we will provide a reimbursement of up to $4,000 toward travel and lodging costs.”

The nearest abortion providers outside of Utah are in Colorado — in Durango and Glenwood Springs. Earlier in March, a proposed Planned Parenthood clinic in West Wendover, Nevada, was blocked when city council members denied the organization’s request for a conditional use permit. According to the Guttmacher Institute, however, Colorado is protective of abortion rights and has a shield law to protect abortion providers from investigations by other states.

What’s new for the Utah Royals

The new Utah Royals FC has a lot to look forward to, beginning with a new, state-of-the-art locker room at newly renamed America First Credit Union Field, the stadium they’ll share with MLS team Real Salt Lake.

“I personally have Saran-wrapped that locker room off,” said Hyncik. “Those facilities have been in hibernation, just waiting for the women to come back.”

Additionally, the stadium saved spaces for Royals murals, intentionally left blank when the team did recent improvements and now filled with artworks. Expect to see a depiction of the club’s updated crest, which still features a lioness wearing a crown and a blue, gold and red color scheme, but the new badge is a bolder, cleaner look that also pays homage to Utah with its iconic mountain range graphically incorporated into the crown. Philadelphia-based Tobah Kaiser and her women-run studio, Tov Creative, led the redesign project.

As for partners, the Royals announced the YWCA Utah as a foundational partner and donated $20,000 to the organization during halftime of RSL’s home opener. Hyncik said the Royals also will support STEM education opportunities for young women in the community. America First Credit Union, a longtime partner of RSL and the original Royals, will be the new Royals’ jersey front partner.

“Our foremost goal is to empower women, not only on the field but also the young women off the field who look up to them as heroes and women throughout the community,” she added.

History of Utah Royals FC

The Royals were first established in November 2017, the same week that FC Kansas City folded its club and the team’s player contracts, draft picks and other rights were transferred to the new Salt Lake City team. The expansion club debuted in 2018, packing in 19,203 fans at the home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium, and regularly averaging 11,000 fans or more during three seasons in the NWSL.

England’s Laura Harvey, who currently manages Seattle’s OL Reign, was hired as the first head coach and recorded an 18-17-12 (W-L-D) record over the first two seasons. Several U.S. national team members spent time with Utah including Kelly O’Hara, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn.

The 2020 season was a tumultuous one for Utah. Head coach Craig Harrington was placed on administrative leave that September amid reports that he allegedly made inappropriate sexual and racist comments to staff and was being verbally abusive, and subsequently was fired in November. Harrington received a two-year suspension from the NWSL this past January after an investigation found he “made inappropriate sexual and objectifying comments” to players.

Amy LePeilbet stepped in as interim coach, and the team went 0-2-2 to finish the season. Additionally, MLS opened an investigation into Real Salt Lake and Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen for racist comments and behavior. Hansen sold his Utah soccer holdings, which included the Royals, RSL and USL’s Real Monarchs, at the end of the year.

The team officially finished 18-14-17 in three seasons in Utah, never reaching the NWSL Cup playoffs but making a statement during the pandemic when the league needed a place to play the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup — a one-off tournament that marked the league’s return to action. The Royals donated $900,000 to help establish a bubble for the four-week tournament that stretched from June 27-July 26, as the NWSL became the first North American professional sports league to return to play following the national shutdown.

In December that year, the Royals moved back east to become the Kansas City Current, whose ownership group includes Brittany and Patrick Mahomes. In January 2022, Real Salt Lake transitioned ownership to Blitzer and Smith.

More about potential NWSL expansion teams 

In July, the NWSL announced that it would be adding two expansion teams in 2024 and a third later on. The other two cities expected to secure franchises are Boston and the San Francisco Bay area, according to a Wall Street Journal report that estimates the two cities will pay a record $50 million in franchise fees. Utah paid a much cheaper price, reportedly $3.5 million, thanks to a prior agreement by former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who had agreed to a fixed reactivation fee.

The 2022 season debuted two new NWSL teams, both located in California: Angel City FC, which averaged more than 19,000 fans at games last year, and San Diego Wave FC, which reached the playoff semifinals and set several attendance records.

Like Utah, Boston would be making its return to the NWSL. The Boston Breakers, one of the NWSL’s original teams, played for five years from 2013-17. San Francisco and Utah are set to begin play in 2024, with Boston launching at a later date.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship — How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
Getty Images

The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

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