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LPGA begins west coast swing with return of the KIA classic

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The LPGA Tour returns to Aviara Golf Club for the 11th Kia Classic after the 2020 competition was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Eight of the tournament’s previous 10 winners have made the trek to Carlsbad, Calif., including defending champion Nasa Hataoka of Japan, as well as Eun-Hee Ji (2018), Mirim Lee (2017), Lydia Ko (2016), Cristie Kerr (2015), Anna Nordqvist (2014), Yani Tseng (2012) and Sandra Gal (2011).

Aviara Golf Club is set to host a 144-player field from March 25-28. Among the competitors is World No. 1 Jin Young Ko, as all of the top-10 players in the Rolex Rankings will tee it up in San Diego County. Most recent LPGA Tour champion Austin Ernst also highlights the field, fresh off her win at the LPGA Drive On Championship presented by Volvik at Golden Ocala. She is one of three LPGA winners so far in 2021 and one of two champions from this year in the field, joined by Gainbridge LPGA victor Nelly Korda.

There are also a total of 15 players competing this week that call California home. Among the group is World Golf Hall of Fame member Juli Inkster, San Diego native Tiffany Joh, and four-time Solheim Cup Team USA member and University of Southern California alumna Lizette Salas, as well as second-year LPGA Tour rookies Andrea LeeEsther LeeHaley Moore and Yealimi Noh.


  • The Kia Classic debuted as the Kia Classic presented by J Golf at La Costa Resort & Spa in 2010, moved north to Pacific Palms Resort & Spa in 2011 then returned to La Costa in 2012 before moving to Aviara Golf Club in 2013 where it has been contested ever since
  • The Kia Classic boasts 10 winners from eight different countries—Hee Kyung SeoMirim LeeEun-Hee Ji (Republic of Korea), Yani Tseng (Chinese Taipei), Sandra Gal (Germany), Nasa Hataoka (Japan), Lydia Ko (New Zealand), Beatriz Recari (Spain), Anna Nordqvist (Sweden) and Cristie Kerr (United States)
  • Players from the Republic of Korea have the most Kia Classic victories with three (Seo in 2010, Lee in 2017 and Ji in 2018)

The 2020 Kia Classic was supposed to be Haley Moore’s coming-out party as an LPGA Tour rookie, competing in her hometown event just 30 miles from her home in Escondido, Calif. Instead, that week saw the world come crashing to a halt thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One year later and while the world isn’t quite back to normal, Moore is finally getting the chance to take on Aviara Golf Club for the first time not as a fan, but as an LPGA Tour Member. 

“I came out here a lot as a kid watching and it was at La Costa and then came out here the last couple years as a spectator and watching,” said Moore. “Really got to see how it was playing and watch a lot of girls out there and see how tough this course did play.”

With the pandemic-related break in the 2020 season, the LPGA Tour opted to give 2020 rookies an extension into the 2021 season. Moore hopes to take full advantage of that opportunity, saying that the added time gave her more time to adjust to life on the road.

“Once we started back up in June and we had been told it was kind of like a free kind of run, no status would change, I think it was actually good for me because I could really get a feel of what tour life is like,” said Moore. “Tour life is different, especially as a rookie. You have to adapt pretty quickly to get used to it.”

The year 2020 also brought big changes to Moore’s life outside the ropes. After speaking openly about having been bullied throughout her childhood, Moore started the Haley Moore Foundation, with a mission to “raise awareness that anyone can achieve any goal they place before themselves.” Her story became a tentpole of the LPGA’s Drive On campaign, featuring Moore’s powerful first-person essay about overcoming those childhood demons to reach her goals. Her closing lines were “The pain of being bullied is cutting and deep. I know. I also know that it makes you tough and strong. One day, not that far away, you will have to perform under pressure. It might not be a putt to win an NCAA Championship, or a par to earn your LPGA Tour card, but there will be something. When that moment arrives, you will be ready.”

Since that essay was published, Moore’s story has traveled around the world, with appearances on Good Morning America, BBC World News and other outlets. It’s a lot for any 22-year-old to manage, but Moore does it with a beaming smile on her face.

“To be a part of the Drive On story was something amazing. When I first heard of it, I just knew that kind of with what I had gone through I knew that I was probably going to be approached about it and be able to kind of create like my own story and everything. I wanted to create this foundation later in my career, and I just want to thank (LPGA Chief Brand and Communications Officer) Roberta Bowman and all of her team for working with me and developing a story,” said Moore. “My story has a huge impact today still on young boys and girls and anyone else who is bullied. I just think showing my story kind of all-around and sharing it through my foundation is going to be key.”

Moore will start her first round on Thursday at 7:33 a.m. local time off No. 10 tee with a fellow rookie in Jennifer Chang and Mo Martin.

For some, it’s a return to LPGA Tour competition after what was arguably the strangest season in history. For others, this week’s Kia Classic is a homecoming, a nostalgic visit to familiar stomping grounds. A place they know.  


Second-year rookie Jennifer Chang didn’t grow up in Southern California. She’s a Carolina girl, the only person in history to win four consecutive North Carolina Women’s Amateur titles, and the pride of Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. But her three years as a Trojan at the University of Southern California gave the 21-year-old a sense of kinship with this part of the world. 


And the memories from a preview visit to Aviara during her freshman year of college came flooding back as she prepared to tee off for the first time in the Kia Classic.  


“I actually came out here my very first semester in school and became a spectator, so I got to see it behind the ropes,” Chang said on Wednesday afternoon in Carlsbad. “We watched a couple of the alumni from USC, so I got a sneak peek not knowing that I would get a chance to play here three years later.” 


She watched Lizette Salas back then, the most decorated Trojan golfer in history. And she spent a little time watching Lydia Ko, who is only three years older than Chang. She loved the rolling hills and fresh air in this part of California, just a short drive from the Pacific Ocean. But more than anything, she loves being back at Aviara as a competitor.


“Obviously, last year (the Kia Classic) being postponed was unfortunate. But I got a chance to play (Aviara) last year and got a sneak peek at the course.”


She studied the place. Like a coach watching game film, Chang looked at replays of old Kia Classics to get a sense of what she would face and what kind of numbers she might have to shoot.

To read the full story from Steve Eubanks on, visit:

In recent years, it has been a battle on and off the golf course for In Gee Chun. On the course, the competitor in her wants to again find the winner’s circle, a place that has eluded Chun since the 2018 LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship. Off the course, she has grappled with depression and self-worth.

“I think all athletes work hard, and I did too, but when I tried working hard it gave me more pressure. I felt like I had to make the right result but I couldn’t made it, so I couldn’t enjoy the process and couldn’t enjoy golf,” said Chun, a two-time major champion. “Now, I’m trying to make golf more enjoyable and I trust myself. I don’t think about the result, just stay present and it helps me a lot. I have a good balance like in golf and my life.

“When I faced depression, my parents and friends and my [swing and mental] coach [Dr. Won Park] they tried to help me a lot but I could not hear what they said, so I hurt them. Now my ears are more open, so I really appreciate them. I think without them, I could not get back to normal In Gee.”

Perhaps a contributing factor to her newfound comfort is creating a base in the United States. Earlier this year, Chun bought a house near good friend Sei Young Kim in the greater Dallas metropolitan area. It has paid dividends, taking pressure off her when it comes to a rigorous travel schedule and offered a retail therapy outlet.

“When I go to practice with her [Sei Young] and friends, always happier,” said Chun. “I have to take care about mail. My house was empty, so the last off weeks I filled it with furniture. I got a lot of presents from my friends, so I really enjoyed playing with the new like technology machines. Now I have a home here and it feels more like home for me. I really enjoy my time at the house and when I have an off week then it’s really exciting to be back at my house.”

The transformation has also translated to results on the course. Across her first three starts in the 2021 LPGA Tour season, Chun has three top-10 finishes including a pair of top-five results, most recently the Drive On Championship presented by Volvik at Golden Ocala.


During the stretch to open the year, Chun has shot over par only once and recorded a combined total of 32-under par with 10 of her 12 rounds in red numbers. With the solid performances, “all my friends on Tour came to me and said, ‘Oh, good job In Gee. Good round,’ so it made me really happy,” Chun said. “I am very lucky to have all my good friends on the Tour.”

All her friends know just how good she is, and that belief is starting to shine in herself. Chun will head off No. 1 tee on Thursday at 12:33 p.m. local time for round one of the Kia Classic with Michelle Wie West and second-year rookie Albane Valenzuela.

When she pulls into Aviara Golf Club off Batiquitos Drive, amazing memories flood the mind of Eun-Hee Ji. It’s her reality of happy trails as she finds her way back to Carlsbad, Calif., for the Kia Classic, an event she won in 2018.

“I’m really, really happy to be back here,” said Ji. “I won this tournament and when I come here, I always have good memories, you know, happy things about it. I’m really, really happy about this [having the Kia Classic back on the LPGA Tour schedule].”

There’s good reason for Ji to be happy. She not only won the event and took home a Kia Stinger, but she also aced the par-3 14th during the final round to cement her victory and win a Kia Sorrento. Quite the haul for the past champion.

A repeat of that week from 2018 would be a welcome sight in the LPGA Tour’s return to San Diego County in 2021, as Ji prepares for what she deems a tough track that challenges her game to the fullest.

“This course is actually really hard for me. Maybe I just focus more and practice harder and practice my putting more. So maybe that’s why I play better when I come here,” Ji said with a laugh.

That putting practice might just be the key to finding the winner’s circle again and becoming the first two-time champion in Kia Classic tournament history because, as Ji puts it, “especially have to good read for putting. Greens are pretty quick and there is a lot of slopes, so I have to really focus on reading the green and [maintaining] good pace. I always focus on the putting green [for this tournament week].”

“We wanted to celebrate the attributes of strength, focus and perseverance that have built the LPGA over more than 70 years, to give voice to the fire that you feel inside when you discover your passion and your gift. We wanted to share the stories of people whose courage and accomplishments inspire us, on and off the golf course. And, to give a name to the determination, resilience and sheer grit that it takes to chase your dreams. We named it: Drive On.” 


I remember standing on the stage at the JW Marriott in Phoenix. We had run a preview for players on Tuesday night, March 19, 2019 before the full launch for media and special guests the following morning. We’d chosen the Founders Cup to introduce the LPGA’s brand refresh, Drive On, the perfect week to connect the past with the present and the future. As the lights dimmed and the screen went dark, I remember feeling a rush of excitement, uncertainty, optimism and a little terror.


Drive On, and the video that introduced it, This Is For Every Girl, was a different kind of message for the LPGA. It’s less about golf and more about the golfer - who she is, where she’s from and her “why” in life. In short, Drive On is about the stories behind the players.  


Storytelling is at the heart of our common humanity. It’s how we communicate and connect. Drive On is about creating that bond; about bringing more fans and sponsors to the LPGA, and, ultimately, changing the face of golf.


That feeling of excitement and optimism when I took the stage in Phoenix came from believing that our players’ stories would have an impact. The uncertainty and terror came from not knowing whether or not our players would embrace the idea and make it their own.


Sharing your story is an act of trust. In a sport where every weakness is exposed; in a social media environment that can be harsh and unforgiving; in a world where images are carefully curated, would our players be willing to share both their dreams and their struggles?  

The 16th at Aviara Golf Club is a reachable but challenging par-4. Risk and reward lurk in equal measure on and around the green, which is hourglass-shaped and features water to the left. This hole is a dogleg left with a generous landing area off the tee but can be especially tricky because of its sloping fairway and uneven lies. Accurate club selection for an approach into an exceptionally deep green is critical and there must be extra consideration when the pin is cut left. 

For more information on this week’s Aon Risk Reward Challenge hole and the season-long competition, click here

The 2021 season-long Race to the CME Globe picks up at the Kia Classic, the fourth event of the year. With her third career victory earlier this month in the LPGA Drive On Championship presented by Volvik at Golden Ocala, Austin Ernst earned 500 points and moved to No. 3 in the standings with a total of 551 points. She trails only Nelly Korda (759 points) and Jessica Korda (614 points), who won the Gainbridge LPGA and Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions presented by IOA, respectively. Lexi Thompson is ranked fourth with 467 points and Danielle Kang rounds out the top-five competitors (440 points).

The Race to the CME Globe is a season-long points competition which LPGA Tour Members accumulate points in every official LPGA tournament to gain entry into the season-ending tournament, CME Group Tour Championship. The player who wins the CME Group Tour Championship is named the “Race to the CME Globe Champion.”

Beginning in 2019, players started earning points at each official LPGA Tour event throughout the season leading up to the CME Group Tour Championship. The top-60 points earners and ties then earn a spot in the CME Group Tour Championship with the entire field competing for a $5 million purse highlighted by a $1.5 million winner’s check, the largest single prize in the history of women’s golf.

Published : March 24, 2021