ORLANDO, FL — Brooke Henderson enjoyed the opening day of a new LPGA season much more than the tough, waning days of last season.
Her lopsided back feeling stronger and swinging the club more freely than she’s been able to since October, Henderson attacked Lake Nona on Thursday with a six-for-5-under 67 to take a one-shot lead at Hilton Grand Vacations. Champions.
Henderson, who finished third in the race to the CME Globe last year, started quickly with birdies on three of her first eight holes. She added three more players against a single bogey in her indoor nine competition to take a one-shot lead over Nelly Korda, who is the second-place finisher and the highest-ranked player in the winners-only field this week.
“It feels really good, to get off to a hot start, that’s always a great feeling,” said Henderson, who won twice last season — including her second career major, at the Evian Championships. “I hope to keep it going for the next three days, a lot of momentum, a lot of birdies. You really need to go lower here if conditions are going to stay the same.”
A year ago, players were wearing hats and fleece layers in unseasonably cold Florida weather. Thursday was a nice, sunny day with temperatures in the 80’s.
Although most of the players had been out for a while, a few showed rust. Seventeen players have broken even of the 29 players who are LPGA title winners in 2021 and 2022.
Korda, who won the Gainbridge LPGA at Lake Nona in early 2021, almost matched Henderson, making five birdies against a lone bogey in the opening of 68.
She played alongside former MLB player Derek Lowe, the defending champion from the Mixed Field’s Famous Athletes division. There is a section for LPGA professionals and a section for celebrities, and each section has its own award. She and Louie, together for three rides in the event a year ago, spent the day motivating each other to keep making birdsong.
“I’m more rooting for her,” Lowe said. “It’s a blessing to play with her. I hope she wins.”
England’s Charlie Hull and first-time winners Gemma Dryburgh (Scotland) and Ashleigh Bohai (South Africa) opened with 69 seconds. Defending champion Danielle Kang powered her way up the leaderboard early on, but bogeys at 12 and 13 left her in 1-under-71, tied for ninth.
Henderson’s 2022 campaign ended with a whimper: She pulled out of her second-to-last start in November and earned a tie for seventh at the CME Group Tour Championships in Naples, Florida, where she lives. After that, it’s time for some rest, then back rehabilitation.
Henderson had a bag full of new clubs Thursday (so did Korda), and he swung hard. Her only blemish was a bogey on the par-3 17, where she fanned a short iron 8 and failed to get up and down, but immediately recovered with a birdie on the 388-yard 18. She plugged a pass drive (she only missed two passes), then hit the throwing wedge to 15 feet, Which led to the blow being diverted to another bird.
As for the back? no pain.
“Today it was fine, yeah, nothing, not even thinking about it,” she said. “I’m just making sure I’m doing the right things tonight (getting therapy) and tomorrow and hopefully the same going forward.
“It’s great to be aggressive and to be able to hit again.”
Leading the celebrity division was a household name for all — 72-time LPGA Champion Annika Sorenstam, a Lake Nona native. Sorenstam, who finished second in 2022, earned 39 points in Stapleford’s modified scoring system, two points ahead of 2021 champion Mardy Fish, a former tennis player.
Her husband and caddy, Mike McGee, told her when the tour was over that it was the first ghost-free tour in quite some time.
“It wasn’t in my mind,” Sorenstam said, “but I’m obviously very happy to play here without a bogey.”