Women start off with a major, men to follow

One tournament is the first major championship of the golf season. The other is all about getting ready for a major.

Lydia Ko took the plunge last year when she won the ANA Inspiration over a badly faltering Ariya Jutanugarn. Victory at Mission Hills means jumping into Poppie's Pond, which fronts the par-5 18th green that so often decides the LPGA Tour's opening major.

Ko returns in something of a slump. It's not just that she missed the cut last week at the Kia Classic " the 19-year-old from New Zealand hasn't won a tournament since the Marathon Classic last July.

Jutanugarn, meanwhile, learned well from that meltdown last year. The powerful Thai went on to win five times, including the Ricoh Women's British Open, and she beat out Ko for all the top LPGA Tour awards, from the money title to player of the year.

Over on the PGA Tour, 29 players at the Shell Houston Open are already in the Masters. It would have been 30, except that Dustin Johnson decided to take the week off after winning the Dell Technologies Match Play for his third straight victory.

That's good news for the 144 players at the Golf Club of Houston, specifically for the 115 players who need a victory to get into Augusta National.

The Masters field is set, so the only way in now is to win the Houston Open.

And yes, there's another Masters tune-up going on in Mississippi, where the PGA Tour Champions has three players in the field who will be at Augusta National, including Bernhard Langer.

LPGA TOUR

For a major that dates to 1983 and is played on the same golf course, remarkably there has only been one back-to-back winner. Annika Sorenstam won in 2001, and then she boldly wore red shoes in the final round and won in 2002.

That's what Ko will try to match.

Even though the 18th hole at Mission Hills can be dramatic as a par 5 with water wrapped around the green, Ko won last year by choosing to lay up with an 8-iron, and then stuffing a wedge in close to make birdie. She wound up winning when Jutanugarn completed her collapse with one last bogey.

The 18th green has seen plenty of action, most notably in 2006 when Karrie Webb holed a pitching wedge from 116 yards on her last hole for a 65. That got her into a playoff with Lorena Ochoa, who made eagle with a 5-wood into 6 feet. Webb won in the playoff.

Michelle Wie was 15 at the time and looked like a winner. She had a chance to win with an eagle chip on the 18th green, hit it too hard and missed the birdie putt to lose a spot in the playoff.

It could have been worse. I.K. Kim had a 1-foot putt to win in 2012. She missed, and lost in a playoff.

Wie is alarmed to be playing this event for the 14th time. And this will really make her feel old " she is paired with Lucy Li, who is all grown up now at 14. Li was 11 when she qualified for the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

Juli Inkster, meanwhile, sure doesn't act her age. Inkster, who two weeks ago shot 64 in the Founders Cup, is playing the ANA Inspiration. She won the second edition of this major in 1984, so long ago it was known as the Nabisco Dinah Shore.

PGA TOUR

The Houston Open used to be in what was called the "dead zone" of the PGA Tour " a few weeks after the Masters when no one was paying attention. It made a bold move to take the spot a week before the Masters, and the decision paid off when Augusta National resumed its practice of inviting PGA Tour winners.

Johnson Wagner was the first to take advantage when he won in 2008 and headed for Magnolia Lane.

Matt Jones earned his spot in Augusta in far more dramatic fashion . He holed a 45-foot birdie putt on the last hole to get into a playoff, then holed out a chip from 40 yards in a playoff to beat Matt Kuchar.

A year ago, Jim Herman made a tough par on the final hole to preserve his one-shot lead over Henrik Stenson and get to the Masters for the first time. Herman is not eligible this year, so a repeat performance would be in order.

Jordan Spieth is hoping for good vibes, too, even if he doesn't win. He was runner-up two years ago, went to the Masters and won by four shots.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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