-- This time last year, two golfers -- Lydia Ko and Inbee Park -- commanded most of the attention going into the CME Group Tour Championship with LPGA season honors on the line.
For the last event of 2016, which starts Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, Ko, No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, again is a main part of the plot. But Park, bothered much of the season by a thumb injury, isn't in this week's field. The gold medalist in women's golf at the Summer Olympics and a seven-time major champion, Park is taking an extended break in hopes of getting healthy again.
Ko has another very formidable foil at this year's CME Group Tour Championship in the form of Ariya Jutanugarn. The 20-year-old from Thailand burst into prominence in the spring with three straight victories -- she was the first LPGA winner from that increasingly golf-loving country -- and has added two more since, including a major title at the Ricoh Women's British Open.
Jutanugarn arrives on Florida's southwest coast with one more victory in 2016 than Ko, whose four wins are topped by a a major triumph at the ANA Inspiration. The 19-year-old from New Zealand took advantage of a late-Sunday swoon by Jutanugarn, who had a two-stroke lead before a crushing bogey-bogey-bogey finish that opened an avenue for Ko to win her second straight major.
That was seven long months ago, and the uncertainty with which Jutanugarn played those closing holes at Mission Hills Country Club has been replaced with a relaxed confidence.
As the LPGA concludes its global schedule in the United States after six tournaments in Asia and last week's Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico, Jutanugarn, not Ko, has the mojo of the moment.
Although Jutanugarn hasn't won since the Canadian Pacific Women's Open in late August, she has played well of late, racking up five top-10s in seven events since her fifth victory. Ko, on the other hand, hasn't won since July and has experienced an indifferent fall with only one top-10 in her last six starts, with three finishes outside the top 40. Her game has been uneven, and she fired caddie Jason Hamilton, with whom she had a lot of success the last couple of years. Ko is still No. 1 in the world, but Jutanugarn is an ascendant No. 2 after a major attitude adjustment.
"This year, I have so much fun, more than last year," Jutanugarn said during the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia in late October. "This year, my only focus is I really want to be happy on the course. That's the change for me from last year."
It's hard to fathom that a year ago Jutanugarn missed the cut in 10 consecutive events. But she began to play better late in the 2015 season and in 2016, following her collapse at the ANA Inspiration, began working with performance coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson of Vision54. With an improved mindset, Jutanugarn was poised to capitalize on her talent, evident since she won the 2011 U.S. Girls' Junior at age 15.
Powerful (she is ranked 18th in 2016 in driving distance despite rarely ever using a driver) with good touch (she is No. 3 in putts per green in regulation), Jutanugarn has the lead over Ko in a couple of season races. Jutanugarn tops the money list with $2,475,218, less than $20,000 ahead of the South Korea-born New Zealander. She has a 14-point advantage over Ko for Rolex Player of the Year and leads the Race to the CME Globe with Ko in the second position. Ko (69.611) has a narrow lead over Jutanugarn (69.632) in scoring average.
The path to victory this week for either Jutanugarn or Ko could be blocked by Shanshan Feng of China, who won back-to-back events (Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia and Toto Japan Classic) within the last month. The bronze medalist at Rio, behind Park and Ko, Feng has climbed to No. 4 in the world, trailing Ko, Jutanugarn and South Korean In Gee Chun, the winner of the season's final major, The Evian Championship.
One honor that isn't in the balance at Tiburon: Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year. Chun, who wasn't an LPGA member in 2015 when she won the U.S. Women's Open, already has captured that award easily over Mexico's Gaby Lopez, American Megan Khang and Su Oh of Australia.
Besides Park, notably absent from the season-ender, for which 72 players qualify, is Michelle Wie. The 2014 U.S. Women's Open champion, Wie finished 115th in the Race to the CME Globe and has tumbled to 160th in the Rolex Rankings after missing 12 cuts in her first 20 events of 2016. She played better in Asia -- picking up a top-10 at the Blue Bay LPGA -- but the upswing couldn't make up for her poor play earlier in the year.
At the end of a disappointing season, Wie, 27, can look at Jutanugarn as an example of how things can turn around drastically. When you've been mired in a slump and hobbled with injuries, you look for any available inspiration. The women's game is now in the hands of young stars who will have the stage, trying to end a season in style.