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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/Jason Ivester DEFENDING CHAMP: Lydia Ko, ranked No. 2 in the world, defends her title in the Walmart NW Arkansas LPGA Championship this week at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers. She won three other tournaments in 2016 and earned the silver medal in women's golf at the Rio Olympics. - Photo by Jason Ivester

Lydia Ko has a hard act to follow this week at Rogers' Pinnacle Country Club -- her own.

The 20-year-old South Korean golfer defends her title in the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship as the LPGA visits the state for the 11th consecutive year, Ko set a tournament-record, 17-under 196 last year en route to a three-stroke victory over Candie Kung and Morgan Pressel.

Ko had rounds of 66, 62 and 68 for her third of four LPGA Tour wins last season. She seeks her first win of 2017, coming close in recent weeks with top-10 finishes in each of her last three starts.

"The fans have always been great," said Ko. "I normally play with the same pro-am group ... and I think I'm playing with them again this year. I just feel like this is always a place that has welcomed me no matter how well I play or not. Outside of the golf course (and) the tournament being so supportive, I just love coming back here."

Ranked No. 2 in the world, Ko is a 14-time LPGA Tour winner and has five titles on the Ladies European Tour and one in her native country. She was the LPGA Tour's youngest Rookie of the Year in 2014 and took two major titles in becoming its youngest Player of the Year in 2015. Representing New Zealand, she earned a silver medal in women's golf at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Ko takes on a field including 12 of the top 20 players in the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings, eight 2017 LPGA winners and six past Walmart NW Arkansas champions. Golf Channel has live TV coverage starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Past champion Stacy Lewis heads the University of Arkansas contingent. An NCAA individual champion while attending UA, Lewis was LPGA Rolex Player of the Year in 2014 and twice the tour's Vare Trophy winner with the lowest scoring average. Her last of 11 LPGA Tour victories (two majors included) came at Pinnacle in 2014. Her best finish this year is a tie for second in March's Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix.

Others to watch are two-time major champion and world No. 3 So Yeon Ryu, returning to action for the first since missing the cut on tour (ShopRite LPGA Classic) for the first time since 2014; No. 7 Inbee Park, No. 8 Sung Hyun Park, No. 9 Anna Nordqvist and No. 10 Sei Young Kim.

Resurgent Michelle Wie, after battling injury and illness in recent years, comes off a runner-up effort at the Meijer LPGA Classic, her third top-four finish in her last three starts. She has three missed cuts in her last four tournaments in Arkansas, though tying for eighth in the other appearance.

This week also marks the first LPGA event for Ai Miyazato since announcing that she will retire at the 2017 season. Miyazato spent 11 weeks atop the Rolex world rankings in 2010, and her last victory came at the 2012 Walmart NW Arkansas tournament.

"I don't feel motivated anymore. I'm listening to my heart. It was a sign to move on to the next chapter," said Miyazato, who turned 32 on Monday.

A standout player both on the U.S. tour and in her native Japan, Miyazato said she is inspired by former LPGA stars Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam: "What (they) are doing in their retirement is so inspiring. I want to give back like they are doing.

"The LPGA is my family and I'll be back to visit from time to time," said Miyazato. "I have great memories from the 12 years on tour."

* Among those receiving a sponsor invitation are LPGA rookie Mariah Stackhouse, making her seventh start of the season on the main tour and tying for second at an April Symetra Tour event; veteran Natalie Gulbis, her third start of the season and looking to make her first cut of 2017; and University of Arkansas junior Alana Uriell for the second-straight year at Pinnacle.

Former Razorback golfers Gaby Lopez, Regina Plascencia and Emily Tubert also are in the field.

Sports on 06/22/2017

Print Headline: Ko defends Rogers LPGA title against top field

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