BEDMINSTER, New Jersey (Reuters) - A highly unpredictable LPGA season careers into Trump National with no clear favorite for the most prized trophy and richest event in women's golf at the U.S. Women's Open starting on Thursday.
As organizers wondered whether U.S. President Donald Trump will show up at his course to soak in the major championship atmosphere, handicappers struggled to pinpoint who will emerge among contenders at the $5 million event.
Ryu So-yeon, Ariya Jutanugarn and Lydia Ko took turns as number one in the world rankings over a period of four weeks in June, while 15 different players cashed the winner's check at the first 15 LPGA Tour events for the first time in 26 years.
Lexi Thompson is ranked number three, ahead of Ko, with Chun In-gee of South Korea, the 2015 champion, at number five.
"The girls that are one, two, three right now, they're playing such amazing golf and you can see that we've had 17 different winners out of the 18 events and just shows the amount of talent on the LPGA right now," said fourth-ranked Ko.
Ariya ended the 85-week reign at number one by Ko after winning a three-way playoff against Thompson and Chun at the Manulife LPGA Classic on June 12.
Two weeks later South Korean Ryu leap-frogged the Thai into top spot by winning the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship and becoming the season's first multiple winner.
A different wrangle placed a cloud over the occasion as the choice of Trump National to host the event, made before Trump announced his candidacy, angered women's activists because of controversial comments on women he made during his campaign.
While a protest might be staged in town miles from the course, the 156-player field will be grappling with a layout routed through the property's 500 acres of rolling hills and pasture land where former owner automaker John DeLorean once raised a herd of cattle.
Softened by thunderstorms this week, the 6,732-yard course could favor long hitters but the huge greens could put a premium on putting.
"I like the high, long hitters, someone like Amy Yang, someone like maybe a little bit of Gerina Pillar," said Juli Inkster, twice Women's Open winner and now a FOX Sports commentator.
"You need to come in from the air on these greens. You need to be precise with your irons. You need to play smart."
Other leading contenders include Danielle Kang, whose triumph two weeks ago at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship marked her maiden tour win, and fellow American defending champion Brittany Lang.
Lang, who has three other top-10 finishes in the Open, has struggled this season but seems to save her best for this event.
"It has been a little bit of a disappointing year," said Lang, who missed the cut at the Women's PGA and does not have a top 10 finish this year.
"I've been hitting the ball so, so well for the last few months and really haven't had any great finishes. (But) I always seem to play well at U.S. Opens."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Ed Osmond)