By Larry Fine
RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) - The first major of the women's golf season could lead to a changing of the guard at the top of the rankings at the ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills Country Club starting on Thursday.
Teen sensation Lydia Ko has held the top spot for 75 consecutive weeks but the New Zealander could be supplanted by Thai Ariya Jutanugarn, who she pipped last year to win her second major.
Jutanugarn, who bogeyed the last three holes and was overtaken by the charging Ko, can leapfrog the New Zealander with a win should the 19 year old finish fifth or worse.
The Thai won five titles last year including a major to become Player of the Year, and it was the one that got away that started it all for her.
"I learn from this tournament, like I know how to play under the pressure," Jutanugarn, 21, told reporters on Wednesday.
"We talk about the last few holes a lot because sometimes I do have bad memories of last year. But to me it's not that hard anymore," the Thai said. "After that tournament, I just said 'OK, just go have fun.'"
Neither Ko nor Jutanugarn have won yet this year and there are many contenders in the women's game, where there have been five different winners from five different countries in the last five majors.
Chun In-gee of South Korea won at the 2016 Evian, Jutanugarn ruled the Women's British Open, American Brittany Lang triumphed at the U.S. Women's Open, Canada's Brooke Henderson took the Women's PGA, and Ko claimed the ANA Inspiration.
Ko, who at 19 has amassed 14 LPGA titles including two majors, has been struggling with the putter and last week at the Kia Classic missed just her second cut in 95 career starts and has not won an LPGA event since July.
"I'm not coming in with fantastic momentum," said Ko, who has changed coaches, golf clubs and caddies this off season.
"But every day is a new day and every week is a new week. I'm just going to try and enjoy it out there."
Ko will be paired with two-times Mission Hills winner Brittany Lincicome, while Jutanugarn, who has two seconds and a third this year, will tee off with veteran Cristie Kerr.
Conditions are firmer than in the recent past and gusty winds are forecast to test the players in the opening round, which suits Stacy Lewis, the 2011 ANA Inspiration winner and a playoff loser to Lincicome in 2015.
"It should be played firm and fast, where you have to worry about how far your drive is going," said the American. "It's a major. It should be hard."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)