LPGA's season opener to be continued as Nasa Hataoka and Gaby Lopez will resume playoff battle

Mexico's Gaby Lopez birdied the 18th hole to tie for the lead, then survived five playoff holes until darkness forced Monday's finish. AP Photo/Gary McCullough

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The LPGA kicked off the new year and the 2020 season with an outright tussle for the title at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.

But at the end of four rounds, five playoff holes and the gloaming of another day, a playoff between Japan's Nasa Hataoka and Gaby Lopez of Mexico was suspended because of darkness a little after 6 p.m. ET. Play will resume at 8 a.m. ET on Monday.

It was an anticlimactic final round in which several players ramped up a late charge, reminding the leaders they weren't safe.

And it was a day when World Golf Hall of Famer Inbee Park, who seemed focused on winning her uncharacteristic, early-season start in January, suffered an even more uncharacteristic collapse that eliminated her from the playoff.

In the playoff, Park, Hataoka and Lopez -- all tied at 13-under 271 -- matched pars on two trips back to the par-3 18th hole. But on the third return to the 18th tee, Park's tee shot sailed left into a water hazard and ultimately ended the chance for her 20th career win.

"I think No. 18 got me yesterday and today," said Park, who held a two-stroke lead after three rounds but carded an even-par score of 71 on Sunday before falling out of the playoff.

Park was hoping for a win to vault up the world rankings (she came in ranked 16th and was sixth among the Koreans) for a chance to represent Korea at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after winning gold in Rio in 2016.

"Today's round itself, it was a little bit disappointing," Park said. "I didn't hit many shots close or make a lot of putts. If I shoot under par, I should win, but that's golf."

The final round Sunday seemingly set up as a head-to-head clash between Park and compatriot Sei Young Kim, who was hoping to bookend her victory at the LPGA's 2019 season-ending CME Group Tour Championship with a win at the LPGA's 2020 season opener.

Park led Kim by two shots after 54 holes, but Kim never regained the form on Sunday that seemed to propel her earlier in the week. She carded a 1-over 72 in the final round and tumbled out of contention.

Starting the final round 3 shots behind Park, Hataoka chipped away at the lead as Park wrestled all day with a balky putter at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando. Park bogeyed two of her first three holes and never seemed comfortable on the greens. Hataoka's birdie on the 13th hole gave her a 1-stroke lead over Park, who was clearly feeling the pressure.

Meanwhile, Lopez and Canadian Brooke Henderson each rallied from 5 shots off the lead to make their own Sunday moves. Lopez drained a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 18 in regulation to finish at 5-under 66, moving into the three-way lead with Park and Hataoka.

Henderson posted two birdies on her final three holes and finished with a 4-under 67 but couldn't convert a birdie on the 18th to join the leaders.

Two other late-day charges came from Korea's Mi Jung Hur and New Yorker Annie Park. Nine shots off the lead, Hur carded a final-round, 9-under 63 to make her move.

"After the ninth, I was thinking maybe I could go up to lead because we had so many birdie chances on pretty much every hole today," said Hur, who won twice in 2019 and tied for fourth with Henderson at 12-under 272.

Like Hur, Annie Park also entered the final round out of the top 10. She posted a 7-under 64 on the strength of her bogey-free, seven-birdie round and finished sixth at 11-under 273.

"I do love the 18th hole," Annie Park said. "I love the music. I love the crowd. They're all cheering and drunk. It's a lot of fun."

Florida's Lexi Thompson mounted her own charge on Sunday to draw within two shots of the lead, but her putting never helped the big hitter, and a bogey on the final hole dropped her into a tie for seventh with Sei Young Kim at 10-under 274.

"I definitely left a lot out there, but it's a good start," said Thompson, who carded a 3-under 68 in the final round, falling short of winning on home soil.

The LPGA's season opener is, indeed, unique with a rowdy crowd on a difficult, 197-yard, par-3 finishing hole surrounded by hospitality tents and high expectations. The tour's second annual event pairs LPGA tournament winners with sports and entertainment celebrities and is the first of the LPGA's 34 events this season.

And while the LPGA players compete in a four-round, stroke-play event, the celebrity golfers compete for their own purse in a modified Stableford format and crown their own champion. Baseball Hall of Famer John Smoltz defended his 2019 title again this year by nine points over U.S. Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish.

Smoltz, who made six birdies on Sunday, earned $100,000 for the victory.

"This was a lot of fun," said Smoltz, who recorded 150 points to Fish's 141. "I was in control of my golf game about 90 percent of the time, and that feels good."

Perhaps Inbee Park can't say the same of her disappointing week. And two players still have some golf to play on Monday. But if the LPGA's 2020 kickoff is any indication of what to expect this season, there will be some spirited rounds even without the added incentive of blaring music and frisky fans at a memorable event designed to welcome a new year.

Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.