Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It seemed inevitable that the 2023 Aramco Saudi Ladies International would be welcoming its strongest-ever field in its four-year history at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club this February 16-19 after the recent announcement of a phenomenal prize increase from $1 million to $5 million.

But the stellar cast is set to exceed all expectations, with a who’s who ready to tee up on the Ladies European Tour flagship event just outside Jeddah. 

England’s Georgia Hall returns to defend the title she won in such style last year — finishing five strokes clear of runners-up Kristyna Napoleaova and Johanna Gustavsson — as stars of the ladies’ game such as Linn Grant, Charley Hull, Celine Boutier, Leona Maguire, Anna Nordqvist and Lexi Thompson aim to deny her glory in Saudi, alongside rising stars Chiara Noja, Pia Babnik and Ines Laklalech.

However, one name set to draw more attention — and crowds on the course — is Lydia Ko, with the world No. 1 confirming that she will make the trip back to Saudi Arabia for the competition she won in 2021.

Less than two weeks after the men tussle for the PIF Saudi International crown over the same 18 holes at Royal Greens, the ladies will take to the course — competing for the same prize money as their male counterparts for the first time in history at a major golf tournament. And newly married Kiwi Ko is ready to charge into the new year on the momentum of a phenomenal 2022. 

The New Zealander was the youngest player to reach the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings in 2017 at just 17, and she returned to the top last month — overtaking friend and rival Nelly Korda thanks to three LPGA Tour victories and nine other top-five finishes in 2022.

The last of those wins, the CME, earned her the biggest winner’s cheque in women’s golf history: $2 million. At the end of the tournament, she had plenty of other trophies to pose with as she was Player of the Year and won the Vare Trophy for best scoring average.

And then after all of that, Ko capped it off by getting married to fiancé Jun Chung in Seoul’s massive Myeongdong Cathedral five days after Christmas. 

“I remember my time at the Aramco Saudi Ladies International very fondly, having won the title here a few years back,” Ko said. “I’m looking forward to returning to Saudi Arabia to build on my 2022.”

Photo by Tristan Jones/LET

Ko also expressed her delight at the increase in prize money at the Saudi Ladies International — and what such a move means for the future of the game. 

“I’m thrilled to see golf is moving in the direction towards equal prize money — it is something I believe all the ladies on tour have been striving hard for. I’m grateful to those backing the women’s game who have believed in us and are committed to taking the sport to the next level. We’re moving in the right direction, and I believe it’s only going to get much better from here for women’s golf.”

Ladies European Tour CEO Alexandra Armas echoed Ko’s sentiments, saying: “This is a message to all young women that golf is for them, and they can pursue the sport as a passion and as a career.”

The Aramco Saudi Ladies International will be the Ladies European Tour’s first of two visits to the Kingdom in 2023, with the Aramco Team Series event returning later this year, comprised of five events staged across the globe including England, Spain, the US, and Singapore.

Majed Al Sorour, the Deputy Chairman and CEO of Golf Saudi, welcomed Ko to the already burgeoning field for Saudi Ladies International. “We are thrilled that Lydia, the world’s best golfer, will join us to compete in the Aramco Saudi Ladies International presented by PIF. We look forward to welcoming them once again to be a part of our iconic event at our Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in the Kingdom.

“The increased prize purse for the upcoming Saudi Ladies International reflects the commitment of Golf Saudi, Aramco, and all the sponsors and partners of the tournament, to advance women’s golf while having a direct impact on the game on the ground here in Saudi Arabia.”

Ko — now 25 — once said 10 years ago that she planned to retire by the age of 30, but given her recent success and the big changes happening to the ladies game, it appears she is still pondering when that decision will finally come. 

“When I feel like it is the time for me to retire, I will only know at that time, but I don’t want to leave the game and regret that I should have stopped then rather than trying to keep going and keep going and lose passion for golf,” she said recently. 

“Sometimes I have a long day at the golf course, and I’m, like, I’m retiring tomorrow. And then some days you have great days, and you think this is why we play. My role model is kind of like Lorena [Ochoa, who retired at the top of her game]. I’m sure if she continued playing, she would have dominated. I’m, like, thank goodness she wasn’t playing when I came on tour. But I want to retire while still playing good golf.”