The ANA Tournament, formerly the Dinah Shore, is a much-coveted major on the LPGA Tour. Twenty-nine year old Mirim Lee from South Korea was an afterthought as the final round commenced with Nellie Korda, Lexi Thompson, and Brooke Henderson battling back and forth for the lead. But MIrim won her first major by chipping the ball in the cup three times in that round, once on the front nine, and twice late on the back, for an amazing display of short game mastery. The two on the back were particularly remarkable. With Brooke and Nellie in a sort of match play scenario, Mirim came to the 16th two behind when she rammed a chip and run into the cup for a birdie from 100 feet away, putting her two behind, still unlikely she would catch Nellie at 15 under. Twenty-three year old Brooke, after a double at 13, recovered to get to one behind 22 year old Korda coming to 18. But up ahead, Lee finished her round with another chip and run that would have gone 10 feet by had it not hit the stick and dropped in the hole for eagle, vaulting her to minus 15 and tied for the lead. With no crowds due to the coronavirus, there were no screams after the chip so Korda and Henderson didn’t immediately know what had happened. Korda parred the last to remain at 15 under and Canadian Henderson birdied to tie. A three-way playoff ensued with Mirim Lee birdieing the first hole for the win, this time chipping and one-putting. Speaking no English, she was in tears as she began to grasp what she’d done, talking with the interviewer through an interpreter. For what she had done was chip her way into an historic dip into Poppy’s Pond.
So perhaps you should review my recent post on the basic chip, for that’s what Mirim drained three times in one round to win this major. Truly amazing!
Then there was the Safeway Open, the season opener (season what-pener?) remarkably held during some of the most devastating wildfires in California history. The air was smoky but the event was far enough away from actual fires. Held between the Tour Championship and the U.S. Open, the event was unable to draw many top names in the game, but was still a regular PGA event, with a field of higher caliber players than the Korn Ferry Tour. And yet another unlikely winner rose from the young, eager and skilled linksmen. Forty-seven year old Stewart Cink, the guy who barely beat 59 year old (at the time) Tom Watson to win the 2009 Open Championship, battled his way to win for the first time in 12 years, with his son on the bag and his wife, Lisa, a cancer survivor, one of the few fans permitted on the grounds. Tournament host and course owner/designer Johnny Miller was there as well.
But it was no cake-walk for Stewart. He was two shots behind at the start of the final round. Yet a chip-in bird at the 11th, some timely advice from his son, and a brief word with his ever-encouraging wife, gave this man a wave of confidence. He followed with three birds in the last four holes, but was challenged down to the 72nd hole by another interesting journeyman named Harry Higgs, who had scored an extremely rare albatross on the last hole of the second round. He laced a perfectly struck 230 yard second shot on the par five, bouncing twice then rolling into the hole. Harry is 28 and born in Kansas City, which is important to know since Tom Watson was from Kansas City and Stewart Cink is often considered enemy number one in KC for beating Watson in ’09. So Twitter lit up during the Safeway with Kansas City folks cheering on Harry to beat Cink.
It turns out that Higgs, who has the girth, fun-lovingness, and candidness of John Daly, has quite a following on social media. “I just want to take a nap,” Harry told an interviewer after his historic shot and 62 that day of the double eagle, earning him smiles from his Twitter admirers. He also did a very funny imitation of Seinfeld’s George Constanza on a Korn Ferry promo clip that has added to his cult status. But keep an eye on Harry Higgs, who was runner-up at the Safeway. This guy can play.
The real story though was Cink who won his eighth PGA tournament, the second oldest to win in recent history (behind Phil’s victory at Pebble last year). He’s only had one top ten in the last 11 years, and appeared to be limping his way to the Champions Tour. But this unlikely win against quite a few young guns gives him Tour qualifying exemptions until 50. Before this win, Stewart thought old-man time had caught up with him and his winning days on the regular Tour were behind him. But with our amazing game of golf, you never know, do you?
The 120th U.S. Open starts this Thursday at Winged Foot Golf Club’s West course in Mamaroneck, NY, a suburb northeast of NYC. Among previous winners of the U.S. Open at this course include Fuzzy Zoeller (who edged out Greg Norman), Hale Irwin, and the first winner there in 1929, Bobby Jones, who won by 23 strokes, a record margin of victory for all majors. Winged Foot is also remembered for Phil Mickelson’s implosion at the final hole in ’06. Needing a par to win, he pushed his tee ball behind a tree, then pulled his approach off the green, finishing with double and head-in-his-hands disaster. Phil has yet to win the United States Open.
The reason Winged Foot West plays so tough is its principal and major defense–the severity of its rough (Irwin won the ’74 U.S. Open there by two shots with a plus 7 final total!). And this year presents a challenge. Course Director Steve Rabideau explains: “Our goal is that by the end of September there’s no difference from June. Our job agronomically got harder because we have to keep the rough healthy and thick through the summer, but now we’re hosting an Open at the end of summer, so it’s a lot more work. We’ve got to fight for the rough every day. The summer is long. At an old, classic-style golf course like this, rough is one of our defenses. That’s what it’s about here.”
Of course, the big bombers don’t seem to care about landing in the rough these days. Bomb and gouge seems to be the recipe. So in watching this event, pay close attention as to how the guys are dealing with the rough. Looks like it could be a deciding factor. The course is also known for its extremely fast greens, so that too could be a major defense envisioned by its famed designer A.W. Tillinghast in 1921.
My pick? I’ll go with Dustin “The Jock” Johnson (my nomination for new nickname). The guy is firing on all cylinders and is peaking at the moment. But there are probably 10-15 pros with the possibility of taking it. Should be fun and exciting.
On a personal note, under the category, If it’s not one thing, it’s another, just when I getting my game into pretty good shape, along comes these horrendous and life-destroying fires in California and the Pacific Northwest. We’re relatively far from the actual fires, which have tragically leveled whole towns, but the smoke from those fires has made the air quality in our area just about the worst in the world. So, until that clears out, and there is hope with rain coming this week, no golf and no range practice. Of course, there are people, pets, and wildlife far worse off than I, and I feel for them deeply, wishing them well.