Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2013

Pettersen Aims To Be Newest #1, While Ko Lurks

Among the hard-line traditionalists there was no doubt a measure of self-satisfied rejoicing when the LPGA’s fifth major ran into a slew of problems this week. Those who scoffed at the idea of either the men’s or women’s game having more than four major tournaments probably concluded that the golfing gods were on their side when torrents of rain fell on Evian-les-Bains in southeastern France, soaking the Evian Resort Golf Club and wiping out Thursday’s first round. With more bad weather forecast for the Lake Geneva region throughout the weekend, LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan had little choice but to announce the tournament would be shortened to 54 holes.

While Whan had no control over the weather, the condition of the golf course even without the rain was a different matter. Before conferring major status on the tournament which had been played for nearly two decades as the Evian Masters, first as a stop on the Ladies European Tour and then for the last dozen years as an event co-sanctioned by the LET and LPGA, Whan required the sponsors to invest millions of dollars in renovating and upgrading the course. The changes included rebuilding all 18 greens, adding new bunkers, reconfiguring fairways and tee boxes, and changing the short par-5 finishing hole into a long and demanding par-4.

Work began immediately after the conclusion of last year’s Evian Masters, but was hampered by bad weather through the winter months. As a result when the players finally teed off in the first round on Friday, they found a golf course that lacked the consistency and maturity one expects of a major championship venue. There were bare patches in the newly laid sod marked as ground under repair, and the rebuilt greens varied in speed and receptiveness to approach shots.

But if the golf course is still a year or two away from maturing into a major-worthy test, this year’s Evian was surely a major in one important respect. Its $3.25 million purse matched the U.S. Women’s Open as the richest on the LPGA Tour. When Norway’s Suzann Pettersen rolled in a 6-foot par putt to secure a two-stroke victory over New Zealand’s Lydia Ko the tournament also had a major-worthy champion.

It was Pettersen’s second major win, the first coming at the 2007 LPGA Championship. It also continued a period of impressive play by the 32-year old Norwegian who is ranked second in the world. Since the beginning of August she has finished tied for 4th at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, tied for 7th at the CN Canadian Women’s Open and 1st at the Safeway Classic two weeks ago in Oregon. In between the British and Canadian Opens she also anchored the European team that stunned the United States at the Solheim Cup.

In the wake of her victory Pettersen announced that her next goal was to claim the #1 world ranking currently held by Inbee Park. That’s an understandable goal, but one that comes with a note of caution. The women’s rankings have only been around since early 2006. The great Annika Sorenstam was the first woman golfer to be ranked #1, and would have held that position for most of the previous decade had the rankings existed. As it was she spent more than a year at the top before being supplanted by Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa, who dominated the game as Sorenstam slipped into retirement. After more than three years on top Ochoa too stepped away from the game in May 2010. Since then six different golfers have held the top ranking, and most have found the peak a perilous place from which to play.

Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato, and Christie Kerr traded the top spot back and forth for most of a year after Ochoa’s retirement. Neither the Korean, the Japanese, nor the American could put together a period of sufficiently dominant golf to keep a firm grip on the #1 ranking. Today none of the three are ranked in the top ten. In February 2011 Taiwan’s Yani Tseng ascended to the top spot. Then just 22 years old, Tseng had already won six times on the LPGA Tour, including three majors. She would go on to win both the LPGA Championship and Women’s British Open in 2011 to become the youngest player ever, male or female, to win five majors. Tseng won seven LPGA events in 2011 and another three early in 2012 to build a huge lead in the points calculation that determines the world rankings. That meant she would remain on top of the rankings for months to come even as her game suddenly and dramatically deserted her and the wins stopped coming. Tseng’s scoring average went from 69.15 per round in the first five tournaments of 2012 to 74.75 in the last four. This year has been no better. Her best finish in a major was a tie for 19th at the LPGA Championship which was also the last time this year that the former #1 made the cut at a major.

American Stacy Lewis finally supplanted Tseng as the world #1 in March of this year. She did so on the strength of six wins in less than a year and a marvelously consistent game that produced one top-ten finish after another. But by her own admission Lewis wasn’t ready for the many demands on her time that being ranked #1 entails and after just four weeks she was overtaken by Inbee Park. Lewis, who courageously overcame scoliosis and surgery that could have left her unable to walk, vows that she will be better prepared for life at the top the next time she gets there. First of course she has to get there. She helped her cause with a dramatic win at St. Andrews in the Women’s British Open. But Sunday in France she began the day playing in the next to last group, but by day’s end was six shots adrift, the only player on the first page of the leader board to shoot over pay. Pettersen’s victory allowed her to slip past Lewis into the #2 spot in the rankings.

Park thrilled the golf world with wins in the first three majors of the year. She added three other LPGA titles this season, to build a bit of a cushion in the rankings. But since her masterful putting performance at the U.S. Women’s Open in June, her game has slipped as well. Trying to become the first golfer to win four majors in the same calendar year, she finished tied for 42nd at the British, 14 shots behind Lewis. One could attribute that to the enormous pressure she was under and the suffocating attention of the Asian media. But she was free of that pressure this week at the Evian and fared no better. Park barely made the cut and finished in a tie for 67th.

Yet as parlous a place at the #1 ranking seems to be, if Pettersen wants to get there perhaps she shouldn’t waste time doing so. For while she prevailed down the stretch on Sunday, she was never really able to shake her playing partner Ko. The two were tied through seven holes, with Pettersen’s birdie at the 8th giving her the lead. A bogey by Ko on the 13th hole doubled Pettersen’s advantage. Twice on the closing holes birdie putts by Ko wandered just off-line, while Pettersen was scrambling to save par. Even at the last a birdie chip by the pursuer came close enough to capture both the crowd’s and Pettersen’s attention.

In the end the day and the Evian Championship belonged to Suzann Pettersen and not Lydia Ko. But one can’t help but think that plenty of days and plenty of championships lie ahead for the New Zealander who was born in Korea. She’s already won twice on the LPGA Tour, once on the Ladies European Tour, and twice more in tournaments sanctioned by the Australian LPGA. She’s done all that while still an amateur, because after all, Lydia Ko is just 16 years old.

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