Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 2, 2015

Two Trends Collide, But Only One Can Win

With the addition of the Evian Championship as the fifth major championship in 2013, the LPGA Tour entered its fourth distinct era of majors, each defined by the changing list of tournaments that have been accorded major status on the women’s tour. In addition to the Evian, which is played in September, that list now includes the ANA Inspiration, once and always better known to fans of a certain age as the Dinah Shore or the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Every year’s first major is played in the California desert in early spring.

The ANA is followed by the KPMG Women’s LPGA Championship, the second oldest tournament in the history of the LPGA. Beginning this year the PGA of America took over organizing this event from the Tour, ensuring both its major status and its location at top venues for years to come. This June the tournament was held at Westchester Country Club. Next year it moves to Sahalee in the Pacific Northwest, which has hosted both the 1998 men’s PGA Championship and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open. July brings the U.S. Women’s Open, the one event on the LPGA calendar older than the Women’s PGA. That is followed just a few weeks later by the Ricoh Women’s British Open, considered a major since 2001.

It was that event which concluded Sunday, bringing to fourteen the number of women’s majors played in this fourth era in which the LPGA has shown that there is nothing sacrosanct about having only four major championships. The results of those fourteen tournaments reveal a clear pattern. Any fan looking to place a small wager on the outcome of next month’s Evian should like the odds of the event in the French Alps crowning a first-time major champion. Five of the last fourteen majors have produced maiden titles for their winners, including four of the five played in 2014.

Americans Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie, and Mo Martin all claimed their first major championship last year. Thompson, then just 19 years old, won the season’s first major in its final playing as the Kraft Nabisco, pulling away from Wie in the final round to win by three shots. It was Wie’s turn at Pinehurst a few months later, as she held off a late charge by Stacy Lewis to win the U.S. Women’s Open. Then Martin, who toiled for six years on the developmental Symetra Tour before finally obtaining her LPGA Tour card in 2012 stunned the field at Royal Birkdale by making her first LPGA Tour victory a major win as well, at last year’s Women’s British Open. A dramatic eagle at the last, after her approach hit the flag and nearly went in for an albatross, carried the diminutive Californian to a one-shot win.

At last year’s Evian Korean Hyo Joo Kim matched the accomplishments of both Thompson and Martin. Like the former Kim was just 19 at the time, and as with Martin the victory was not just her first major but also her maiden LPGA Tour win; in large part because up until that time she played mostly on her home country’s KLPGA Tour. Then last month fellow Korean In Gee Chun joined Kim as a major champion in equally improbable fashion. At the U.S. Women’s Open the 20-year old Chun triumphed over established stars by leading the field in greens in regulation. It was her first appearance at the Open for a golfer just two years removed from her rookie season on her home Tour.

For much of Sunday’s final round at windswept Turnberry on Scotland’s west coast, it looked like 20-year old Jin Young Ko would become the latest first time and unlikely winner of a women’s major. A rookie on the KLPGA last season, Ko was playing in just her second LPGA Tour event and her very first major championship. She played but a single practice round on the Ailsa Course prior to the start of the tournament, and relied heavily on her caddie for the week, 27-year old Jeff Brighton, who now lives across the Irish Sea in Belfast but who grew up playing and caddying on the course.

Ko began the final round tied for the lead with Taiwan’s Teresa Lu, who quickly fell off the pace by opening double bogey, bogey. After six straight pars Ko appeared to seize control of the tournament in the middle of the round. She eagled the par-5 7th hole and followed that with a birdie at the par-4 8th. Another birdie as she began the inward nine moved Ko to 12-under par, three shots clear of the field. With Brighton showing her the way and cheering her on, the unlikely duo were smiling their way around the final round of a major.

But the clear pattern that has emerged in this fourth era of women’s majors actually has two facets. First time major winners is one, but the other is the emergence of a superstar who can stand alongside greats like Nicklaus, Woods and Sorenstam. While five of the recent majors have gone to maiden winners, after Sunday six of them have gone to Korea’s Inbee Park.

Playing ahead of Ko, Park offset a pair of early birdies with back-to-back bogeys on the 4th and 5th holes. But then her putter got white-hot, and starting at the 7th the world number one ran off four consecutive birdies to move to 9-under. Still that left the 27-year old Park three behind her younger compatriot. Or it did until she rolled in a 20-foot putt for eagle on the par-5 14th hole. Suddenly the lead was down to one, and even as Park’s putt was finding the bottom of the cup, Ko’s approach to the par-4 13th came up short of the green. Choosing to putt rather than chip, her third stopped well short of the hole. The par putt never scared the hole, and the improbable first-timer’s lead was gone.

The 16th, known as Wee Burn for the narrow creek fronting the green, settled matters. Park’s approach from the fairway stopped four feet from the cup, setting up a certain birdie. Twenty minutes later, Ko came out of her own approach from 146 yards. The ball sailed short and right, disappearing into the burn on the first bounce. The resultant double bogey put an end to her major hopes and, at least for a bit, to the smiles on the faces of Ko and her caddie.

With six wins in the last fourteen majors, Park matches the best stretches in the careers of Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam, and rivals the major dominance of Tiger Woods in his prime; while completing the career Grand Slam. Less than three weeks after her 27th birthday, she captured her seventh career major at an age just older than that of Woods and Mickey Wright, and younger than Nicklaus when those three greats won theirs.

For women golfers it’s four majors down and one still to go, with the Evian awaiting next month. Based on recent history perhaps that tournament will produce another first time major winner. But if it does, odd are she’ll have to get past Inbee Park in order to claim her title.

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