Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 28, 2018

Back-To-Back Brittany Beats Bahamas Breezes

In the six years since it debuted, the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic has been awarded pride of place as the kickoff event for the new season of the women’s tour four times, including this weekend. In one sense the scheduling decision is understandable. The tournament is played at the Ocean Club Golf Course on Paradise Island, home to the sprawling Atlantis Resort and just a bridge away from Nassau, the capital of the 700-island archipelago. At a time when most of the United States is locked in the dead of winter, the site makes for picturesque television coverage, with alluring shots of swaying palms, crystal blue waters and gleaming sandy beaches serving as the backdrop to the golf course’s fairways and greens. Add in aerial views of the resort, with its massive Royal Towers main building and 140-acre waterpark dominated by the 6-story Mayan Temple waterslide, and the Golf Channel coverage is guaranteed to be enticing even before a shot is struck.

Despite that visual appeal, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan might want to rethink having the Pure Silk Bahamas serve as the season opener. While the setting is sublime, the tournament itself seems to be jinxed. Despite its setting in paradise, the problem has been the weather.

In its inaugural staging the Ocean Club was inundated by days of heavy rains that rendered much of the course unplayable. The LPGA’s eventual solution was to shorten the tournament from four rounds to three, and the course from 18 holes to 12. That at least allowed the event to meet the Tour’s minimum of 36 holes to be an official event, with the prize money and statistical results all counting in the season long rankings. But it forced players to bounce around the course in hodgepodge fashion. The par-5 closing hole was under water until the final day, when it was finally put into play, replacing the 4th hole, which had been shortened from a par-5 to a par-3 for the first two rounds. Korean Ilhee Lee won the tournament with unusual scores of 41, 43 and 42, 11-under the reduced par on the constricted layout.

Last year the final round was punctuated by strong downpours that blew across the island from time to time. The fiercest of the storms rolled in just as the final group was playing the 18th. Lexi Thompson managed a par in rain that was blowing sideways, resulting in a playoff with fellow American Brittany Lincicome, who had birdied the hole under calm conditions just minutes earlier. The pair went back to the tee after the rain let up, and Lincicome again made birdie to record her seventh LPGA win.

This year the sun was shining, but tropical breezes turned into howling winds. The difficult conditions slowed down the pace of play on Thursday, and the opening round was suspended by darkness with a dozen players still on the course. They finished early Friday and then the second round began, but difficult soon became unplayable as 45-mile-per-hour winds refused to abate. Little more than an hour into second round play, the Tour pulled players off the course when it became impossible to keep balls stationary on the greens.

When it became apparent that there would be no further play on Friday, LPGA officials first announced a plan to begin again very early Saturday morning, with hopes of still playing all four scheduled rounds. The weather forecast soon forced them to abandon that schedule, as the high winds continued into the weekend. Thus, the Pure Silk Bahamas was again reduced to three rounds, but at least this year those added up to 54 holes.

The often-brutal breezes resulted in some highly unusual scores for the best women golfers in the world. Two-time major winner and former world number one Stacy Lewis opened with a 5-over 78 on the par 73 layout. Brittany Lang, the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open champion, was only one shot better. Rising American star Jaye Marie Green was in contention after an opening 71. By the time she finished her second tour of the course with a score ten shots higher, she was right on the cut line. That was six-over par, higher than the cut in any LPGA event last season. There were ten scores of 80 or higher in the first round, and another nine in the second.

But not everyone struggled. Canada’s Brooke Henderson, who at age 20 already has five LPGA wins including the 2016 Women’s PGA Championship, opened with a 5-under 68 to seize the early lead. She remained in contention until late on Sunday, when a double bogey at the 16th followed by a bogey at the 17th ended her hopes. Spain’s Carlota Cigonda fired the round of the tournament in the final round, recording seven birdies and an eagle against a lone dropped shot for an 8-under total of 65. But Cigonda had just slipped in on the cut line, so while her Sunday shot making moved her up the leader board, it couldn’t get her into contention.

The next two best rounds after Cigonda both belonged to the defending champion. After opening with a 1-over 74, Lincicome rebounded with a 67 in her second round, which was evenly divided between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. That 5-under 36-hole total was good enough to move her into the final grouping Sunday afternoon, one behind Amy Yang and two back of leader Shanshan Feng. Those three along with Henderson, Thompson, and Wei-Ling Hsu battled for supremacy at the top of the leader board as the sun westered and shadows lengthened. Midway through the final round five were tied for the lead, then four were knotted at the top a bit later. But over the closing stretch it was Lincicome who separated herself from the pack, with birdies at the 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th sandwiching a crucial par save at the 16th. The resulting 66 was good for a 12-under par total and a two-shot margin over Hsu.

But the wind delays throughout the tournament nearly prevented that result from taking place on Sunday. The final group played the last two holes in quickly gathering darkness. As soon as her birdie putt fell on the 17th, Lincicome ran to the 18th tee to strike her drive into the gloaming, since the rules allow an entire group to finish a hole if one player has begun it in the event of a stoppage due to darkness. Tournament organizers hauled out klieg lights to illuminate the final green, without which the last threesome would certainly have had to come back out Monday morning. The LPGA’s season-long points competition is marketed as the “Race to the CME Globe.” In the chaotic finish to the Tour’s season opener, the final group was literally racing down the last fairway as darkness fell.

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