Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2019

The Difference Between Winning And Losing

What is the margin between victory and defeat? How does one measure the gap between winning and losing? When Chicago beat Washington 73-0 in the 1940 NFL Championship Game, or when Tiger Woods finished the 2000 U.S. Open fifteen shots clear of his closest competitor, such questions were rhetorical. In outcomes like those the difference, whether by any statistical measure or by an assessment of intangible factors like mental focus and attitude, is utterly lopsided. But there are also times when the margin is agonizingly small.

Sunday afternoon at Woburn Golf Club, a parkland course fifty miles northwest of London, the fifth and final women’s major of 2019 concluded in a dramatic fashion that was thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measure. After almost four rounds of play, seventy-one holes completed and most of the seventy-second, American Lizette Salas and Japan’s Hinako Shibuno had matched each other stroke for stroke. Within ten minutes time, both stood on Woburn’s 18th green having taken 269 shots since first teeing off on Thursday. Each was at 17-under par and facing a career-defining birdie putt. In that short span of time, golf fans saw devastating disappointment and unbridled joy, opposites separated by a hair.

That the Women’s British Open came down to Salas and Shibuno was an outcome no one would have predicted when the tournament began. Salas is a 30-year-old daughter of immigrants, born and raised in California’s San Gabriel Valley, whose childhood dream of becoming a professional golfer was boosted by a scholarship to USC. There she was named the Pac-10 player of the year in 2009 and 2010, leading her to turn pro in 2011. After a year on the developmental Symetra Tour, Salas successfully navigated the LPGA qualifying tournament and earned her Tour card for the 2012 season.

But while she has enjoyed a solid career, never ranking lower than thirty-sixth in scoring average and finishing outside of the top-50 on the money list just twice, Salas arrived at Woburn with just a single LPGA Tour victory, at the 2014 Kingsmill Championship. That thin resume was made even less impressive by her performances at the majors, where she had never threatened for victory and recorded just three top-10 finishes in thirty-six starts. One of those, a fifth-place finish at this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, was also her only top-10 finish during a lackluster 2019 season.

While fans hoping for the first American victory at the Women’s British since Stacy Lewis and Mo Martin went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 would logically have looked elsewhere, perhaps to world number three Lexi Thompson or either of the Korda sisters, Nelly and Jessica, who together have a dozen top-10s this season, Salas was a positively easy rooting choice compared to Shibuno. The 20-year-old is in her rookie season, not on the LPGA Tour but on the JLPGA, the home tour of her native country. While she had scored a pair of wins this year, enough to have the Japanese media dub her the “smiling Cinderella,” until her first round tee time on Thursday she had never teed it up for a competitive round outside of her homeland. Playing in both her first major and first LPGA Tour event, Shibuno came to Woburn with the decidedly modest goal of playing on the weekend by making the cut.

But there she was in a tie for second, one shot behind first round leader Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa, after an opening 66. Salas’s 69 placed her just three shots further back, in a tie for eleventh place. Buhai, a veteran of the Ladies European Tour who was herself an unlikely name to top the leader board, stretched her margin to three after round two, but it was Shibuno in second and Salas in third, with the former easily meeting her goal of earning a Saturday tee time. When Buhai stalled with an even par 72 in the third round, Shibuno surged into the lead with her third straight round in the 60s, good for a 14-under par total. For her part Salas went into the final round four shots adrift of Shibuno after a 2-under 70, the highest score either player would post all week.

Then on Sunday the young tournament leader wobbled with a double-bogey on the par-4 3rd hole. While Shibuno got those strokes back with a pair of birdies, she added a bogey on the 8th to go out in 1-over 37. In contrast Salas was on fire on the front nine, scoring five birdies against a single dropped shot for a 4-under 32 that vaulted her into the lead. But Shibuno had not made a bogey all week on the back nine, and she kept that streak alive while rolling in four birdies in six holes. Salas made three of her own in that stretch, but Shibuno’s run left the pair in a tie at 17-under with three holes to play.

Both made par on the 16th and 17th, and both split the narrow 18th fairway with their drives at the last, leaving each with an iron in her hand for the final approach shot of the tournament. Playing two groups ahead, Salas put her ball on the top shelf of the two-tiered green, just six feet from the hole. She studied the putt and stood in knowing that a birdie would put her in front and force Shibuno to match her in order to force a playoff.

Salas sent her ball toward the right edge of the hole, on a line that was looking for the slightest break to the left. But the putt never wavered, catching the right lip of the cup, rolling halfway around and spinning out instead of falling in. Ten minutes later Shibuno’s approach from 163 yards just barely climbed up to the green’s top level, leaving her twenty feet from victory. Wasting no time, she took her stance and sent the ball on its way with a very solid rap. The ball sped toward the hole, destined to run at least six feet past if it missed. The speed of the putt made the hole smaller, as it stood no chance of dropping in if it caught either edge. Instead it arrived at the cup dead center, disappearing into the hole for a birdie and victory.

Had Salas’s putt been a fraction of an inch to the left, or Shibuno’s been just a hair off center cut, the result would have been reversed. Beyond those concrete measures, was it an unconscious twitch of a muscle that sent one ever so slightly offline, or the tiniest greater focus that made the other stroke true? The answer of course, will never be known. All fans can be sure of is that on the 18th green at Woburn, the difference between being a major champion or not, between happiness or heartbreak, could not have been any smaller.

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