Planet Golf — 12 September 2020 by GW staff and news services
Lee ‘chipper’ during Major victory

RANCHO MIRAGE, Ca. — Mirim Lee chipped in three times Sunday, the last one for eagle on the final hole that got her into a three-way playoff at the ANA Inspiration that she won on the first extra hole with a birdie.

It was another wild finish in the LPGA major that moved from the first weekend of April to the 100-degree heat of September, and no one was more surprised than the 29-year-old Lee.

She was never in the lead at any point until she calmly holed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 18th to beat Nelly Korda and Brooke Henderson, who each had the lead on the back nine.

Lee pitched in from long range for par on the 16th, dropped a shot on the next hole and appeared to be out of it until her chip from behind the 18th green rammed against the pin and dropped for eagle and a 5-under 67.

Korda, the 22-year-old American going for her first major, had a two-shot lead with four holes to play and couldn’t hold it. With a one-shot lead going to the par-5 18th, Korda missed the fairway, had to lay up and missed the green to the right, having to scramble for par and a 69 just to match Lee at 15-under 273

Henderson lost the lead with a double bogey on the 13th hole that nearly cost her. But she birdied the 16th and was saved by the wall, a blue-covered structure behind the 18th that kept her second shot on the 18th from running through the green and into the water behind the island green.

She got up-and-down for birdie and a 69 to join the playoff.

On the first extra hole, Korda again missed the fairway and had to lay up, and her wedge was 25 feet short for a birdie putt that never had a chance. Henderson’s second shot came up just short, and she used putter for her eagle attempt that rolled out some 7 feet past the cup on the sun-baked, fast greens of Mission Hills. Her birdie putt missed on the left side.

Lee hit 5-wood just over the back of the putting surface, chipped to 5 feet and made the winner.

Even with world No. 1 Jin Young Ko and U.S. Women’s Open champion Jeongeun Lee6 staying home because of travel concerns with the coronavirus, Lee made it 10 consecutive years with a South Korea winning a major.

It was her fourth LPGA Tour victory, and first since the Kia Classic three years ago.

Her victory spared more conversation about the blue wall behind the 18th green, which the tournament erected in place of a hospitality chalet that was not needed this year because there were no spectators.

It was talked about all week, and the chalet in a normal year has blocked shots hit too hard. But it nearly decided the tournament. Henderson was one shot behind with her ball sitting up in the rough on the 18th in regulation. She hit 5-wood through the green and under the blue bunting, allowing for a drop.

She chipped down to 2 feet for birdie to join the three-way playoff.

Henderson needed a break after having to spend the final hour trying to catch up to Korda. The Canadian took her only lead on the 12th hole when Korda made bogey, and it didn’t last long.

Henderson drove into the right rough on the 13th and 6-iron in the wrong place — right again, with a bunker guarding the front right pin. She flopped that into the bunker and didn’t get up-and-down, leading to double bogey.

Korda answered with a tee shot into 5 feet for birdie on the par-3 14th, and suddenly her lead was at two. But she couldn’t hang on. Henderson’s 8-foot birdie putt curled in the left side of the cup on No. 16 with perfect speed. Korda held onto the lead at the 17th with an 8-foot par putt, and that set up the big finish on the 18th.

Through it all, Lee was an afterthought until her stunning finish.

She already chipped in for birdie from short of the green at No. 6. Lee gave herself a chance by pitching in from short of the 16th green to a back pin. And after a bogey on the 17th, she went long of the 18th and chipped in for eagle, dropping her head with a soft smile in disbelief.

Lexi Thompson, going after a second title at Mission Hills, was never a serious factor after bogeys that slowed her momentum. She closed with two birdies on her last three holes for a 69 to finish two shots out of the playoff.

U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Rose Zhang birdied the 18th for a 72 to tie for 11th. She finished at 8-under 280, setting the record for lowest score by an amateur.

Saturday’s Round

RANCHO MIRAGE, Ca. — Brooke Henderson tied a Mission Hills record with a 30 on the front nine and did just enough the rest of the round Saturday for a 7-under 65 and a share of the lead with Nelly Korda in the ANA Inspiration.

Henderson started the weekend six shots behind and wanted only to get as close to the lead as possible. Now she goes into the final round with a second major championship in her sights.

Korda began with a two-shot lead and fell three shots back with a rough stretch on the front nine, particularly the sixth hole by hitting 5-wood through the fairway into the gnarly rough and not getting over the water, leading to double bogey.

She rallied with three birdies on the back nine, however, for a 71 that allowed her to join Henderson at 12-under 204.

They have a two-shot lead over Lexi Thompson (69), Mirim Lee (71) and Katherine Kirk, who quietly went about her business with a 67 that landed the Australian in the final group.

“Sort of an easy start which was nice, and relaxed a little bit,” Henderson said. “Being moving day, I wanted to get a solid round out there and try to climb the leaderboard as much as possible. Still a lot of golf to be played, but nice to see my name up there. And hopefully, tomorrow I can post a similar round.”

It was the hottest day of the tournament, the temperature climbing just past 100 degrees late in the day, helped by a mild haze from California fires that kept the sun from burning brighter. Korda was among those with an umbrella on the back nine to fend off the sun.

Korda, the 22-year-old going for her first major, began to claw her way back with a birdie on the par-5 11th, a gap wedge to 3 feet for birdie on the 12th and a pitching wedge just over the bunker that rolled out to 5 feet for birdie on the 15th, regaining a share of the lead.

She laid up on the par-5 18th but left her wedge about 18 feet above the hole and had to settle for a par.

Thompson, four behind to start the round, got back in the game quickly with a two-shot swing on Korda on consecutive holes. Thompson holed a 35-foot birdie putt on the par-3 fifth, where Korda three-putted for bogey, and then Korda made her double bogey on the next hole. Thompson hit a short wedge to a foot to close out the back nine and appeared to be making her move.

Instead, that was the last birdie she made. Her best putt was a 15-footer for par on No. 13. She was among the few who went for the green on the 18th, sending it to the right and under the chair of a cameraman. She made a bold pitch down the hill to 5 feet and missed the birdie putt.

Ten players were separated by four shots, a group that included Carlota Ciganda at 9-under 207 and former Mission Hills winner Stacy Lewis another shot back. Both shot 67,

Also at 8-under 208 was U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Rose Zhang, who shot a 68. The 17-year-old won the Amateur last month over Gabriela Ruffels, who was at 6-under 210 in a strong showing by amateurs this week.

Henderson began her round by missing a short birdie putt, which annoyed her only up until a 3-wood on the next hole to 12 feet that led to eagle, and she was on her way. She closed out her front nine with a pitch to 2 feet for birdie and a 30, and was only disappointed she didn’t pick up more on the back nine.

No matter. She was tied for the lead, more than she would have expected when she teed off. And while the Canadian viewed this round as moving day, Sunday might not be much different with so many players still in the mix.

That includes Kirk, a 38-year-old Aussie with three LPGA victories and one runner-up in her previous 59 appearances in major championships. She opened with two quick birdies and did enough to think about what it would be like to win the ANA Inspiration and take the plunge into Popie’s Pond around the 18th green.

“It’s so stinking hot out here and it would be great to cool off,” Kirk said. “I have a lot of hard work, and there are a lot of great players on the leaderboard so I’m probably going to have to go low tomorrow and it’s going to take a really good number. But anything is possible in this game.”

Friday’s Round
RANCHO MIRAGE, Ca— The numbers suggested a stress-free time in the desert for Nelly Korda, who had five birdies and a clean card for a 5-under 67 to build an early two-shot lead Friday in the ANA Inspiration.

All she could think about were two pars.

The only fairway she missed was on her 11th hole, the par-5 second, and she was badly out of position the entire hole until making an 18-foot par putt to escape her big mess. One hole later, after hitting a fat shot from the fairway, she again had to make a par putt from some 25 feet.

“I did not know what I was doing on those two holes,” Korda said. “I was happy those two went in. Golf is just all about momentum, so you roll one in here and there and it just makes it a lot easier.”

It only figures to get harder from here.

Korda was at 11-under 133, two shots clear of Mirim Lee, who also played bogey-free in the rising heat for a 65. Among those playing in the afternoon was Danielle Kang, a two-time winner since the restart who is projected to reach No. 1 in the world with a victory in this tradition-rich major. Kang opened with a 68 on Thursday.

Korda presents an intimidating target, however, especially with how cleanly she has been hitting the ball. She hit 13 fairways, not the most difficult task with the lush Bermuda grass cutting back how much the ball rolls. More impressive was missing only four greens, and taking 26 putts on greens already sun-baked and fast.

“Definitely very happy with my putting today, and I was superbly happy with bogey-free,” she said.

If the lead holds, it would be the first time she takes a 36-hole lead into the weekend at a major. Thursday was her first time leading a major — she opened with a 65 — and even at 22, she is savvy enough to realize that it really doesn’t matter until Sunday.

Lee beat her career low at Mission Hills by four shots in her seventh appearance at this major.

“I didn’t miss a lot of shots, so I look forward to the next couple rounds,” Lee said.

Nanna Koerstz Madsen, with another bogey-free card, shot 69 and was four shots behind.

Korda picked up two birdies on the par 3s on the back nine and looked like she might give those shots back when she tugger her tee shot on No. 2. She considered taking a drop from the cart path until realizing she would be thick rough, so she hit 4-hybrid some 30 yards out to the right, leaving her no angle.

“Near dead over there,” she said. “Honestly, I was super happy with rolling that putt in. I was like, ’Just get me off this hole.”

The greens were pure in the morning, though getting the speed right was critical because they are rolling out a few extra feet, putting an even greater premium on pace.

“The thing out here is you hit a solid putt and it keeps on going,” Korda said. “You think it’s going to stop, and it just keeps on releasing, so then you’re like, ‘This is a good putt, this could possibly go in,’ and then it releases 5 to 6 feet because that’s just how it is out here. I had a lot of 5- and 6-footers for par today.”

And she made them all. That decision to change to a left-hand low grip at the Women’s British Open three weeks ago at Royal Troon looks like the right move. And her confidence is soaring.

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