More stories

  • in

    A Rookie Wins the ANA Inspiration Ahead of a Fast-Closing Challenger

    Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand won the first women’s golf major of the year, holding off Lydia Ko, whose final round of 10-under 62 put her two strokes short.RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Generation Next was in full flower over the weekend. Not at the former nursery in Georgia where youngsters and the top female amateurs convened for separate events at the invitation of the Augusta National Golf Club members who run the Masters Tournament, but across the country where a 21-year-old rookie, Patty Tavatanakit, won the ANA Inspiration on Sunday.The 50th edition of the ANA Inspiration, the first of the five women’s golf majors of the year, will be remembered for Tavatanakit’s mastery of the course at Mission Hills Country Club and of the moment.She led from start to finish to become the first rookie winner since Juli Inkster in 1984 and the first champion from Thailand in tournament history. She closed with a three-under 68 — her fourth consecutive sub-70 round — for a cumulative score of 18-under 270 to hold off a fast-closing Lydia Ko by two strokes. Ko’s 10-under 62 on Sunday was one of the most memorable final rounds in men’s or women’s major history.With no fans on the course because of coronavirus restrictions, there were no roars to make Tavatanakit aware of what was happening in front of her. And she said she never once glanced at a leaderboard. “I didn’t feel the need to,” she said, adding, “I just wanted to play like it was another round of golf.”Tavatanakit, who averaged more than 300 yards off the tee for the week, began the day with a five-stroke lead over the field and an eight-stroke advantage over Ko. For all the talk about Tavatanakit’s length, her touch on and around the greens proved clutch.She chipped in for an eagle at the par-5 second, nearly chipped in two other times on the back nine and made an eight-foot putt to save par at No. 15 to keep Ko, the 2016 ANA Inspiration champion, at a club’s length.Playing two groups ahead of Tavatanakit, Ko, 23, of New Zealand, applied more heat than a desert sun with a front-nine seven-under 29, a tournament record. She was nine under through 11, and climbed within two shots of the lead, but Tavatanakit did not wilt. Under the most intense pressure, Tavatanakit produced her second bogey-free round of the week.“I felt like I gave myself a good run at it,” said Ko, whose last L.P.G.A. victory was in 2018, “but maybe Patty was just a bit too far away.”Roughly 90 minutes before Tavatanakit teed off, Cristie Kerr put the finishing touches on a seven-under 65, her lowest round in 23 starts in the tournament. As Kerr signed her card in the scoring tent, she glanced up at a television tuned to Golf Channel, which was showing a replay of the Drive, Chip and Putt contest that had taken place earlier in the day at Augusta National.Plastered on the glassed back wall, in direct view of the players as they reviewed their scorecards, were posters with sayings from former champions, including the three-time winner Amy Alcott, who said, “This tournament really got women’s sports on the move.”The 43-year-old Kerr, who counts two major championships among her 20 tour titles, made her debut in this event as an amateur in 1996. Seventeen strokes off the pace at the day’s start, Kerr started in the fourth group in the morning and plotted her way around the course unburdened by expectations.“All day I just kind of played with no fear,” Kerr said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why doesn’t that happen every day?’”The boldness of which Kerr spoke is Tavatanakit’s default mentality. Before sleeping on her first 54-hole lead in an L.P.G.A. Tour event, she said her mind-set Sunday would be, “Keep on the pedal.”Tavatanakit took the winner’s traditional dip into Poppie’s Pond, the water hazard that surrounds the 18th hole. Kelvin Kuo/USA Today Sports, via ReutersIn 2019, in her second ANA Inspiration appearance, Tavatanakit earned low amateur honors, closing with a 68 to finish tied for 26th. She was a standout sophomore at U.C.L.A. at the time, but her presence at the event, a launching pad for amateurs long before Michelle Wie tied for ninth in 2003 as a 13-year-old, was not a given.The inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur was being played at the same time. The opportunity it offered to play the final round on one of the world’s most storied courses had to be weighed against the chance to measure one’s game against the world’s most celebrated players.Tavatanakit was one of a handful of eligible players who chose to bypass the amateur event to compete at Mission Hills. The decision, she said, questioned by many at the time, set Tavatanakit on a path that ended Sunday with her taking the winner’s traditional dip in Poppie’s Pond, the water hazard surrounding the 18th island green.Her top 30 showing in 2019, she said, convinced her that she was ready to take a leap of faith. “I kind of had a thought of turning pro, I played well and that just made it more clear,” said Tavatanakit, who gave up her collegiate eligibility in May 2019.By year’s end, Tavatanakit had won three times on the L.P.G.A.’s developmental tour. Her 2020 rookie season, which has been extended through 2021, featured a top five in February at the Gainbridge L.P.G.A., where she gained valuable experience playing in the last group with the eventual winner, Nelly Korda, but also seven missed cuts.Tavatanakit suggested that her commitment to the ANA Inspiration in 2019 helped her immensely this year. The four rounds at Mission Hills in 2019 gave her enough course knowledge to commit to the aggressive lines she took.“Looking back, I think coming here and playing here enough to know how the course is, it was really good,” she said.Tavatanakit’s eyes were wet before she jumped into Poppie’s Pond. She became emotional before hitting her last putt, she said, because she was thinking, “Oh, man, I’m actually going to do this.”She had made history and she had done it by grafting off women’s golf’s roots. More

  • in

    For Korea’s Golfers Eyeing the Olympics, More Than Four Is a Crowd

    Each country can send only four women to Tokyo, and with six Korean golfers in the world’s top 15, just making the team can feel harder than winning gold.RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — So Yeon Ryu is a two-time major winner and a former world No. 1 who entered this week’s ANA Inspiration, the first L.P.G.A. major of the year, as a top 20 player. Ryu’s credentials for the Tokyo Olympics this summer are solid gold.Her passport is her problem.Ryu is from South Korea, where champion women golfers are an abundant natural resource. With three months until the team rosters for the delayed Summer Games in Tokyo are finalized, Ryu is No. 16 in the world but No. 7 in her homeland.The Olympic qualification standards dictate that every player in the top 15 is eligible to compete but that no country can have more than four representatives in the 60-player field. Led by Jin Young Ko, Koreans hold the top three spots.“I don’t know that there’s a harder team in sport to make right now,” said Mike Whan, the departing L.P.G.A. commissioner.In 2016, when golf returned to the Olympics as a medal sport for the first time since 1904, Ryu missed a berth on the South Korean team despite a top-12 world ranking.“It’s tougher to make the team from my country than to win the gold medal,” said Ryu, who opened with an even-par 72 Thursday at Mission Hills. Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand shot a six-under-par 66 to lead the field.South Korean champions have been plentiful over the past decade, capturing 23 of the 47 L.P.G.A. majors contested. They occupy 14 of the top 35 spots in the world rankings. For players desiring to distinguish themselves, making the Olympic team is a priority.“So many players are playing so well from Korea that I want to say people back home are less appreciative to see what we’re doing on the tour,” said Ryu, 30, whose major titles came at the 2011 United States Women’s Open and the 2017 ANA Inspiration, both in playoffs. “They’re more keen to see the Olympics because they know it’s really, really tough to make the team.”Inbee Park, Ryu’s best friend and compatriot, won the women’s competition at the Rio Olympics, by five strokes over New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, then the top-ranked player. With the country’s team members all so highly ranked, Korean officials were confident of at least one medal in the women’s competition. Park overcame a wrist injury that had slowed her progress all year and delivered on the expectations.No stranger to the spotlight, she took the golf world on a thrilling ride in 2013 when she won the first three majors in a bid to become the first professional, male or female, to win four in the same year. But never, Park said, had she felt more pressure. After arriving in Brazil, Park absorbed the sense of urgency radiated by the archers, the swimmers, the taekwondo athletes and the handball players representing Korea who have one chance every four years to craft their legacies.“You get so much attention from the people and the country and from everyone pretty much,” Park, now 32 and a seven-time major champion, said this week. “I think it’s double, triple, probably 10 times more pressure than I ever felt in a major championship.”Whan said the telecast of Park’s final round drew a 27.1 rating in South Korea. To put that in context, he said, Park’s unsuccessful bid for history at the 2013 Women’s British Open — she finished 14 strokes behind the winner, Stacy Lewis — got an 8, which was roughly the same as the rating for Tiger Woods’s victorious final round at the 2019 Masters.“So imagine Tiger at Augusta times three,” Whan said. “She went from being a really noteworthy golfer to being one of the most famous people in Korea in one weekend.”Ryu didn’t plan to watch any of the 2016 Olympics coverage. “I was so close to making the team that it definitely hurt for me,” Ryu said. “I wanted to avoid it as much as I can.”She added, “But when you know your best friend is rocking it in Rio, you have to watch.”Ryu was glad she saw Park clinch the gold. She credits Park’s performance in the Olympics with her own victory at Mission Hills and ascent to No. 1 the following year.“Before Rio I was maybe so afraid, ‘What is going to happen if I miss the Olympics?’” Ryu said. “So I almost just wanted to believe winning a major is better than the Olympics.”She added: “After Inbee won the gold medal, I was definitely jealous — not of her but because I felt she did something that was big for the whole golf industry. Maybe that motivation really helped me to play well in 2017.”Inbee Park, right, with Chun Lee-Kyung, a four-time Olympic champion in short-track speed skating, during the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Park saw her stardom explode after she won gold at the Rio Games. Chang W. Lee/The New York TimesIn 2018, South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. In a nod to her new stature, Park was chosen as one of the final torch bearers. As she ran with the flame into the Olympic Stadium, slowly to avoid tripping in conditions so cold she could hardly feel her feet, her friend Ryu sat awe-struck in the crowd of 35,000.After being so near the top 10 and still so far from qualifying for the 2016 Olympics, Ryu recognized it might be her only chance to experience an Olympics up close. More