The LPGA is a tour where a player can be a wily veteran at 29 years of age, and find herself digging deep for her best play to hold off a charge by a rookie who isn’t even old enough to vote. That was the picture this week at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, as Stacy Lewis played all four rounds of the tournament with 17-year-old rookie sensation Lydia Ko, and until late in Sunday’s final round it appeared that the pair were playing their own tournament within a tournament while the rest of the field duked it out for third place.
If Lewis had drained even a couple of the putts she missed by inches, or less, on the front nine, this would have been an uneven contest; as it was, it was a repeat of the type of punch-counterpunch golf that she and Ko had trade yesterday, this time with the young Kiwi coming out on top.
As much as she is capable of fearless golf at times, Ko showed vulnerability in the round, bogeying #4 with a short approach and a duffed chip, and #7 with a bad tee shot. The bogey at #7 came about when her drive clipped a tree on the inside of the dogleg and dropped straight down into the rough at the base of the tree, resulting in three shots to the green and a two-putt bogey, a misstep that dropped her to two shots back of Lewis.
The youngster from New Zealand showed her resilience and resolve at the next hole. The par-3 eighth, playing short from a forward tee, was armed with a back-right hole location, guarded by a fronting bunker, that few players had gone after all day.
Teeing off first, Lewis hit her tee shot stiff to that intimidating flag, eight feet, no more, above the hole. Looking for all the world like she hadn’t even seen the shot that Lewis had just dropped into an all-but-impossible spot, Ko stepped up and hit hers inside Lewis. Lewis badly misread the downhill putt, settling for par, and Ko, taking a lesson, rolled hers in for a birdie to move back to within a shot of Lewis.
Ko tied Lewis with a birdie at the ninth hole, skipping a bump-and-run shot from 35 yards off of the green to within 10 feet and rolling in the putt for birdie. Both Ko and Lewis bogeyed the par-4 10th hole, Lewis after a badly pulled drive and Ko after skipping her approach well over the back of the green.
Ko took the outright lead for the first time, and in no uncertain fashion, with a birdie at #13. Lewis dropped a shot with a bogey out of the front bunker for a two-shot swing, falling into a tie for 2nd with the lurking Jenny Shin.
All three in the final group birdied the par-5 fourteenth, Ko and Lewis missing eagle opportunities, Lewis from no more than 8 feet.
After the group split the par-3 fifteenth with pars, Lewis made a clutch birdie putt at #16 while Ko did well to get up and down from a bunker for par.
At the par-4 seventeenth, Ko played a déjà vu shot, skipping her approach over the back of the green just like she had in the third round, only from the right rough, the mirror image of her position on the hole yesterday. Lewis hit a high approach from the center of the fairway, the ball releasing past the hole and checking up to leave a downhill eight-footer.
Ko had evidently learned a lesson from her experience from the same position in the previous round, hitting a delicate chip with a 54˚ wedge that skipped and released, leaving her a tap-in for par. Lewis missed an opportunity to tie the round at #17, once again missing a dicey, but makeable, putt for birdie. Things then got complicated for Lewis when Shin, from a similar position but a little closer, made her birdie putt to tie Lewis for second.
The dramatic backdrop of LMGC’s par-5 eighteenth hole was the stage for the epic closing hole of the tournament. Shin hit first, to the right side of the fairway, followed by Lewis and Ko, who both rocketed drives to the center of the fairway, well beyond Shin’s effort.
Ko pulled her second shot to the right rough, below the well-elevated green, while Shin and Lewis had good position in the fairway. Hearing the crowd’s reaction when Shin and Lewis stuffed close approaches to the tight front hole location, Ko once again rose to the challenge, striking a formidable shot from a poor lie to six feet.
Shin putted out first, from 10 feet, taking two putts to close out and making par. Ko, putting next, had six feet to guarantee a win – and as calmly as if she were closing out a practice round, she rolled in the winning putt, leaving Lewis to make a birdie to cement solo second.
The win, which moves Ko into the #2 spot in the Rolex World Rankings behind Inbee Park, is her sixth professional tournament victory, but her first as a member of the LPGA Tour.
Among players with Northern California connections, Michelle Wie finished T-9 at 2-under, Monterey’s Mina Harigae closed the tournament with her only round in the 60s, a 3-under 69, to finish T-21 at 2-over. Pleasanton native Paula Creamer finished T-35 at 5-over, and Los Altos resident Juli Inkster came in at 6-over for T-41.
The tight competition and thrilling climax to the tournament contributes to a number of positives for the week, all reflecting favorably on the membership and personnel of Lake Merced Golf Club. Despite a smörgåsbord of weather, the players, caddies and even LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan gave kudos to club for course setup, facilities, and organization, all of which bodes well for the tournament’s return to the Bay Area in the coming years.