DALY CITY, Calif. – This sweeping saga they call the LPGA keeps making twists and turns that seem destined to define it as the new golden era in women’s golf.
Give these players credit - they are continuing to deliver one dramatic chapter after another this year in an attempt to break out of their little niche in the sports landscape.
Sei Young Kim’s victory at the Lotte Championship on Saturday, with her wild finish of chipping in to force a playoff and then holing out from 154 yards for eagle at the first sudden-death hole, couldn’t have been more spectacular if it had been punctuated with a crack of thunder.
Kim is a 22-year-old rookie from South Korea who now tops the Rolex Player of the Year and Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year point races. How rare is that? Only Nancy Lopez has won the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards in the same season. She did it 37 years ago.
With the tour moving to San Francisco this week for the Swinging Skirts Classic, another strong field will vie to keep the magical storylines going. There’s almost a major championship feel to the event with 19 of the top 20 in the world rankings teeing it up on a strong test at Lake Merced Golf Club. Jessica Korda is the only player among the top 20 not scheduled to play.
The women gathering here are making this a special time in their game. You could argue we’re already in the midst of a golden era in their sport. While history always has final say in such matters, there’s evidence in assessing just what today’s players are achieving.
The extraordinary nature of this collection of talent can be seen in the records they’re setting.
Lydia Ko is the defending champion this week. At 17, she is the youngest No. 1 in the history of men’s or women’s golf. At 15, she was the youngest winner of an LPGA event. Earlier this month, she equaled a modern record in the women’s game, tying Annika Sorenstam’s mark of 29 consecutive rounds under par. Though she turns 18 in three days, Ko will have four chances this year to become the youngest woman to win a major.
Last year, Stacy Lewis became the first American in two decades to sweep the Player of the Year, Vare Trophy for low scoring average and the money title in the same season.
The year before that, Inbee Park won the first three major championships of the year, something no woman had achieved since Babe Zaharias in 1950. Her run didn’t end until Lewis won the Ricoh Women’s British Open, taking the title at St. Andrews, where she closed hitting one of the best shots in major championship history to make birdie at the famed Road Hole.
You want great shots in majors? These women are practically making a habit of them. Brittany Lincicome is still aglow after making eagle at the 72nd hole to force a playoff that ended with her winning the ANA Inspiration three weeks ago. Mo Martin rattled a 3-wood off the flagstick at the final hole of the Ricoh Women’s British Open last summer, almost closing out her victory at Royal Birkdale with an albatross. She won, instead, with an eagle.
These women have been unrelenting delivering compelling theater for three seasons now, from Park’s historic run of major championship victories, to Suzann Pettersen’s leading the Euros to new Solheim Cup glory to Kim’s amazing finish last weekend.
A year ago, Paula Creamer’s emotional celebration winning the HSBC Women’s in a playoff with a 75-foot eagle putt went viral on the web . . . Michelle Wie broke through to claim her first major on the largest stage a women’s event had ever been played upon, winning the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst a week after the men played there. She did so holding off then-world No. 1 Lewis . . . At 31, after toiling six years to make it to the LPGA, Martin fashioned a Cinderella story winning the Women’s British Open in her third season on tour . . . Big-hitting Lexi Thompson beat Wie in a final-round dream pairing to win the Kraft Nabisco for her first major . . . Hall of Famer Karrie Webb won twice . . . Christina Kim fought her way back from injury and depression to win again . . . Spain’s dynamic quartet of Azahara Munoz, Beatriz Recari, Carlota Ciganda and Belen Mozo won the intriguing new International Crown team event and Ko ended the year taking home the largest payday in the history of women’s golf ($1.5 million) as winner of the CME Group Tour Championship and CME Globe.
There hasn’t been any let-up so far this year.
Na Yeon Choi won a dramatic season opener at the Coates Golf Championship in a back-nine duel that saw Ko endure a rare collapse and still vault to No. 1 in the world with her second-place finish. Ko proved she was more than worthy of her lofty new ranking, winning the Women’s Australian Open and LET’s New Zealand Women’s Open in back-to-back starts. There was more riveting action to follow in Singapore as the HSBC Women’s Champions gave us a rare treat with the Rolex world Nos. 1-2-3 players battling in the final grouping of the final round with Park winning. There was more theater when the LPGA returned to the United States, with rookie Hyo Joo Kim taking just about everything Lewis could throw at her in a final-round duel to win the JTBC Founders Cup. Cristie Kerr followed that up at the Kia Classic, winning for the first time as a mother, with her 1-year-old son Mason there to hug at the end. Lincicome’s dramatics came directly after at the ANA, with Sei Young Kim’s fireworks following last week.
With an extraordinary rookie class, maybe the LPGA’s best ever, the women’s game has never been deeper . . . or looked so golden for a while.