Randall's Rant: The Evian earned a major* asterisk

By Randall MellSeptember 18, 2017, 8:30 pm

Right now, the Evian Championship feels more like a major showcase for Group Danone than it does a major championship for women’s golf.

Group Danone is the French multinational corporation and title sponsor that owns Evian.

Stick a big, fat asterisk on Sunday’s result.

It’s an asterisk that this observer doesn’t assign lightly, because it goes on the gold-star resume of an LPGA commissioner. It goes on the resume of a leader whose transformative vision thrives in part because he so often challenges traditional thinking.

More on Mike Whan later.

The way the Evian Championship began – with scores wiped clean after an abbreviated start, with the quick decision to shorten the event to 54 holes before bothering to wait and see if play could be made up on the weekend – were huge clues where the priorities lie in the fifth major in women’s golf. And so was the final scene, with the sudden-death playoff slogging through high winds, hard rain and even hail, with no LPGA official stepping in to halt play.

The priority didn’t appear to be identifying the best player by setting up a thorough examination of skill, concentration and resolve. The priority appeared to be to finish on Sunday, barring fire and brimstone coming down from the sky, and barring the pond at the 18th hole turning to blood.

The most damning scene was the last, with Anna Nordqvist and Brittany Altomare at the decisive playoff hole. Even with a crew scrambling to squeegee the green, it was raining so hard that a number of large puddles re-formed before Altomare could hit her third shot. Nordqvist said she could feel hail coming down as she prepared to hit her third shot.



Unless Altomare made the long walk to the green to examine where she could safely land the ball between the puddles, skill wasn’t being tested when it mattered most in the end. A good shot could have splashed, splatted, skipped or become submerged on its way to its final resting spot.

By allowing Altomare to play to a green so obviously unfit for deciding who wins a major, the LPGA put the integrity of the competition in jeopardy.

Fortuitously, neither player hit the green with her third shot, and a crew then squeegeed paths for their chip shots.

Why did finishing on time appear more important than presenting the best possible test to measure a champion? Why was the inconvenience of 72 holes or a Monday finish so abhorrent with no LPGA event scheduled to follow this week?

Whether it was to maximize Sunday’s TV window exposure, to satisfy the ideal needs of an important title sponsor, or to avoid the expense of a Monday finish and the complications of extending lodging in a small resort town is still unclear. It could be all of that and more.

But the LPGA insists the decisions were made solely by the tour.

What is clear is that all those potential reasons conflict with the traditional understanding of what defines a major championship. What’s clear is that the sacrosanct principles we have come to revere majors for don’t appear so sacrosanct to the LPGA.

The tour’s loyalists will tell you that’s not fair.

They will tell you sacrosanct is the luxury of the rich. The women’s game isn’t rich like the men’s game. It’s why four of the five LPGA majors depend on title sponsors as “partners” to stage the competition. It’s why four of the five women’s majors have pro-ams. It’s why quality partners are so vital to the health of the women’s majors.

While there are practical realities to the economics of the women’s game, challenges the men don’t face, majors by anyone’s definition must be held to higher standards.

It’s why I’ve stamped a big, fat asterisk on Sunday’s results, which is meant as no disrespect to Anna Nordqvist, whose never-quit attitude would likely have made her the winner if this event had stretched to 108 holes.

The asterisk honors all the majors that have held themselves to a higher standard and all the major championship winners whose special efforts set them apart in history’s evaluation of the game’s greats.

And that’s our cue to go to commissioner Whan’s gold-star resume.

It’s important here to document exactly how important Whan is to the LPGA, how his transformative vision saved a withering tour and set it on such a promising course. He has some very effective governing principles, and he isn’t apologetic about how they may clash with the game’s traditions.

It’s why Whan wasn’t afraid to unilaterally declare that Evian is a major. It’s why he wasn’t afraid to ask players to compete for no paycheck in the Founders Cup’s first year. It’s why he embraced Asia’s possibilities when so many others were telling him he needed to focus more intensely on building the tour’s domestic foundation.



Whan has earned the high praise he has gotten so often on this website.

The gold star he earned for rebuilding a floundering tour from 23 events and $40 million in total prize money in 2011 to 34 events and a record $65 million this year . . .

The gold star for understanding that Asian dominance wasn’t a liability, but a real strength to be built up, so much so that the partnerships he built with Korean TV helped carry the LPGA through its lean years . . .

The gold star he built as a trustworthy leader that the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, the USGA and the LET valued in creating new partnerships with the PGA Tour-LPGA Alliance, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf and more co-sanctioned LET events . . .

The gold star he risked creating the Founders Cup, asking players to compete for no paycheck that first year, which launched a special event that honors the LPGA’s past while paying forward with support to the Girls’ Golf program. This scribe was highly skeptical in that event’s start . . .

The gold star for the International Crown, an idea so much better than the Presidents Cup, with Whan insisting players compete under their own flags . . .

We could go on and on, but the point is that one of the foundational practices of the servanthood leadership style that has been so instrumental in Whan turning around the LPGA is also at the heart of why the Evian Championship gets an asterisk.

When Whan took over the LPGA, he remade the business with his “role reversal” concept. He saw that staff was too intensely focused on tournament operations, and not focused enough on understanding and serving the check writers.

“We have to start thinking like title sponsors,” Whan told his staff.

It’s no cheap shot to note that here, because it seems to be integral to what happened at Evian, and why a women’s tour so dependent on title sponsors for its majors would be less committed to the principles by which we have come to define majors. It seems to be integral to why a women’s tour would seem less committed to the importance of completing 72 holes, of playing the ball down, of playing courses that are true major championship tests.

There is genius in Whan’s leadership style, which is based on the personal credibility he has built with his business partners and players. Role reversal works, but the question is whether it works at majors.

As the LPGA chief, Whan is often asked to take off his salesman/marketing hat and put on his commissioner’s hat. At a major, it’s a more challenging proposition.

Franck Riboud and Group Danone are good for women’s golf. The partnership is good for the LPGA. The game is better because of them, and because of the investment they’ve made renovating Evian Resort Golf Club, and because of the giant increase in the purse they made this year. The $3.65 million purse is exceeded only by the U.S. Women’s Open among LPGA events.

None of that, however, makes Evian feel like it is measuring up as a major since Whan declared it one five years ago.

There are still issues with the course as a major championship test. The lowest 18-hole score (61) and 72-hole score (21 under) in the history of men’s or women’s golf were posted there. Too often in its short history, there have been too many ground-under-repair markings, with all the September rain.

And when the course is speeded up to repel scoring, or pin placements are put on the spines of some of those humps and swales in the greens, shots border on being unfair.

Riboud’s working on it, and Whan’s working on it, but we saw decisions last week that clash with major championship tradition. We saw a big, fat asterisk.

LPGA awards: Ryu, S.H. Park tie for POY

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:56 am

NAPLES, Fla. – In the end, the CME Group Tour Championship played out a lot like the entire 2017 season did.

Parity reigned.

Nobody dominated the game’s big season-ending awards, though Lexi Thompson and Sung Hyun Park came close.

Thompson walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. If she had made that last 2-foot putt at the 72nd hole Sunday, she might also have walked away with the Rolex Player of the Year Award and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Park shared the Rolex Player of the Year Award with So Yeon Ryu. By doing so, Park joined Nancy Lopez as the only players in LPGA history to win the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year titles in the same season. Lopez did it in 1978. Park also won the LPGA money-winning title.

Here’s a summary of the big prizes:

Rolex Player of the Year
Ryu and Park both ended up with 162 points in the points-based competition. Park started the week five points behind Ryu but made the up the difference with the five points she won for tying for sixth.

It marks the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Ryu and Park join Inbee Park as the only South Koreans to win the award. Park won it in 2013.


Vare Trophy
Thompson won the award with a scoring average of 69.114. Sung Hyun Park finished second at 69.247. Park needed to finish at least nine shots ahead of Thompson at the CME Group Tour Championship to win the trophy.

There were a record 12 players with scoring averages under 70.0 this year, besting the previous record of five, set last year.


CME Globe $1 million prize
Thompson entered the week first in the CME points reset, but it played out as a two-woman race on the final day. Park needed to finish ahead of Thompson in the CME Group Tour Championship to overtake her for the big money haul. Thompson tied for second in the tournament while Park tied for sixth.

By winning the CME Group Tour Championship, Jutanugarn had a shot at the $1 million, but she needed Park to finish the tournament eighth or worse and Thompson to finish ninth or worse.


LPGA money-winning title
Park claimed the title with $2,335,883 in earnings. Ryu was second, with $1,981,593 in earnings.

The tour saw a tour-record 17 players win $1 million or more this season, two more than did so last year.

Ryu came into the week as the only player who could pass Park for the title, but Ryu needed to win to do so.


Rolex world No. 1 ranking
The top ranking was up for grabs at CME, with No. 1 Feng, No. 2 Sung Hyun Park and No. 3 So Yeon Ryu all within three hundredths of a ranking point. Even No. 4 Lexi Thompson had a chance to grab the top spot if she won, but in the end nobody could overtake Feng. Her reign will extend to a second straight week.


Rolex Rookie of the Year
Park ran away with the award with her U.S. Women’s Open and Canadian Pacific Women’s Open victories among her 11 top-10 finishes. She had the award locked up long before she arrived for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Ko ends first winless season with T-16 at CME

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:07 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko carved a hybrid 3-iron to 15 feet and ended the most intensely scrutinized year of her young career with a birdie Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

“Nice to finish the season on a high note,” Ko said after posting a 3-under-par 69, good for a tie for 16th. “Obviously, not a top-10 finish, but I played really solid. I feel like I finished the season off pretty strong.”

Ko posted two second-place finishes, a third-place finish and a tie for fifth in her last eight starts.

“Ever since Indy [in early September], I played really good and put myself in good positions,” Ko said. “I felt like the confidence factor was definitely higher than during the middle of the year. I had some opportunities, looks for wins.”

Sunday marked the end of Ko’s first winless season since she began playing LPGA events at 15 years old.

Let the record show, she left with a smile, eager to travel to South Korea to spend the next month with family after playing a charity event in Bradenton, Fla., on Monday.


CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship


Much was made of Ko beginning the year with sweeping changes, with new equipment (PXG), a new coach (Gary Gilchrist) and a new caddie (Peter Godfrey).

In the final summary, it wasn’t a Ko-like year, not by the crazy high standards she has set.

She saw her run of 85 consecutive weeks at No. 1 end in June. She arrived in Naples holding on to the No. 8 ranking. She ends the year 13th on the LPGA money list with $1,177,450 in earnings. It’s the first time she hasn’t finished among the top three in money in her four full years on tour. She did log 11 top-10 finishes overall, three second-place finishes.

How did she evaluate her season?

“I feel like it was a better year than everyone else thinks, like `Lydia is in a slump,’” Ko said. “I feel like I played solid.

“It's a season that, obviously, I learned a lot from ... the mental aspect of saying, `Hey, get over the bads and kind of move on.’”

Ko said she learned a lot watching Stacy Lewis deal with her run of second-place finishes after winning so much.

“Winning a championship is a huge deal, but, sometimes, it's overrated when you haven't won,” Ko said. “Like, you're still playing well, but just haven't won. I kind of feel like it's been that kind of year.

“I think everybody has little ups and downs.”

For Ariya, Lexi, finish was fabulous, frustrating

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 12:47 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Lexi Thompson can take a punch.

You have to give her that.

So can Ariya Jutanugarn, who beat Thompson in the gut-wrenching conclusion to the CME Group Tour Championship Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club.

They both distinguished themselves overcoming adversity this season.

The problem for Thompson now is that she’ll have to wait two months to show her resolve again. She will go into the long offseason with the memory of missing a 2-foot putt for par that could have won her the championship, her first Rolex Player of the Year Award and her first Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Thompson took home the CME Globe $1 million jackpot and Vare Trophy for low scoring as nice consolation prizes, but the Sunday finish was a lot like her season.

It was so close to being spectacular.

She was so close to dominating this year.

That last 2-foot putt Sunday would have put Thompson in the clubhouse at 15 under, with a one-shot lead, which would have added so much more pressure to Jutanugarn as she closed out.

Instead of needing to birdie the final two holes to force a playoff, Jutanugarn only needed to birdie one of them to assure extra holes. She went birdie-birdie anyway.

Thompson was on the practice putting green when she heard the day’s last roar, when Jutanugarn rolled in a 15-foot birdie to beat her.

“It wasn’t the way I wanted to end it,” Thompson said of the short miss. “I don’t really know what happened there. It just happens. I guess it’s golf.”


CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship


Thompson was asked if the weight of everything at stake affected her.

“No, honestly, I wasn’t thinking about it,” she said. “I putted great the whole day. I guess, maybe, there was just a little bit of adrenaline.

“We all go through situations we don’t like sometimes.”

Thompson endured more than she wanted this year.

She won twice, but there were six second-place finishes, including Sunday’s. There were three losses in playoffs.

There was the heart-wrenching blow at the ANA Inspiration, the season’s first major, when she looked as if she were going to run away with the title before getting blindsided by a four-shot penalty in the final round. There were two shots when a viewer email led to a penalty for mismarking her ball on a green in the third round, and two more shots for signing an incorrect scorecard.

Thompson was in tears finishing that Sunday at Mission Hills, but she won a legion of new fans in the way she fought back before losing in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

There was more heartache later in the spring, when Thompson’s mother, Judy, was diagnosed with uterine cancer, requiring surgery to remove a tumor and then radiation.

For Thompson fans, Sunday’s missed 2-foot putt was a cruel final blow to the year.

This time, there were no tears from Lexi afterward.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds . . . it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said. “This won’t either.”

After Thompson bounced back from the ANA loss to win the Kingsmill Invitational in May, she acknowledged how the loss motivated her.

“I'm as determined as any other person out here,” Thompson said. “We all want to win. I have a little bit more drive now.”

She was so close this year to elevating herself as the one true rock star in the women’s game. She will have a long offseason to turn Sunday’s disappointment into yet more fuel to get there.

Thompson will prepare for next year knowing Jutanugarn may be ramping her game back up to dominante, too.

Jutanugarn looked as if she were going to become a rock star after winning five times last year to claim the Rolex Player of the Year Award and then rising to No. 1 with a victory at the Manulife Classic back in May, but it didn’t happen.

Jutanugarn struggled through a summer-long slump.

She failed to make a cut in six of seven starts. It wasn’t as miserable a slump as she endured two years ago, when she missed 10 consecutive cuts, but it was troubling.

“Even though I played so badly the last few months, I learned a lot,” Jutanugarn said. “I’m growing up a lot, and I’m really ready to have some fun next year.”

Her surgically repaired shoulder was bothering her again, but it was more than that.

“This time it was more about becoming No. 1,” said Gary Gilchrist, her coach. “I think all of the responsibilities got to her.”

Gilchrist said he could see a different focus in Jutanugarn this week. He credited Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott for helping her deal with all the pressure that has mounted with her growing status.

“It’s been a long process,” Nilsson said. “She’s felt too much expectation from everybody else, where she loses focus on what she can do.”

Marriott said they asked Jutanugarn to come up with something she wanted to do to make herself proud this week, instead of worrying about what would please everyone else.

It worked.

“I told my caddie, Les [Luark], that thinking about the No. 1 ranking wasn’t going to help me be a better golfer,” Jutanugarn said. “I wanted people to say, `Oh this girl, she’s really happy.’ That was my goal, to have fun.”

Late Sunday, hoisting the trophy, Jutanugarn looked like she was having a lot of fun.

Thomas vs. Rose could be Ryder Cup highlight

By Rex HoggardNovember 19, 2017, 11:40 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – For those still digesting the end of 2017 – the European Tour did, after all, just wrap up its season in Dubai on Sunday – consider that the PGA Tour is already nearly one-fifth of the way into a new edition.

The Tour has already crowned eight champions as the game banks into the winter break, and there are some interesting trends that have emerged from the fall.

Dueling Justins: While Justin Thomas picked up where he left off last season, winning the inaugural CJ Cup in October just three weeks after claiming the FedExCup and wrapping up Player of the Year honors; Justin Rose seems poised to challenge for next year’s low Justin honors.

The Englishman hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since August and won back-to-back starts (WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open) before closing his year with a tie for fourth place in Dubai.

Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk: Justin v. Justin next September in Paris could be fun.

Youth served. Just in case anyone was thinking the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of experience over youthful exuberance – 41-year-old Pat Perez did put the veterans on the board this season with his victory at the CIMB Classic – Patrick Cantlay solidified his spot as genuine phenom.

Following an injury-plagued start to his career, Cantlay got back on track this year, needing just a dozen starts to qualify for the Tour Championship. He went next level earlier this month with his playoff victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.


RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


They say these trends come and go in professional golf, but as the average age of winners continues to trend lower and lower it’s safe to say 25 is the new 35 on Tour.

A feel for it. For all the science that has become such a big part of the game – from TrackMan analysis to ShotLink statistics – it was refreshing to hear that Patton Kizzire’s breakthrough victory at the OHL Classic came down to a hunch.

With the tournament on the line and Rickie Fowler poised just a stroke back, Kizzire’s tee shot at the 72nd hole came to rest in an awkward spot that forced him to stand close to his approach shot to keep his feet out of the sand. His 8-iron approach shot sailed to 25 feet and he two-putted for par.

And how far did he have for that pivotal approach?

“I have no idea,” he laughed.

Fall facelift. Although the moving parts of the 2018-19 schedule appear to be still in flux, how the changes will impact the fall schedule is coming into focus.

The Tour’s goal is to end the season on Labor Day, which means the fall portion of the schedule will begin a month earlier than it does now. While many see that as a chance for the circuit to embrace a true offseason, it’s becoming increasingly clear that won’t be the case.

The more likely scenario is an earlier finish followed by a possible team competition, either the Ryder or Presidents cup, before the Tour kicks off a new season in mid-September, which means events currently played before the Tour Championship will slide to the fall schedule.

“So if you slide it back, somebody has to jump ahead. The mechanics of it,” said Davis Love III, host of the RSM Classic and a member of the Tour’s policy board. “I’m still going to go complain and beg for my day, but I also understand when they say, this is your date, make it work, then we'll make it work.”

While 2019 promises to bring plenty of change to the Tour, know that the wraparound season and fall golf are here to stay.

Product protection. Speaking of the fall schedule and the likely plan to expand the post-Tour Championship landscape, officials should also use the platform to embrace some protections for these events.

Consider that the RSM Classic featured the third-strongest field last week according to the Official World Golf Ranking, behind the season-ending tournament in Dubai on the European Tour and the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour.

The winner in Dubai received 50 World Ranking points, a marquee event that has historically been deeper than that week’s Tour stop, while the Dunlop Phoenix winner, Brooks Koepka, won 32 points. Austin Cook collected 30 points for his victory at Sea Island Resort.

All told, the Japan event had four players in the field from the top 50 in the world, including world No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama; while the highest-ranked player at the RSM Classic was Matt Kuchar at 15th and there were seven players from the top 50 at Sea Island Resort.

Under Tour rules, Koepka, as well as any other Tour members who competed either in Japan or Dubai, had to be granted conflicting-event releases by the circuit.

Although keeping players from participating in tournaments overseas is not an option, it may be time for the circuit to reconsider the conflicting-event policy if the result is a scenario like last week that relegates a Tour event to third on the international dance card.