American’s 25-foot birdie putt on 1st playoff hole caps festive week at Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – As a resident of central Florida for nearly 40 years, I can tell you that my phone will ring in early March with a friend on the line telling me that he is headed out to Bay Hill, first time, for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Soon the question arrives in cadence with the swallows returning to Capistrano: So, which player should I follow?
“Just pick one; it doesn’t really matter,” is my stock answer. “Oh, sure, you might watch Tiger, or Rory, or enjoy the Bryson home-run show, but you’ll never hit a golf ball like any of them. Pipe dream.” Then I’ll scour my living room for spies, cup the phone really tight and add, “Go watch the LPGA. One, you’ll be mightily impressed by the level of play. More importantly, you’ll receive a far better education on how to pick apart a golf course and shoot a score.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, in fact, I would urge my friends to follow Emilee Klein, who barely hit the ball out of her own shadow yet won at every level. Every swing took maximum effort, her ball knuckling down the fairway and collecting very limited air miles. She was U.S. Girls’ Junior champion. Women’s NCAA Division I individual champion. Three-time LPGA winner. (She did a junior clinic alongside her former Orlando neighbor Annika Sorenstam years ago and told the young girls in attendance that she and Annika had combined for 75 LPGA victories. It was funny and true.)
Klein carried so many fairway metals and colorful head covers that her bag looked like a giant FTD bouquet, and out she’d go, straight and true, shooting 68s with the precision of a neurosurgeon. Hall of Famer Pat Bradley told me years ago that the rich talents of the LPGA had to be the best-kept secret in all of sports, and I still believe she’s right. The circuit returned to Orlando for the limited-field, winners-only Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions last week, with 25 LPGA winners of the past three years joining forces with 53 celebrity players in a cool and festive setting. To borrow a phrase, These Girls Are Good. And immensely underrated, too.
Mike Whan recently announced that 2021 would be his final year as LPGA commissioner. He was bouncing around the grounds on the weekend at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando, where the LPGA has opened its season during the past three Januarys. Though fan attendance was limited to about 2,500 VIPs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the volume on the “party” (such as music blaring on the 18th tee) was understandably dialed down, Whan still had to love what he was witnessing. Records were tumbling, and three top young American players put on a shootout on a 79-degree Sunday at Tranquilo Golf Course.
The day offered plenty of drama, with Jessica Korda – the elder half of the sister tandem who playfully hashtag themselves on social media as #TheKordashians – first catching Danielle Kang, then defeating her with a 25-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a playoff (scores). As strong as Sunday was, Saturday was spectacular. Memorable. A complete head-shaker. As in, What did I just see out here?
Jessica Korda shot 9-under 28 on the back nine to complete an 11-under 60, the first 60 since Paula Creamer signed for that number in 2008. It was only the sixth round of 60 or better in the 71-year history of the LPGA. All Kang did was answer with a brilliant round of 63, tying her career low, her third consecutive bogey-free round. Kang’s 54-hole total of 21-under 192 equaled an all-time LPGA mark for raw 54-hole score. Records are made to be broken, right?
Nelly Korda, world No. 4 heading into the week, jumped into the picture by getting hot on the back nine on Sunday. She missed a shortie for birdie on the 16th hole, which would have left her one shot back at the time, but that pretty much was a rare hiccup on a day that did not produce many. This was, We need to bottle this and produce it again kind of stuff.
Annika Sorenstam played in the tournament’s celebrity division, which was a big plus for the event (as was the discovery of New York Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks, who showed off a terrific swing and appeared to have a great time). For the past year, Sorenstam has had a mentor/texting relationship with Kang – the two are similar in their meticulous preparation – and on Friday played with Nelly Korda. Sorenstam, now 50, showed a little rust in her game, sure, but still hits it pretty well. She smiled and said when Nelly Korda’s drives passed her ball, they “still were launching.”
So, the LPGA’s 72nd season is out of the gates, even if, on Sunday afternoon, it put Jessica Korda and Larry The Cable Guy head-to-head against Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. (Early finish, anyone?) Oh, well. The Diamond Resorts event is light, and festive, and fun. Much like Kapalua on the men’s side (Sentry Tournament of Champions), the event serves as a nice perk for tournament winners and an effective way to step into the new year. Like air-cushioned insoles.
The LPGA now takes a month-long break before convening back in Orlando, at Lake Nona, to get the season rolling in earnest. This is a tour loaded with young talent and stars, some incredible sister acts (as we witnessed), players willing to trot across the globe to put on a show.
As Pat Bradley said all those years ago, the LPGA still is a well-kept secret. Truth be told, it really shouldn’t be.
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