For many of us, Maui in January is an escapist fantasy. The fellas, all those winners, are out in Hawaii, playing golf in warm trade winds while we’re wondering where we last saw the ice scraper. Well, this was that and more: In the dog days of August, with Henri and Delta and Kabul in the air, the greatest women players in the world were playing one of golf’s greatest courses — Carnoustie! — in one of the game’s greatest championships:
More formally, the AIG Women’s Open.
AIG, an insurance company, is the event’s longtime sponsor. Golf needs sponsors, especially right now, when gate traffic is meager. Last year’s Open winner, Sophia Popov at Royal Troon, won $675,000. This year, the first-place haul was upped to $870,000. The increase is a nod to the renaissance women’s golf is and to the broad desire for equity.
Yes, the gap is still a chasm: Collin Morikawa earned $2 million for his British Open win at Royal St. George’s last month. But the dream will never die.
For a while, during Sunday’s final round, Carnoustie was bathed in sunshine. You don’t associate Carnoustie with sunshine. Carnoustie brings to mind Hogan in black-and-white, winning there in ’53, in his only Open appearance. Jean van de Velde, climbing into the burn on 18, pants hiked to mid-calf, golf’s oldest trophy slipping away from him. Affable Francesco Molinari, winning the Open there in 2018 but looking more like a mortician all the while.
The fairways, this year, were so green the Scottish linksland looked like Ireland in spring. For many of us, watching the TV broadcast was the next best thing to being there. This summer of ’21, like the summer of ’20 before it, never fired on all cylinders. Do you know anybody, this year or last, who has made the mecca journey, packing spikes and waterproofs, from the United States to the motherland? I don’t. Things are still broadly off. But this Women’s Open was as on as on could be.
By the time the broadcast moved from Golf Channel to NBC — high noon if you were in Henri’s path, 5 p.m. if you were golfing in the kingdom — a gray cover had moved in, the players slipped on windbreakers and jumpers and Carnoustie looked like Carnoustie again.
This only needs to be said once: nasty.
Nelly Korda, winner of the PGA Championship in June and the Olympic gold medal in July, shot a humdrum even-par 72 in the fourth round, unable to sniff a top-10.
Brooke Henderson, the same.
Lexi Thompson, not even.
Minjee Lee, looking to post low and early and enjoy the view from the house, got the break of breaks on the last, her ball skipping over Barry Burn, but she still made bogey. Eleven under would have had a chance. Ten under — some score at Carnoustie — had almost no chance, not with talented players coming in after her.
Among them, and new to the scene, attention must be paid to Louise Duncan, a 21-year-old Scot playing in Scotland, and for now — for now — an amateur. Despite her freckles, the impassive face of a golfing assassin. You’ll see her claw putting grip at the Augusta Women’s Amateur in April, and, you have to think, in the women’s professional game in the years to come.
The afternoon’s final two golfers were Anna Nordqvist, the 34-year-old Swede, a six-footer with a big swing and a big footprint. (Her first LPGA title, in 2009, was a major. Her eighth, in 2017, was, too.) Her playing partner was Nanna Koerstz Madsen, a 26-year-old Dane. They were tied for the lead through 54 holes, at nine under. They were tied for the lead at 12 under through 71 holes.
But Koerstz Madsen had a JVD moment on the last, as the Carnoustie we love and fear reverted to form. Koerstz Madsen didn’t go full Jean. And she, of course, did not have the Frenchman’s three-shot lead. But her double-bogey 6 on the last included a nothing-but-nerves approach shot that left her with an all-but-impossible downhill, sidehill greenside bunker shot. She hoseled that shot into the rough beyond the green and from there did well to make double. “I was nervous all day,” Koerstz Madsen later admitted. “On 18, I tried to not make a mistake and that was the only thing I shouldn’t do.”
The Dane’s troubles meant, in the end, that Nordqvist had a two-inch par putt to win. For the second time in three weeks, a Swede has won a major. Annika Sorenstam won the U.S. Women’s Senior Open at Brooklawn on Aug. 1. Nordqvist won by a shot over Georgia Hall of England, Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden (what a swing!) and Lizette Salas, the LPGA veteran by way of Southern California and USC.
“Huge congrats,” Annika tweeted out to the winner moments after it was over. Sorenstam included a snapshot of the two of them, Nordqvist towering over her fellow Swede. Sorenstam won the Open in 2003, at Royal Lytham.
Nordqvist now has nine LPGA wins. Before she’s done, she might be the second-best Swedish golfer ever, after Sorenstam. Next month, she’ll play a prominent role in the Solheim Cup at Inverness. Next year, she’ll defend her title down the road, at Muirfield, another legendary Scottish course. She’s married to a Scotsman. Her caddie is a Scotsman. She just won in Scotland. She won in Scotland at a course all golfers want to play once, despite its deservedly scary reputation.
The sun had returned by the time Nordqvist tapped in to win. The jumper stayed on. In victory, her first in three years, you could see the joy in her face, for sure. But you could see relief, too. Golf will do that, to its veteran champions, when they return to the winner’s circle after a time away. Carnoustie will do that to anyone.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com