RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — For 71 holes, this ANA Inspiration was a dream scenario for the LPGA. Nelly Korda, 22, bidding to become America’s next superstar, was battling the equally magnetic Brooke Henderson, whose vortex-inducing swing is the most awe-inspiring action this side of the young John Daly. Representing the Korean diaspora was Mirim Lee, a crafty vet who holed two chip shots over the first 16 holes to stay in the picture. But looming behind the 72nd green at Mission Hills was a big, blue wall that seemed destined to play a decisive role.
This structure (dubbed “The Great Wall of Dinah” by one pressroom scribe) served as a billboard for the title sponsor but had the unintended effect of hijacking the finish. The Covid-induced move of Dinah Shore’s old tournament from April to September brought higher temperatures and a springier strain of Bermuda on the firm greens, meaning that any player who went for it on the watery, do-or-die par-5 18th had a good chance of going long.
But instead of the players’ balls trickling into the water behind the island green, the wall served as a discordant backstop, taking all the risk out of what could have been a thrilling risk-reward hole. (It’s true that in the past there has been a grandstand set about four paces further back than the wall, but with fans barred from the grounds this year there was no reason to have any clutter behind the green.)
Lee was the first to arrive at 18, two shots behind Korda, who was in the process of making an outrageously clutch 10-footer to save par on the 17th hole. After a good tee shot Lee had 215 yards left, leaving her between clubs; 4-iron might not get there but 5-wood would come in too hot. Going with more club was a no-brainer. “Our play was to hit it into the middle of the green, let it run into the blue thing and get a free drop,” said caddie Matt Glczis. “Without that being there we probably have to lay up because none of your long clubs are going to hold the green — it’s too firm.”
Carlota Ciganda, Lee’s playing partner, went farther: “Without that wall, no one would go for the green,” she said. “No one.”
Lee executed the shot that had been presented to her, banging a low, screaming hook off the wall like Carl Yastrzemski taking advantage of the Green Monster. She took her drop and then holed-out an exquisitely delicate eagle pitch to tie for the lead. It was the shot of a lifetime.
Henderson had been on the ropes after going rough to rough to sand and making a brutal double bogey on the 13th hole, but the scrappy Canuck birdied 16 to get back in the fight. On 18 she did the only sensible thing, which was to also smash her second shot into the wall. A free drop ensued, then a terrific chip and a birdie that tied her with Lee. Korda’s syrupy swing is the envy of the tour but, standing on the final tee with a one-shot lead, she sniped her drive into the rough, had to lay up and then played a poor wedge shot, dooming her to a disappointing par and three-woman playoff. Following along in her gallery was big sis Jessica, who had missed the cut.
“It was always going to come down to that wall,” Jessica said, ruefully.
The messy finish cast a pall over an otherwise thrilling day and sudden death lacked the theatrics of the final moments of regulation, as Korda again made par and Henderson babied her short birdie putt. Lee was just over the green in two — no bumper pool needed this time! — and from a tight lie played a nerveless wedge shot to five feet and then brushed in the winning putt like a practice-round gimme.
Unlike Henderson’s shot, let’s not get hung up on the wall. This was a clutch win for Lee on a huge stage. It was the fourth LPGA title and first major championship for the 29-year-old veteran, who has carved out a reputation as a big-game hunter: her first victory came in dogfight with the Queen ‘Bee, Inbee Park; she shot a record-tying 62 at the 2016 Women’s Open; and among her international victories is the 2012 Korea Women’s Open, which is considered a major on the KLPGA. This one is all the more impressive because Lee fought her driver throughout the final round and hit only 11 greens in regulation.
“I can’t really believe it right now,” she said afterward through an interpreter. “To be honest, I feel like I must be a little crazy for having won this.”
Is chipping usually the best part of her game?
“No, just today,” she said with a giggle.
“To be honest, of the four rounds, today I struggled the most,” Lee added, “but I think I had a bit of luck that helped me.”
It wasn’t just luck. Korda, who is up to number three in the World Ranking, braved a short press conference — “I’m just going to continue working hard and see where that takes me” — and then skulked to the parking lot, her sister by her side to offer support. They passed an outdoor seating area where Mission Hills members had gathered and they came through with a raucous ovation. Nelly waved without breaking stride while Jessica blurted out what plenty of other folks were thinking: “Stupid wall.”