Not since Birdie Kim holed out from a bunker on the last hole of the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open has there been a more unlikely, out-of-nowhere ending to a major championship.
Nobody, and that includes the player herself, gave Mirim Lee much of a shot at winning the 2020 ANA Inspiration, especially after she tugged her last three approaches in regulation. Especially since she hadn’t won on the LPGA Tour since 2017. Especially since the 29-year-old’s game had been all but nonexistent all year (in two starts in 2020 she shot 76-70 and 73-75 and missed both cuts) and especially given the quality of play from two of the three players in the group behind her on Sunday at Mission Hills.
For most of the final day in the scorching California desert, and even in the Saturday night run-up, social media was abuzz with the prospect of a superstar finale. Nelly Korda, the No. 3-ranked player in the world and, at age 22, looking for her first major, led after each of the first three rounds. However, she had a co-leader going into Sunday – nine-time winner and major champion Brooke Henderson. Lexi Thompson was also a couple of shots back. Throw Stacy Lewis into the mix, along with the sidebar story of U.S. Amateur finalists Rose Zhang and Gabi Ruffels battling to be low amateur and both finishing in the top 15, and this one seemed to have it all.
For the better part of four hours, it looked like the winner would come out of the final group. Korda shot 33 on the front. Henderson shot 34. The two hit shots and holed putts that would have made Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson sit up straight and take notice. And while they never achieved a duel-in-the-sun kind of separation, it looked for all the world like one of wonderkids would walk away in a bathrobe holding the trophy.
But that’s why we watch ’til the end.
“I definitely thought that I could do it and I could win this, but I tried to disregard that and just keep playing.”
Lee, who began the final round two shots back but barely in the conversation, birdied the par-5 second and then, at the sixth, missed the green short and right and hit a chip shot that clanged against the flagstick and went in for birdie – a nice shot to get her to 12 under, still three back. It was impossible at that point not to be happy for the unassuming South Korean. She looked to be on her way to her best finish since her runner-up at the 2019 Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions and her best major since a tie for second at the AIG Women’s Open way back in 2016 when Korda was celebrating her 18th birthday on the Symetra Tour.
“I definitely thought that I could do it and I could win this,” Lee said afterward, “but I tried to disregard that and just keep playing.”
Play away she did. Another birdie at the 12th, this one with the putter, put her two shots off the lead. Still, the focus stayed on the prize fight in the final group. Henderson took a momentary lead after Korda hit a shot over the green at No. 12 and failed to get up and down.
But on 13, the tide turned again when Henderson hit the ball in the rough and barely advanced it, fluffed it in the bunker and made double bogey. If that sounds like a chop-fest, you needed to see the Dinah Shore Tournament Course in September. The greens were so firm that almost no one fixed a ball mark all week and with no fans in attendance because of COVID-19, the dull pop of approach shots hitting hard surfaces could be heard on televisions around the world. Throw in the fact that Bermuda grass rough at 2 inches is like spring rye grass at 4 inches – imagine hitting a 7-iron out of a ball of chicken wire – and it was amazing that anyone reached double digits under par. The fact that six players finished 10 under or better and Zhang, who edged Ruffels by a shot for low amateur, set a championship record for an amateur by finishing 8 under, shows how compelling the golf was all week.
But back to Lee and the finish no one saw coming. With all the attention on Korda and Henderson, and they were tougher than anything the NFL offered on opening weekend, Lee quietly went about her business. The ballstriking wasn’t great, but her short game kept her close. Then, magic happened at 16. After tugging an approach left of the green and leaving herself a chip from 100 feet away, she hit a perfect wedge that flew 50 feet and rolled another 50, finding the center of the hole at perfect speed.
It was her second chip-in birdie and it pulled her to within a shot of the lead.
That all seemed for naught a hole later when she pulled another approach into a greenside bunker and made bogey at 17. As she said afterward, “To be honest, of the four rounds, today I struggled the most. Not a lot of my shots were the way that I wanted them. But I think I had a bit of luck that helped me.”
Gary Player always says, “The more you practice, the luckier you get.” Lee wouldn’t argue. On the famous par-5 18th, a hole normally surrounded by grandstands but, this year, had a wall behind the green, she tugged her third approach in a row, this time a 5-wood from 217. The ball went to the wall. After taking relief, she was staring at a downhill chip on a fast green from 60 feet away. Of course she made it for an eagle, this time clanging it off the flagstick with enough speed that the ball might have gone in the water if it hadn’t hit the hole.
A half-hour later, she rolled in a 5-footer for birdie on that same hole to beat Henderson and Korda in a playoff, an ending you couldn’t have scripted.
“You're playing against the best in the world out there (but) it's tough to lose that way,” Henderson said afterward.
Korda, who drove the ball like Greg Norman all week, missed the 18th fairway left in regulation and in the playoff. She made par both times, three shots worse than Lee. “That’s what cost me,” Korda said afterward.
Lee can’t remember the last time she chipped in three times in a round. Two, yes, but not three. She did say that chipping is the best part of her game … as of Sunday.
That is one truth. Another truth is that the women’s game has come roaring back with a vengeance. Surprise ending or not, this major, and the last one, and the tournaments before and in between, have been as compelling as anything in sports.
The LPGA has been a chip-in for all of us, just when we needed it most.