At the beginning of a significant 12 months for sport in France – the country will host the Rugby World Cup later this summer and the Olympics in Paris next July and August – victory for Céline Boutier in the Amundi Evian Championship was not the kick start many would have predicted.
To reference yet another sporting event – one the nation hosts every year – it was as if a sprint specialist had magically started dominating the mountain stages of cycling’s Tour de France.
Consider that, in 28 previous editions of the Evian – both when it was a regular event on the LPGA and LET schedules and in its more recent guise as a fifth women’s major championship – no Frenchwoman had ever finished the week as winner or runner-up.
Consider that only two Frenchwomen had ever won a major championship (Catherine Lacoste in the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open and Patricia Meunier-Lebouc at the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship).
Consider that, in six previous visits to Evian, Boutier had never recorded a top 25 (and four times hadn’t even broken the top 60).
Consider the enormous pressure Boutier admitted to feeling when competing in this tournament on home soil (a tension that, of course, she only intensified by grabbing the halfway lead).
Consider, most prominently of all, that the 29-year-old had only twice been in contention with 18 holes to play in a major (when sharing the lead in the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open and when third in the 2021 Women’s PGA), and on both occasions had carded a 75 to fall outside the top four.
Yes, consider all of the above and then confine it to history because Boutier took the musty old record-book pages, with their mocking details of national and personal troubles with both Evian and major tests, and tore them into tiny pieces.
In carding opening rounds of 66-69-67, the Parisian doubled her tally of sub-70 scores on the Evian Resort course in her 21st, 22nd and 23rd laps of it, and in so doing opened up a three-shot 54-hole lead on the field.
On Sunday, she started her account with two birdies, added another at the fifth to extend the advantage to six, and rarely looked troubled thereafter. Her playing competitor, Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, also made a birdie at the first but the gap between them opened further at the second and only grew as the day wore on.
The penultimate pairing, made up of the two previous Evian champions, Minjee Lee and Brooke Henderson, had started the final round four shots back of Boutier’s lead but were no more effective in denting her dreams. Lee opened brightly, but six bogeys in eight holes on either side of the turn destroyed her hopes.
Henderson dug deep on defence of her title but was never close enough to throw blows, never mind land them. She did end the week alone in second on 8-under. Norway’s Celine Borge, Mexico’s Gaby Lopez, Korea’s A Lim Kim and the Japanese pair of Yuka Saso and Hataoka shared third on 7-under.
Quite simply, Boutier never looked remotely like wasting her well-earned and golden opportunity.
With Boutier standing on the final tee, her six-shot advantage re-established, the Tour de France returned to mind because she easily could have afforded to emulate the yellow-jersey wearer in taking a ceremonial circuit of Paris with a glass of champagne in hand and still collect the win.
“It’s been an amazing ride. Hopefully it’s not the end.”
In reality, of course, she left the daydreaming to others and secured the title with a straightforward par for a closing round of 68, a total of 14-under 270 and $1 million winner’s check. The final putt was greeted with scenes of wild exuberance and a champagne shower for the champion.
“I have never been able to handle the pressure well here, and it was a goal of mine to handle it better this week,” Boutier said afterward before revealing a potentially critical difference between this year and the past. “After walking the course, I knew conditions were so tough that it really made me focus on my game rather than anything else.”
Of the excited atmosphere down the last, she said: “I felt a little bit overwhelmed, hearing chants of my name. I was definitely borderline going to cry, but I tried to focus on my last two-putt. It’s just unbelievable to get my first major win at home. I could not have scripted it better. It’s so perfect that it’s hard to believe that it’s true.”
When reminded that the win is her fourth on the LPGA and that she is projected to re-enter the world’s top 10, she added: “It’s been an amazing ride. Hopefully it’s not the end.”
All of French sport will say amen to that – both for her, and her compatriot athletes between now and next August.
There also was drama at the bottom of the leaderboard because Spain’s Carlota Ciganda found herself there when she was disqualified for refusing to accept a two-shot penalty for breaching the LPGA Tour’s Pace of Play Policy following the conclusion of her second round. In signing for a 1-over 72 rather than a 3-over 74, she was aware of the consequences but chose to continue with her action.
An LPGA statement explained that her group, which also included Anna Nordqvist and Céline Herbin, had been warned for being out of position on the seventh hole, put on the clock on the eighth, and that Ciganda’s shot time was penalised on the ninth.
She later called out the LPGA staff, writing on Instagram that it was a “very poor performance from the LPGA rules official,” adding, “I wish everyone gets treated the same and they don’t pick on the same players all the time!”