Jutanugarn Beats Lexi Thompson and In Gee Chun
A week ago, I was thinking that nobody was going to stop Lexi Thompson this year if she showed up on Sunday with a lead. I don’t know what the psychology behind it was, or where it came from, but that can of worms over the four-stroke penalty a while back kick-started Thompson’s competetive chops in a big way. Sure enough, this week at the Manulife LPGA Classic, Lexi headed for home with a one-stroke lead, and before the final day was half done, it had grown to four-strokes. There it was…my theory was foolproof. No one was going to take that tournament away from her. Now and then, a great golfer gets a shot of impetus like that, in conjunction with a feeling that he or she has suddenly arrived in a big way. There is only one thing that can derail a phenomenon like that – another great golfer whose head is in her game, not what’s going on with a colleague’s big arrival year. The LPGA has a few of those. Today, it was a woman who has arrived in a big way herself – Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand.
Jutanugarn’s Manulife win depended on two things, doing what great players do when the chips are down, and something in the opponent causing problems. Lexi’s back nine, at the height of her path to victory, simply ran out of magic at the most mystifying time. It took the form of four consecutive bogeys, and on the final hole, a missed four-footer that would have given her the tournament anyway, in a three-way playoff with Jutanugarn and Chun. Lexi only needed one more extraordinary round of golf, but finished with a 72. And Jutanugarn’s great moment? Trouble on the drive on the first hole of the playoff, and a so-so shot to the green, leaving a 25 foot putt. Make it and she’d win…so she did.
The Whistle Bear Golf Club course was a dream for a long hitter. Thompson and Jutanugarn were perfect for it, and Chun a little less so. It is ironic that Jutanugarn took it with her short game, as she has a short game coach at Whistle Bear. The fairways are self-described as generous, but there’s a catch. Water is in play on ten of the holes, and there are 103 bunkers. Most of them matter. Along with that are a thousand undulations, giving the course the look of a gorgeous other-worldly crop circle from the air.
The winner walked away with a nice pot of prize money, but there was a bonus for her efforts. With the victory comes the world’s #1 ranking, as Jutanugarn overthrows Lydia Ko for the honor. As the dominating forces change through time, Chun has become a presence of late. She will clearly be one of her country’s next important stars. As for Lexi Thompson, no one should worry. The back nine letdown is unusual, although she is surprisingly 0 for 3 in playoffs in her career. Maybe what she needs is another dust-up with the course marshalls to get her fired up again. One can only guess at the meaning of her playoff statistic, if any exists at all. Meanwhile, Ariya Jutanugarn goes on her merry way, not allowing her competitive psychology to become too complicated. I wonder if we have the makings of a rivalry here, and if there’s anything Lydia Ko has to say about it.