There’s a lot about the ANA Inspiration that feels like The Masters. They are the first major of the year for the women and men. They are both played on the same golf course every year, breeding a familiarity that makes the layout a big part of the story. And they are both linked to legends in the game, the Masters with Bobby Jones, the first face of golf, and the ANA with Dinah Shore, who did as much to grow the women’s game as anyone.
This year they have something else in common. Perhaps never in history have this week’s ANA and next week’s Masters had as many top contenders with a chance to win. Both the women’s and men’s game are in fascinating place right now where there is no clear Queen or King of the Hill but rather a slew of players capable of being the best in the world on any given week.
Just take a look at the Rolex Rankings. Less than one point separates No. 1 Shanshan Feng, No. 2 Lexi Thompson, the 2014 ANA winner, No. 3 So Yeon Ryu, the defending champ here, and No. 4 Sung Hyun Park. All of them walked onto the Mission Hills Country Club property on Monday with a chance to make the leap into Poppie’s Pond Sunday evening.
And just take a look at the six winners so far this year: Brittany Lincicome, a two-time ANA winner, Jin Young Ko, Jessica Korda, Michelle Wie, 2013 ANA champ Inbee Park and Eun-Hee Ji are all inside the top-25 in the Rolex Rankings. Who among them would be a surprise if she hoisted the trophy on Sunday?
Throw in In-Kyung Kim and Anna Nordqvist, who both won majors last year, the ever-young Cristie Kerr, the ever-powerful Brooke Henderson and the ever-contending Amy Yang, who has 17 top-10 finishes in majors without a win – and the field is as deep as can be. And you just know someone we are not mentioning will also be in contention come Sunday.
Playing perhaps the most consistent and most thoughtful golf of her career is Wie, who was at the ANA as a 13-year-old amateur in 2003 when she finished T-9. Her putting, always the weakest part of her game, is vastly improved and her tendency to tinker has been reigned in as she appears to be trusting her instincts more. The key for her will be avoiding injury and illness.
“I had a great off-season,” she said. “I felt really healthy, felt rejuvenated. I think the six weeks off last season [after an emergency appendectomy] kind of felt like the off-season wasn't really a season. I wasn't ready to truly let go. So I felt like I had a really productive off-season. I just feel energized for this season. My main focus is staying healthy and we'll just take it on from there.”
Lincicome, who is trying to join Amy Alcott, Betsy King and Annika Sorenstam – three Hall of Famers – as the only three-time ANA winners, is always a threat at Mission Hills, a golf course that favors long hitters.
“I’ve been playing really well, driving it well, putting really well,” she says. “So there is no reason why I can't keep that going. This is a long hitter's golf course, which is great, but I need to keep it on the fairway. The greens are firm and fast, which is awesome. Just driving in with the snow on the mountains and how beautiful the flowers are and everything, this week just puts a smile on my face.”
Lincicome also sees something different in Wie’s game that should concern everyone in the field. “In the past you would wait until the explosion happened or she would hit it out of play or do something really bad and make a really big number,” Brittany said. “But this last time that I played with her, every shot was down the middle. She was in play every time. She never hit it off line like super far like she used to. Like Lexi, her course management is so much better.”
There has been perhaps no defending champ in any major since Bob Goalby won the 1968 Masters after Roberto DiVicenzo was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard who returned under stranger circumstances than Ryu. She birdied the first extra hole last year to defeat Thompson in a playoff made necessary because of a four-stroke penalty on Lexi.
“I know that was a lot of the hassle last year, and I really had to keep talking to myself, okay, just do what I can do,” she explained about how she handled it when the fans united behind Thompson after the penalty was imposed. “I feel like after I'd done the tournament I learned a lot through the situation,” she said. “I feel like I also got confidence myself so I could control myself.”
Like Goalby, Ryu defends a title won strangely. Like DiVicenzo, Thompson returns to the scene of heartbreak. The first major of the year in all of golf has a chance to be the most hotly contested in the 46-year history of the tournament. Mickey Wright used to say, “Every star needs a chorus line.” This ANA truly has a chorus line of stars, all with a chance to twinkle in Poppie’s Pond.