Major championships are the report card of golf; they are the entrance examine to greatness. There is no way to fake your way in. The test comes on the most demanding golf courses and under the most intense pressure. For someone, that road to sports immortality begins this week at the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the year in all of golf.
Bobby Jones, who won seven professional majors and six more amateur Grand Slam events, said: “There is golf and then there is tournament golf.” He was speaking about the differences in pressure between the two. Jones could have added: “And beyond that, there is major championship golf.” That pressure is completely unique.
Last year, five different players from five countries won the five LPGA majors, a true statement about the depth and breadth of talent in the women’s game. And none of those triumphs was more dramatic than that by Pernilla Lindberg, who picked off her first pro victory at the ANA in an eight-hole, two-day playoff with seven-time major winner Inbee Park.
While it’s hard to imagine an encore as compelling, the stage seems set for something special to happen again at the ANA. The first seven tournaments this year have been won by seven players, six of them in the top-20 of the Rolex Rankings, including No. 1 Sung Hyun Park, No. 4 Nasa Hataoka, No. 5 Jin Young Ko and No. 8 Nelly Korda.
Of that quartet, Park is most experienced at dancing successfully on the big stage, having won the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2018 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. No. 19 Eun-Hee Ji, winner of the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, took the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open.
Korda is the hottest player coming in, having finished in the top-10 in eight of her last 10 tournaments with two victories, including this year’s ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. She’s been in the top-10 in all five of her 2019 starts while Ko and Ji both have four top 10s.
Tuesday is as relaxing as it gets at a major. Ariya Jutanugarn worked on her bump-and-run shot with short-game coach Gareth Raflewski. Jessica Korda, who was T-2 with Nelly at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, dialed in yardages under the watchful eye of swing coach David Whelan, showing no ill affects from the left forearm injury that has limited her to one event this season.
And Michelle Wie, who has not played since she withdrew at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in February because of discomfort in her right hand, which was operated on in October, smiled and said, “Yeah, better,” when asked how she was feeling. Then, after a long hug with Lincicome she had a short session on the range, pacing herself for the week ahead.
As if those competing this year needed any added inspiration, on Monday night a quartet of past champions were honored at Mission Hills, celebrating the five decades the oldest event held on the same venue has been staged. Truly, it was when this tournament became a major in 1983 that the modern era of LPGA majors began
Sandra Post won 40 years ago in 1979; Juli Inkster took the title 1989 as well as 1984; Dottie Pepper plopped into Poppie’s Pond in 1999 after first winning in 1992; and Brittany Linicome persevered in 2009 and then again in 2015 and could add her name alongside Sorenstam, Amy Alcott and Betsy King as the only three-time winners. “That would be nice,” Lincicome said with a wink and a smile.
“I didn’t even realize it was 10 years until they told me about the ceremony,” Lincicome said Tuesday while honing her game on the range. “I guess I’m an old lady.” Then she smiled again and said: “Can I jump into the pond pregnant?” prompting her father Tom to say: “Mom says to walk in.”
Those are the kind of memories that make this tournament a special week. The ANA Inspiration is a true celebration of women’s golf and this is its 48th edition overall and 37th as a major.
The statue of Dinah Shore next to the 18th green is a reminder of its history and the champion draped in a white robe after a dip in Poppie’s Pond is part of its tradition. On Thursday, another journey toward Sunday's date with destiny will begin. For someone, the week will end with tears of joy mixing with pond water, adding to an inspiring lore and forever being called a major champion.