Events are more than merely outcomes; they are the passion of the people involved. When phrases like “the longest playoff” or “most shocking upset” are used, they often obscure the individual behind results. But last year’s ANA Inspiration was about way more than history; it was about humanity. And Pernilla Lindberg provided one of the most compelling stories in major championship lore.
The great Mickey Wright – one of the sweetest swingers golf has ever known – used to say every star needs a great chorus line. On that special Sunday at Mission Hills, Lindberg stepped from the shadows and stole the spotlight from one of the greatest stars in the recent history of the LPGA – Inbee Park – as well as outshining an extremely talented supporting cast.
What unfolded in that final round was so special it was too big for one day, spilling over into Monday. That Lindberg, who was 0-for-250 in her professional career, would outlast Park, with seven major championships among her 19 LPGA victories, over eight riveting playoff holes was an outcome that would make even Cinderella blush.
Still, there was something perfect about it all. For four days, Lindberg was the best player, leading the ANA after each round. She started Sunday three strokes ahead of Amy Olson with Park and Jennifer Song four back. But, when the 31-year-old Swede bogeyed two of the first three holes and her lead dwindled to one over Park and Song, it appeared coaches were ready to turn back into pumpkins.
Instead, the stumble by the 2009 Oklahoma State grad merely set the stage for one of the most dramatic finishes ever in a major. A woman who had not only never won a major but also never won at any professional level used an improbably hot putter to make par save after par save and fend off a host of worthy adversaries.
Park and Song both shot 67 in the final round to finish 72 holes at 15-under-par 273. Jessica Korda fired a 66 and Ariya Jutanugarn a 65 to get in at 274, while Charley Hull and Moriya Jutanugarn each closed with a 69 to be at 275.
But after her early stumble, Lindberg played the last 15 holes of the fourth round mistake free, making birdies on Nos. 8, 10 and – quite dramatically – 18 to finish off a 71 and join Park and Song at 273, setting the stage for a sudden death playoff that was anything but sudden. In fact, at eight holes it was the longest sudden death ever in a major.
The first four holes – all played on the par-5 18th – ended in darkness with makeshift lights around the green after Song had been knocked out on the third playing of No. 18 when she failed to match the birdies by Lindberg and Park. The two survivors left the course in pitch darkness, prepared to resume play the next morning.
“I thought I would have been more nervous,” Lindberg says now, looking back on the playoff. “I slept well on Sunday night. I think it helped that I led all the way and had already slept on the lead for three nights. I said to myself, ‘You’ve done all the work and you deserve to be here. You’ve got nothing to lose, just play your best.’”
When play resumed on Monday it was on No. 10, where they both made a par 4. They then tied No. 17 with par 3s and the 18th – yet again – with par 5s. That brought the duo back to No. 10 and this time Lindberg rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt and then watched as Park missed from 20 feet to end the marathon.
"The putt Pernilla made on the last was a champion's putt," Park said. "I'm really happy for her. This one was not an easy major win for her. I mean, eight-hole playoff, I've never done something like that before, either."
When Lindberg took the traditional jump into Poppie’s Pond after the untraditional Monday finish it was with her father Jan, her mother Gunilla and her caddie – and now husband – Daniel Taylor.
“In a way, it helped that I was going against Inbee,” Lindberg says. “I knew she wasn’t going to make any mistakes so that helped me stay focused. That whole week I played so well. I’ve had that feeling with the putter before and I love when I have that feeling.”
The victory was life changing, most dramatically in the demands on her time. "I’m not used to that,” she says about learning to say no. “I’m working on it, but it doesn’t come naturally to me.”
For Pernilla, it's all part of the path she’s been traveling since she was a junior golfer in Sweden then made the move to play college golf in the United States.
“Every step of the way, expectations are an issue,” she says. “First it’s going from being an amateur to being a pro and then it’s when will you win and then when will you win a major. Now the expectations have gone up again. But really, it’s a dream. It’s a privilege to be a major champion.
As Lindberg returns to Mission Hills, that dream takes on another dimension. “It’s going to be special to stand on that first tee and hear myself introduced as the defending champion,” she says.
“Honestly, I’ll be nervous,” Pernilla says with the soft smile of someone who's been there before. “But I was nervous on that first tee on Sunday last year and on the first tee when the playoff began and on the first tee on Monday when they playoff resumed. You just play.”
Just play. That’s what Lindberg did last year for four days so special they became five. Now she returns to the ANA as an inspiration to all little girls with big dreams. Her story is history.