GREENSBORO, GEORGIA | She is not a fluke. She is not a freak. She is the future. LPGA Tour rookie Bianca Pagdanganan may or may not win the Drive On Championship - Reynolds Lake Oconee this week. She shot 69 to reach 12-under while playing in the final group on Saturday and will tee off on Sunday within a shot of Ally McDonald’s lead. But Bianca’s time is coming. You better learn to pronounce her name (four syllables, accent on the third one, and all the a’s are soft) because not only will she be collecting hardware by the shelf-full, but this 22-year-old from the Philippines could change the way young girls swing the club and learn the game.
“She could definitely be a revolutionary figure in the women’s game,” Karen Stupples said Saturday afternoon as she watched Pagdanganan pose for pictures like a seasoned veteran. “She’s got the personality. But she is also the only woman in the game with that kind of power (in her golf swing) who isn’t afraid to use it. Other players could hit it as far as she does, but they’re afraid to do it. They’ve been told that they need to pull back and keep it in play or hit it to a number. (Bianca) doesn’t care about any of that. She picks a line and rips at it.”
You can hear people talk about her length all day long. And you can see the shots on television. But until you’re there, until you see the width of her backswing and the speed with which she fires her hips; until you hear the pop at impact and see the ball fly with a trajectory and spin that would make Rory McIlroy sit up straight, you really don’t understand what makes this young woman so special.
She didn’t hit many drivers in the third round at the Great Waters Course, but when she did, the smattering of residents who meandered out of their homes to watch said things like “Holy smokes!” loud enough to get the players’ attention.
“Yeah, she whacks it,” said Haley Moore, who saw Bianca up close for two years at the University of Arizona where, as teammates, they won the NCAA Championship. “When she came into U of A, we knew she was long, but I was pretty long and a few of my teammates were long. But we were like, ‘Oh man, don’t try to keep up with her. She bombs it.’ And she’s gotten a lot more consistent. That really helps out here at a longer course where the greens are firmer. You have shorter irons for your approach, and it helps you get more spin on it.”
To quantify that, Bianca’s first swing of the day went 301 yards, leaving her a wedge into the par-4 1st that McDonald and Danielle Kang were trying to reach with 8-irons. It was like that all day. Bianca hit it 286 on the second hole, a par 5 she easily reached with a hybrid after McDonald laid up and Kang hit a 3-wood into the water 20 yards short of the green.
Bianca’s next driver came at the par 5 6th where she drove it 303. One hole later, an uphill par 4, she flew it 288. But none of those were as impressive as the final hole, a par 5 where she drove it 313 in the rough and had an 8-iron for her second shot, which set up an easy birdie.
And it’s not just the driver. On the par 3 17th, 157 over water and into a hurting wind, Kang and McDonald hit 7-irons and made par and bogey respectively. Pagdanganan hit 9-iron 12 feet under the hole and made the putt for birdie.
“She says she wants to be the first woman to average 300 yards (in driving distance),” Pagdanganan’s father, Sam, said during Saturday’s round. “She also wants to win,” he was quick to add.
“I never really noticed that I hit it far until people started telling me in college,” Bianca said after her round. “I went my first two years to Gonzaga, and I was in an indoor facility. I really enjoyed hitting into the screen and getting my swing speed up. Eventually, I saw my distance increase with working out and stuff. So, I just enjoyed trying to hit it hard.”
“There’s a lot of power in the lower body,” Stupples said. “She doesn’t restrict her hips on the backswing. That gives her a bigger turn and more width. In transition, she’s starting from further back, so there’s a lot of power there.”
She also hits it in the center of the clubface all the time. That might come from the fact that her first club was a persimmon Sam Snead 4-wood.
“I had that club when I was a little girl and I loved it,” Bianca said. “I still remember how small the face was and how it sounded when you hit it. I don’t know why I loved that club so much.”
Length isn’t her only asset. She saws off pitch shots and has the kind of imagination around the greens that you don’t normally find in rookies. She missed a couple of putts on Saturday that were inside 8 feet but other than that, there were no apparent weaknesses, just as she seemed solid at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship where she earned a top-10.
“That was my first major and my best finish in any event,” Bianca said. “It was an eye-opener and made me realize that I can play at this level. I can compete. If I just remain positive, keep that mindset and keep improving, not just this week or this year, but for however long that I play, that’s all I can do.”
“There are just certain players who make you stop in your tracks, who make you say, whoa, something is happening here,” Stupples said. “Tiger did that. He revolutionized the game and made golf cool. Bianca could be that. I mean, she says one of the interesting things about her is that she loves to play ‘Call of Duty’ for hours. That’s cross-over stuff there.
“She has that kind of potential. She could be a game-changer.”