No matter what time of year they’re played, major championships bring out the best in the best. That was certainly evident in the first round of the ANA Inspiration on Thursday, exactly 161 days after the championship was originally scheduled to begin. A pack of major winners charged up the leaderboard on opening day, including two-time major champion In Gee Chun, 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship winner Brooke Henderson, Danielle Kang, who won the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and has already won twice on the LPGA Tour since the restart seven weeks ago, as well as two-time major champions Lydia Ko and Sung Hyun Park, 2018 AIG Women’s Open champion Georgia Hall and two-time ANA Inspiration champion Brittany Lincicome.
Star-studded would be an understatement, especially when you throw in last-year’s KPMG Women’s PGA champion Hannah Green and young guns like Kristen Gillman, Yu Liu, Madalane Sagstrom, and first-round leader Nelly Korda, who fired a 66 on Thursday afternoon to top the leaderboard by a single shot.
Korda’s round was no surprise. She has been trending in the right direction since the restart and has been on every expert’s shortlist of players-most-likely-to-win-a-major. But Chun firing a 67 late in the day to enter Friday a shot back was a treat. Fans of the 26-year-old Korean have long wondered if she would return to the form that surprised the world when she won the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2016 Evian Championship.
But more importantly, we all hoped to see In Gee happy again.
Chun seemingly had it all when she broke onto the LPGA Tour scene. In her rookie season, she set an all-time major championship scoring record at Evian and became the first player since Nancy Lopez to win both the Rolex Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year award and the Vare Trophy for low stroke average. She is also a genius, a mathematics autodidact with one of the highest IQs in all of sports.
Then, it all appeared to vanish. For the better part of three years, Chun was admittedly hard on herself, expecting perfection in an imperfect game. Even in 2018, when she was part of the winning Korean team at the UL International Crown in Incheon and followed it up a week later with a victory at the KEB HanaBank Championship, she cried tears of relief, not joy. So, seeing her waltz around the Dinah Shore Tournament Course on Thursday with bright eyes and a broad smile brought a collective sense of relief to those who know her.
“I really tried not to be hard on myself on the golf course,” Chun said afterward. “I wanted to have fun out there and work really well, and, as a result, I had a great round today.”
Part of the turnaround was getting away from the game. The pandemic allowed Chun time to decompress, to go home to her family in Korea, put the clubs away and focus on the important things in life.
“Honestly for like a year and a half, I couldn't enjoy golf, but I felt like I had to keep playing. Now, after this break, I got my passion back. I’m really enjoying golf.”
She doesn’t want to leave the wrong impression: she didn’t enjoy the pandemic. Like everyone, she struggled with the quarantines and wept for those who died. But it also gave her time to regain a sense of perspective.
“Everyone had a hard time, so I don't want to say I had a great break,” Chun said. “But honestly it was good to refresh. I saw the doctors and the medical personnel as they helped people with COVID-19. Seeing them helped me get my passion back. They did such hard work, good hard, so I tried to think of my job. Seeing them save lives made me want to work hard again and be a good player again.”
After the break, Chun returned to the states, to her adopted hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania where she won her U.S. Women’s Open title. She quarantined there for two weeks before heading to Ohio to resume the LPGA Tour schedule.
“After 14 days of quarantine, I was in one of the members' houses there (at Lancaster Country Club),” she said. “It felt like my second grandma. I always have fun staying with her. My birthday was August 10, so before I left, she gave me a birthday cake and we had a great time. It was also great to see all the members. When I go there, they're always cheering me and they're very nice to me. I’m so very honored to be a member there.”
It’s early and the leaderboard is full – far too soon to make any sort of prediction. But the outcome of the championship isn’t the most important thing when watching In Gee Chun. The return of her smile is a victory all its own.