Golf is a skill rented, not owned. There is perhaps no sport in which performance can fluctuate so drastically from year to year, event to event, round to round or even shot to shot. That’s a reality familiar to Austin Ernst and Anna Nordqvist and one reinforced Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
Nordqvist was flawless for 47 of the 54 holes in the tournament. But a couple of tugged tee shots on the final nine cracked the door a bit and Ernst kicked it wide open with a sizzling 63 on Sunday for a 20-under-par 193 total, two strokes better than the Swede, for her second LPGA victory – six years almost to the day since her first.
Ernst, the 2011 NCAA individual championship while at Louisiana State University, won the 2014 Cambia Portland Classic in her second season on Tour, collecting the trophy on Aug. 31. Since then, she’d teed off in 144 LPGA tournaments without a victory. But it could be that the Covid-19 break got her game healthy.
“It was long, a lot longer than I thought it would be,” Ernst said about her six-year-winless streak. “Oh, man, it feels good. I have worked really hard. I think this break was fantastic for me. Helped get my confidence back. I had a rough year last year. I played so well in 2018, and, man, just feels so good right now.”
For Ernst, 28, this could be the start of something big. Last week, she was fifth at the AIG Women’s Open and while she only had one top-10 in 2019, the previous season she had five, including T-2 at the Evian Championship and second at the Walmart.
“I just grinded on my putter and wedges and driving the ball,” she said about the work she put in during the break. “I think what held me back in the past is I won't hit as many fairways and don't make quite as many putts, and today I hit the ball really well really being under the gun all day.”
On Sunday, Ernst hit every fairway, 16 of 18 greens and used only 28 putts. She came out of the gate fast with a 31 but had started the day four strokes behind Nordqvist, who was making no mistakes.
But a two-stroke swing on No, 14 – birdie for Ernst who was in the penultimate group and bogey for Nordqvist in the last threesome – put the Greenville, S.C., native in the lead. She never gave it up.
For Nordqvist, success came even quicker than it did for Ernst. She won in just her fifth LPGA event and it was a major at that, setting the bar of expectation incredibly high. When she took the 2009 KPMG Women’s PGA, Jim Murray, a co-founder of Ronald McDonald House who was running media operations for the tournament, said of the 6-foot Swede: “They’ve supersized Annika.”
And while no one this side of Mickey Wright has played the game with the relentless consistency of Sorenstam, Murray was correct in analyzing Nordqvist’s style of play, which was very Annika-like: Minimize mistakes and maintain composure.
But Nordqvist’s eight LPGA wins have been separated by a couple of head-scratching droughts. After winning twice in 2009, she went five years until her next victory. But from 2014 through 2017 she won at least once every year and a total of six times, including the 2017 Evian Championship, her second major. But that’s her last win.
Nordqvist, who hit 35 of 36 greens the first two rounds and shot 62 on Saturday, did not make a bogey until No. 12 on Sunday, when she tugged her drive into the left rough. She followed with another bogey on No. 14 when she pulled her tee shot on the par-5 – a birdie hole – into the hazard for a penalty stroke.
When Ernst made birdie on the par-5 18th, it meant that Nordqvist needed an eagle to tie. But again, she found the left rough.
“I played great this week,” Nordqvist said. “Just felt like it wasn't really meant to be. On the back nine hit a lot of good putts; they just didn't go in. Two bad drives that kind of killed me a little bit. Overall, I mean, I had a chance there on the last, I guess.”
Of all those who’ve set the bar high for the 33-year-old Nordqvist, none has placed it higher than she.
“Anna is an extremely hard worker,” says Katrina Vangdal, a Swedish coach who has known Nordqvist since she was 17. “She has high demands on herself. Even though she has many years left on tour, she has had an amazing career.”
It could be that the socially distanced duel – they were a threesome apart – by Ernst and Nordqvist will fire them both up. Next up is the ANA Inspiration – the second major of the year – Sept. 10-13. The following week it’s onto the Cambria Portland Classic, where it all began for Ernst.
And if Nordqvist wants to look ahead, the KPMG Women’s PGA – where it all began for her – is Oct. 8-11. Somehow it feels as if both of these women will be in the winner’s circle sooner rather than later.