When Dinah Shore created the ANA Inspiration in 1972, she thrust it into the spotlight with celebrity friends like Sinatra, Hope and Crosby. On Sunday, no outside help will be needed as LPGA standouts like Henderson, Korda and Thompson litter a star-studded leaderboard.
A five-month delay, the absence of fans and blistering summertime heat all faded into the California desert on Saturday, overwhelmed by three days of great golf that have made this a major championship well worth the wait.
When the winner takes her plunge into Poppie’s Pond under the watchful wave of Dinah’s statue it will be welcome relief from triple-digit heat and the end of a remarkable week of innovation and adaptability by players, sponsors, staff and volunteers.
But most off all, it will be the triumph of talent.
On Saturday, Rolex Rankings No. 9 Brooke Henderson, who went out in a record-tying 30, blistered the Championship Course at Mission Hills in 65 strokes, the low round of the week, to finish 54 holes at 12-under-par 204.
That put her in a tie going into the final round with Rolex No. 3 Nelly Korda, who was nearly flawless the first two days but showed a different kind of greatness of Saturday when she bounced back from a bogey and double bogey in a front-nine 38 to grind out a 71.
Two strokes back at 206 are 2014 ANA Inspiration winner Lexi Thompson, Katherine Kirk and Mirim Lee. Carlota Ciganda is at 207 with 2011 ANA champ Stacy Lewis at 208 as are Mel Reid, Maria Fernanda Torres and 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur champ Rose Zhang.
Talk about Inspiration!
“It was definitely a solid start to my day and after that, made a bunch of birdies,” Henderson said about kick-starting her round with an eagle on the par-5 second hole.
“Nice to make the turn that many under par,” she said. “Would have liked to get a few more on the back nine but maybe tomorrow.”
Henderson, who turned 23 on Thursday, started the day six strokes behind Korda but quickly made her presence felt.
“Being moving day, I was just trying to move up as much as I could, make a lot of birdies,” Henderson said. “Trying to get into double digits under par. That was a big one. Just trying to put myself in great position going into tomorrow.”
That she has done.
Korda, 22, dominated the first two days in a way that made it seem her first major loomed on the horizon, opening 66-67 for a two-stroke lead. But the way she gutted out an under-par third round when she did not have her A game was impressive. She turned a 75 into a 71 and that’s what champions do.
“It was a disappointing front nine, but I was really proud of the way I fought on the back nine,” Korda said. “Never gave up and there's still 18 more holes to be played, so much golf.”
Korda, 22, has already won three times on the LPGA but protecting the lead in a major championship is new territory for her.
“It was different for sure, but good,” she said. “It's a different excitement. But hopefully I'll get enough sleep tonight.”
Thompson has an intense history at the ANA Inspiration, winning in 2014 as a teenager and finishing second in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu in 2017 after a four-stroke penalty that led to a USGA rules change. In all, she has five top-seven finishes at the ANA, including third last year.
“It was definitely an up-and-down day,” Thompson said. “Got off to a good start on the front nine with three birdies in my first five holes. Just struggled a bit with the putter on the back nine. Gave myself a bunch of good looks. Hitting it well. Just need to keep giving myself chances and I will have a chance tomorrow.”
The 2014 ANA is the only major among the 11 LPGA wins for Thompson. That’s a part of her resume she’d like to fatten.
“It would mean the world to me to win another major, especially on this golf course as it's one of my favorites we play all year,” Thompson said. “Just going to go out tomorrow and keep hitting good shots and hopefully a few more putts will fall on the back nine.
As if present-day star power isn’t enough, the women’s game also gave a glimpse of its future as Rose Zhang and Gabi Ruffels, who staged a memorable 38-hole duel last month in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, not only made the cut but made appearances on the leaderboard.
Zhang, a 17-year-old Californian, outlasted Ruffels in the Women’s Am and on Saturday shot 68 to be at 208, just four strokes off the lead. Ruffels, a 20-year-old Australian who plays college golf at the University of Southern California, is T-14 at 210.
“In 2018, I played the ANA Inspiration, too, because I won ANA Junior Inspiration,” said Zhang, one of the six amateur invitees who are part of the identity of the tournament.
“There were a lot of crowds out there cheering for me,” she said about 2018. “This year is obviously different because of COVID, but honestly, I've been receiving so many messages, so I'm really blessed.”
Golf fans have been blessed this week. Only through determination, hard work and dedication did this tournament happen. Now the stage is set for what could be an epic finish. It’s been – well – an inspiration.