The stage is set. The actors are in place. When Easter Sunday dawns in the California desert the new day will bring the final round of golf’s first major of 2021.
By sunset, the ANA Inspiration will have added a new page to its incredible 50-year LPGA Tour history. And it could very well crown a riveting new talent.
Poised at the edge of the 18th green at Mission Hills, the cool waters of Poppie’s Pond await this year’s leap into legend, this year’s plunge into the pages that tell the story of one of golf’s great traditions. All that’s left now is to see who steps from the shadows of contention into the spotlight of a champion.
The cast of characters is a true testament to the depth and breadth of talent on golf’s global tour. The most impressive of those through 54 holes is 21-year-old Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand, who has powered her way to 14-under-par 202 for a five-stroke lead going into Sunday’s final round.
“It is kind of a different course,” Tavatanakit said about her distance advantage. “I can get to the holes with shorter clubs. The most I had into a par-4 was a 9-iron,” she said.
The challenge now is to close the deal on Sunday in a major championship.
“I have to ask myself what can I improve on for tomorrow,” she said. “I just need to stay calm and let the golf play itself.”
Tavatanakit’s closest pursuers are Ally Ewing and Mirim Lee at 207. Lee’s 68 on Saturday kept alive her hopes of defending the ANA Inspiration title she won in September. Shanshan Feng, the only player from China to win an LPGA major, is at 208.
Seven-time major winner Inbee Park is at 209 with Charley Hull. Jin Young Ko, the ANA winner in 2019, Lydia Ko, who won here in 2016, Gaby Lopez and Moriya Jutanugarn are at 210. An early stumble by Tavatanakit could let a lot of proven winners back into contention.
Ewing, who picked up her first LPGA Tour win last year in the Drive On Championship Reynolds Lake Oconee, thrust herself into the mix with a 66. Mission Hills is a course she knows well, finishing T-6 in the 2019 ANA, her best effort in an LPGA Tour major.
“I didn't really have an expectation,” Ewing said about her mindset going into Moving Day. “So I just took it one hole at a time and was able to get off to a really good start with three birdies to start the day. A 66 on moving day, certainly all you can ask for is to put yourself in a good position for tomorrow.”
Tavatanakit seems to be coming into her own, adding polish to a game long on power. After two years playing for UCLA, she joined the Epson Tour and won three times in 2019, earning her LPGA Tour card for 2020 off the Epson money list.
Her best efforts this year are T-5 at the Gainbridge Championship and T-14 at the Drive On Championship. In the pandemic interrupted 2020 season – in which the status of all rookies was extended into 2021 – Tavatanakit was T-9 in the Marathon Classic. Her best effort in an LPGA major was T-5 at the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open, when she was the low amateur.
Mission Hills, which has for its 50 years as a Tour stop been a welcome home for long hitters, has opened its arms to Tavatanakit and she was enjoyed that embrace. For the week, she’s averaging 326 yards off the tee, a number that makes the par-5 holes all reachable in two for her.
Tavatanakit’s work off the tee on Saturday was nothing short of eye-popping. She hit it more than 300 yards virtually every time she had a driver in her hand, including 360 yards on No. 4 – the longest of the day on that hole by 40 yards – and 338 yards on No. 11 where she hit driver, 7-iron into the par-5.
What really grabbed attention, however, was the strength of the rest of her game. She hit 10 fairways, 14 greens and needed only 28 putts. On this day, Tavatanakit was no one-trick pony but rather was a thoroughbred showcasing a complete game. On Sunday, that game is tested under final-round pressure at a major championship.
For five decades, Mission Hills has rarely disappointed when it comes to final-round fireworks. So many times, it all comes down to the par-5 18th hole, where the island green is well guarded against those looking to add her name to the Wall of Champions.
One way or the other, history will be made Sunday at the ANA Inspiration. That’ been its legacy for 50 years.