It’s year three. But it feels like a new beginning.
After a successful run as a celebrity shindig with a little golf thrown in – a fun-loving week that happened to feature a smattering of Tour stars like Brooke Henderson and Lexi Thompson - the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions launched anew in 2019 as an official event featuring recent past champions from the LPGA Tour. And while the new format remained light and fun, with celebrities playing in a parallel tournament while being paired with the pros, once the first competitive shots were struck, the work inside the ropes became all business.
Two years ago, for example, winds in the final round gusted up to 30 miles per hour, making for a grinding and eminently exciting finish. Eun-Hee Ji and Lydia Ko began the brisk Sunday tied for the lead. Ko jumped ahead when Ji bogeyed the first two holes. But Ji bounced back while Ko hit some snags. In un-Lydia-like fashion, Ko pushed her tee shot on 13 into the trees, leading to an unplayable lie. She made double bogey, her first of two doubles on the back nine.
That left Mirim Lee as the last serious contender. Lee had an 8-foot birdie putt on the par-5 17th that would have tied her for the lead. But she jammed the putt through the break and finished a shot behind Ji, who shot 1-under on Sunday to become the first winner of the new event.
Given everything that’s happened in the world sense then, Ji’s victory seems like a century ago. And with many international travel restrictions still in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, she won’t be in the field at the Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club in 2021.
2020 champion Gaby Lopez will be returning, though, with a reminder of what life was like before the world changed.
Three players finished tied at the end of regulation a year ago. Back then, the grandstands surrounding the green at the par-3 18th green were a hive of activity.
The outcome of the celebrity competition was almost never in doubt. John Smoltz, who won his first big event the year before at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, successfully defended his title with relative ease.
The LPGA Tour side of things was a different matter. On the final green of regulation, Inbee Park made a terrific up and down, while Gaby Lopez rolled in a birdie putt on her difficult finishing hole to join Park and Nasa Hataoka in what would turn out to be one of the most exciting and elongated finishes in recent LPGA Tour history.
Back to 18 they went, the stands filling by the minute. Celebrities like country music stars Cole Swindell and Colt Ford, actors Michael Pena and Jack Wagner, and athletes like Mardy Fish and Jon Lester hung around to see three of the Tour’s best play the 197-yard par-3 to finish the event.
But darkness won that Sunday. Five trips produced a slew of pars and no winner. Park was eliminated the third time through, leaving Lopez and Hataoka to duel it out twice more before the day came to a close.
The longest sudden-death playoff in LPGA Tour history is 10 holes and dates all the way back to 1972 when Jo Ann Prentice beat two Hall of Famers, Sandra Palmer and Kathy Whitworth, in the Corpus Christi Civitan Open. That feat was almost matched in 2012 when Jiyai Shin beat Paula Creamer on the 9th hole of sudden death at the Kingsmill Championship.
Like that Shin-Creamer battle, the 2020 Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions spilled over into Monday. At 8:00 a.m. on a cool January morning, Lopez and Hataoka ventured back to the 18th. On the seventh trip, Lopez, who hit hybrid every time she played the hole, drained a 30-footer for birdie, punching the air and yelling in both celebration and relief. There were only six birdies at 18 all week. Lopez had three of them. Hataoka had a shorter putt to tie but failed to make it, giving Lopez her second career victory.
A star from the University of Arkansas, Lopez is only the second player from Mexico to win on the LPGA Tour behind former World No.1 Lorena Ochoa. After that 2020 playoff victory, Lopez said, “I don’t need to prove to anyone else but myself. I proved to myself that I can win in any situation. My first win was in the lead. My second win was coming from behind. And being able to put all those moments together and recall them while I'm walking on the fairway here and try to stay patient. That's what I proved to myself the most, my ability to stay in the moment.”
Staying in the moment is a trait we’ve all had to learn in the last year, along with patience, perseverance and adaptability.
Through it all, Gaby Lopez has remained reflective. In the summer she reaffirmed that Ochoa was always her inspiration. “I grew up dreaming of being just like her,” Lopez said. But she also offered some sage words on what it means for women to excel in the game. “Golf makes you a strong, bold, patient and disciplined woman in the inside,” she said. “There is no better feeling than proving to yourself that you can be better every single day.
“Golf will teach you to be kind and respectful to yourself. And it will make you work hard to accomplish your dreams.”
The dream continues for Gaby Lopez who defends her title at the season’s first event, the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.