Their last trips around the Dinah Shore Tournament Course were memorable but for far different reasons. In September, the only fall playing of the ANA Inspiration in the tournament’s half-century history, Brooke Henderson, Nelly Korda and Mirim Lee battled stifling heat and rough so thick that extracting a ball from it was like pulling dog hair out of a brush.
That final round had everything: birdies under pressure, par saves from nowhere, chip-ins (three from Lee, two for birdie and one for eagle that would prove to be the difference), and a couple of hiccups. Henderson flubbed a pitch from ankle-deep rough and made double bogey on the front nine and Korda missed a putt that your buddies would give you in a Saturday match.
In the end, Lee eagled 18 in regulation, Henderson birdied it, and Korda, after missing her tee shot into the left rough, made par. Back they went for a playoff, which Lee won with a birdie.
Those are the mechanics of the thing. But nothing is ever as simple as the dry recitation of facts. There were highs and lows, celebrations and scars. Now, six months later, they are back in Rancho Mirage, walking past Dinah’s statue, remembering what came before and using it to drive them toward what is to come.
Lee, who rattled home those three chips that were destined to run off the greens otherwise, showed that she had the heartbeat of a sniper when, in the playoff, she holed a must-make downhill 6-footer for the win.
“I'm not lying at all when I say that I had no nerves,” Lee said of that major moment six months ago that changed her career and life forever. “At that point I was really proud of myself for being able to pull myself together and play with confidence. But I wasn't nervous at all.”
Nerves are a strange thing. Sometimes you don’t feel them. But in hindsight, the situation puts you in a position where you know they are there. Korda, whose miss has always been a pull, might have tried to get a little more out of her tee shots on 18 than needed. She didn’t feel the nerves. But the two tugs on 18 – one in regulation and the other in the playoff - left her with almost no shot at reaching the par-5 in two, which proved to be the difference.
Henderson, playing alongside Korda and looking for her second career major, might have gotten too cute with a pitch shot that demanded a more disciplined and conservative approach. She also had a birdie putt of 9 feet that would have extended the playoff. She hit a good putt, but it slid left.
“Definitely a little disappointed in how I finished last year for sure,” Henderson said. “But Mirim played great and what a great champion. I just wish I’d have maybe performed a little bit better in that playoff, but I played great on that Sunday afternoon. So, for me it just gives me a little bit of inspiration and maybe a little bit of motivation coming into this week.”
Henderson comes in with a great deal of confidence after a great putting week on some wobbly poa annua greens at the Kia Classic where she finished T10 with Korda.
“I've actually switched to left-hand-low from inside 10 feet, which I put into play last week and it seemed to work out really nicely,” Henderson said. “That was a big change for me. But I feel really comfortable with it and I think I'll keep it going.”
Korda has been making some changes as well.
“It's actually crazy because it's a swing plane (change), which I feel like it's one of the hardest things to change, especially during tournament golf because you don't really want to think about your swing plane at all,” she said. “It's something I worked through on Monday to Wednesday and I don't really try to think about it from Thursday on because when you get technical out there, it can take you to some dark places.”
That strategy has obviously worked. Since instituting the change, Korda has a win, a third and a tie for 10th in four starts.
All three players think about last year. They don’t dwell on it. But it never leaves you.
“The feeling is really good to be able to hear those words, being called a major champion,” Lee said on Tuesday afternoon at Mission Hills. “It definitely gives me more motivation to win again. I'm looking forward to winning more, especially majors.”
To no surprise, Korda, still searching for her first major, feels different. “If someone's got it going, they have it going,” she said. “I wasn't really disappointed last year. I played well. You know, there's nothing you can do. Mirim played really well on the last day. But I think, in those high-pressure situations, there are a couple shots going down the stretch where adrenaline kicked in and I started flying my irons a lot further than I normally would. So, situations like that.”
Henderson, who won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship early in her career and has had 10 other top-10 finishes in majors, including two runner-up showings, won’t forget last year, either. Not the facts and figures of it. She will remember the feelings and use them as fuel.
“There's definitely a lot more pressure on major championship weeks,” Henderson said. “If you know that the golf course is going to demand everything you have physically and mentally, I think just making sure you get the proper amount of practice and the proper amount of rest early on in the week is really key.”
As for last year, she said, “I think it's really important to take away the positives from that week because I played really well and there's a lot of good things that happened. Unfortunately, I didn't lift the trophy, but I was tied for the lead when we finished 72 holes. So, that's a lot of confidence and that's a great feeling.”