All major championships are difficult for different reasons. The ANA Inspiration, for example, requires precision under pressure, especially late on the weekend when desert greens don a crispy sheen.
USGA tests, on the other hand, are straightforward, classic golf courses with high, thick rough and hole locations that Carmen Sandiego couldn’t find.
The PGA of America and R&A mirror their championships to the men’s major experience - best courses in the best shape for the best players for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and the windswept wilds of links golf for the AIG Women’s Open.
But the Amundi Evian Championship is different, not because of setup or intention, but because of geography.
Evian-les-Bains sits at the base of the Alps, with each city block inland from Lake Geneva sitting a healthy hike higher than the one before. The Evian Resort Course is higher still, a beautiful green landscape on the kind of incline that gives you the sensation that you could tumble over at any moment and roll two miles downhill into the lake. With Switzerland on the other side of the water in the foreground and the snowcapped peaks of Mont d’Hermon behind, the scenery can make your head spin. And the topography can leave you off balance.
It’s the kind of golf course where most players never feel comfortable. The par-3 second hole for example is a 100-foot drop from tee to green. Balls hit with a short iron look like they’re headed for Lake Geneva while players hold their breath and hope they’ve picked the right number. On 15, the reachable par-5, the line for the second shot is 40 yards right of where your eye is telling you to aim. A putt that breaks a foot right to left might look like it’s going six inches left to right because of the way the green is carved into the surrounding mountainside.
In short, it’s a golf course that keeps you off balance no matter how many times you play it.
So, why does Lydia Ko always look so comfortable?
The 24-year-old, who will fly from France to Tokyo to represent New Zealand for the second time in the Olympic Games where she won the Silver Medal in 2016, shot an opening 68 at the Amundi Evian Championship to join a crowd at 3-under par and three shots behind early leaders Yealimi Noh and Pajaree Anannarukarn. But, as always, Ko looked as comfortable making her way around the Evian Resort Course as she does feeding ducks on the lake.
“I was honestly like, I think my driver went 100 yards off the tee on the first (hole),” Ko said, laughing at how sideways her first shot flew. “I hadn't done that before. I've hit it in some wild spots around here and I've also hit some really good ones. But you just have to be thankful and kind of play those shots.
“I also think you have to be smart. At the end of the day, it is a major championship. It's not going to be super easy. Sometimes a bogey, if that's the worst thing that's going to happen, is not really the worst-case scenario. But at the same time, when you've got the green light, you have to be aggressive with it.”
In 2013, when Ko was 16 years old, she came within a whisker of beating Suzann Pettersen at Evian, which would have shattered the youngest-ever major champion record for men and women. Two years later, she shot a closing 63 to capture the Amundi Evian Championship in grand style and become the youngest woman ever to win a major and the youngest of any gender since Young Tom Morris won the Open Championship in 1868.
Needless to say, she likes the place.
“Yeah, it's definitely nice to come back here,” Ko said. “The weather is beautiful. In 2019 I only got to play two rounds in the summer, so I haven't played a lot during this time of year. But just overlooking the water with the lake, the scenery here is so beautiful. This is a photographer and player's paradise, so I’m just trying to enjoy it and hopefully play some good golf on top of that.”
She is, however, a different player than the teenager who made this her first major title.
“To be honest, I'm hitting it like 20 yards further than I did in 2019,” she said. “So, a lot of my lines and sometimes club selections are different to what I've had in other years. Even for me last week, where a bunker wasn't in play, it is in play. I think I'm almost trying to take it as a whole new golf course and just be smart. If I don't feel comfortable, sometimes 3-wood is not a bad option as well off the tee.
“But yeah, (3-under par) is definitely a positive way to start this week. I would say today was a little scrappy. I think it could have been better. Leading up to this event, apart from a couple shots I hit the ball really well. And I think that's kind of what you need to have around here. I just make sure when I'm out there, I'm trusting my game and playing with conviction. I'm sticking to the gameplan and kind of go from there.”
You also have to achieve balance, something Ko has now in her game and in her life - even in a place where keeping your equilibrium is a challenge every day.