With the unique purple heather of Walton Heath as the backdrop, the AIG Women’s Open proved a fitting conclusion to an exciting 2023 major championship season on the LPGA Tour.
Lilia Vu solidified her place as a superstar in the game, becoming the first American woman since Juli Inkster in 1999 to win multiple majors in the same season. Her victory pushed her to No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, making her just the fourth American player to ascend to the top spot since its inception nearly 20 years ago.
Lilia lights it up
While Vu’s ball striking was tremendous (she ranked second in the field in strokes gained tee-to-green), it was her putting that pushed her from contender to champion on the weekend. Vu gained 7.66 strokes on the greens alone in the final two rounds, including a field-best 5.51 on Sunday. Lilia made 11 one-putts in the final round, three more than any other player.
That strong putting was vital in helping her keep bogeys off the scorecard, as she ranked first for the week in both scrambling and bogey avoidance. When Vu has had her putting stroke dialed in this season, she’s been literally impossible to beat. Three times in 2023, Vu has ranked in the top 10 in a tournament field in strokes gained putting. In all three of those tournaments, she went on to win. In the final round alone of her three wins this season, she’s gained more than 14.5 shots on the field with her putter.
The heather at Walton Heath made for a beautiful setting, sure, but things got ugly fast when players found themselves trying to hit out of it. Vu managed to avoid the penalizing misses for the most part, hitting 75% of her fairways for the week, about 10% more than the field average. Vu gained more than a full stroke on the field off the tee in rounds two, three and four, and wound up ranked fourth in the field in that statistic for the championship.
Vu is typically well above the average player on longer approach shots into the green: This season on approaches from 175 to 225 yards, her average proximity is about 2.5 feet better than the LPGA Tour average. But that part of her game proved to be exceedingly important in her victory last week. Vu gained a little more than three strokes on the field with her approach play for the championship, with 86% of that total coming on approaches from 175 to 225 yards away.
Trailing by six shots entering the weekend, Vu tied the largest 36-hole comeback to win this championship since it became a major back in 2001. The great Se Ri Pak was also six back through two rounds when she won at Sunningdale in 2001. After starting the 2023 season without a win on the LPGA Tour, Vu picked up a pair of major championship victories this season. She’s the first player to enter an LPGA season winless – then win multiple majors that year – since Pak did it in 1998.
When Vu tees it up for the United States in Spain next month, she will be the first player since Annika Sorenstam in 2005 to win multiple majors and compete in the Solheim Cup in the same year and join Betsy King (1990) as the only Americans to do it. Vu’s runaway six-shot victory is the largest margin by an American woman in a major championship since Cristie Kerr won the 2010 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship by a dozen strokes.
Another runner-up for Hull
Statistically speaking, Charley Hull didn’t putt poorly in last week’s final round – she gained half-a-stroke on the field on the greens Sunday. But juxtaposed to Vu, it was the biggest separator of the 54-hole co-leaders that day, with strokes gained putting accounting for five shots in the six-shot margin. Hull’s play on and around the greens was her strength over the course of the championship. The now three-time major runner-up ranked third for the week in strokes gained putting, fifth in scrambling and eighth in strokes gained around the green.
The incredible approach play Hull displayed in round three simply didn’t carry over into the final round: she led the field in strokes gained approach on Saturday, gaining 3.53 shots on the field. Sunday, she lost more than two strokes to the competition in that facet of the game. Hull is the first player to finish runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Open and AIG Women’s Open in the same season since Meg Mallon in 2000.
Red, White and Blue
This season marked the first time American players won three or more majors in an LPGA season since 2014, when Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie and Mo Martin each won. In the eight years between, there wasn’t a single season where the United States claimed more than one major championship.
The last time the Americans headed into a Solheim Cup having won three majors that season was in 1994, when Donna Andrews, Patty Sheehan and Martha Nause each won. The U.S. team would then go to The Greenbrier in West Virginia and beat the European team soundly, 13 to 7.
The Solheim Cup is less than one month away.