At last week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, women’s major championship competition returned to Baltusrol Golf Club for the first time in nearly 40 years. Ruoning Yin added her name to an illustrious list of champions at Baltusrol’s Lower Course that includes the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Mickey Wright.
According to the KPMG Performance Insights, Yin entered the week leading the LPGA Tour this season in strokes gained approach per round. It was her surgical iron play – especially on the weekend – that fueled her run to her first major championship victory.
A significant championship trend
At both the 2021 and 2022 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, elite approach play was what separated the winners from the players chasing them. At Atlanta Athletic Club, Nelly Korda averaged 3.60 strokes gained approach per round, best of any player in the field. Her approach shots accounted for more than 57% of her total strokes gained over the competition for the week. The following year, In Gee Chun gained an even more disproportionate advantage via that part of her game: 77.1% of Chun’s strokes gained total came from approach shots. In her opening round alone, In Gee gained a field-best 6.82 strokes with her approach play.
Ruoning Yin utilized a similar formula on her path to victory last week. Yin hit her last 37 consecutive greens in regulation – the longest such streak for any player on the LPGA Tour all season. She racked up 2.39 strokes gained approach per round, most of any player in the field. Yin was the only player in the championship to gain at least 1.5 strokes with her approach play in all four rounds. Over the course of the week, Yin hit 48 approach shots from the fairway, and she missed the green in that situation only four times.
It’s true that larger putting surfaces led to greens being hit at a higher-than-normal rate. The field GIR percentage for the week at Baltusrol was 70.5%, a touch above the season average of 67.4%. Thanks to strokes gained approach, though, we can still properly contextualize Yin’s remarkable week firing at flags in New Jersey.
While approach shots weighed heaviest when analyzing Yin’s victory, it wasn’t the only facet of her game that was rolling. Yin was terrific with driver all week, ranking fourth in the field in strokes gained off-the-tee and second in the more traditional metric, total driving. And after struggling on the greens in both rounds two and three – losing more than six strokes to the field putting – Yin gained 0.41 strokes in that statistic on Sunday to seal the win.
Saso’s most potent weapon
2021 U.S. Open champion Yuka Saso finished alone in second place, her best result in a major since winning at The Olympic Club two summers ago. When Saso is at her best, she’s picking up bundles of strokes on the field with her driver. That’s exactly what she did at Baltusrol, leading the field in strokes gained off-the-tee.
Saso now has eight top-10 finishes on the LPGA Tour over the last two seasons. In all eight of those tournaments, she ranked in the top-10 that week in strokes gained off-the-tee. For the season, she’s now ninth on the LPGA Tour in that stat, averaging 0.70 strokes gained per round. Her performance with driver is accounting for more than half of her strokes gained total in 2023.
Another close call for Khang
Only one player has finished in the top-10 in each of the season’s first two major championships. That would be Megan Khang, whose tie for third place marked the ninth top-10 result of her major career. Since 2018, only three other players have nine or more such finishes in the game’s biggest events: Inbee Park (10), Nelly Korda (nine) and Jin Young Ko (nine). Not only are all three of those women major champions, but each has also been the No. 1 player in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Ranking, combining to do so for exactly 300 weeks in their careers. As such a prolific contender in majors, it’s difficult to fathom that Khang has yet to break through with a victory on the LPGA Tour.
Khang was excellent through the bag at Baltusrol, gaining strokes on the field in every measured category. Her 2.17 strokes gained approach per round marked her best performance of the season in that statistic.
Rose’s rise on the weekend
After opening rounds of 70 and 74, Rose Zhang entered last weekend tied for 29th place, seven shots behind leader Leona Maguire. Zhang struggled with Baltusrol’s greens over the first two rounds, needing 65 putts to get around on Thursday and Friday. That script flipped completely on the weekend, though, as her putting was the catalyst to lift her into contention.
Over the last two rounds, Zhang gained a whopping 6.73 strokes on the field putting. That included picking up 4.37 strokes Sunday, the third-highest total in the field during the final round. Rose rolled in 209 feet of putts on the weekend all told – 63 feet more than the first two days. Zhang was trying to become the first player in LPGA history to win her first two starts as a professional. Her tie for eighth moved her into the top-50 of the Rolex Ranking, and one step closer to making the U.S. Solheim Cup Team in September.
Carlota lights it up Sunday
One of the two players in the field to gain more strokes putting Sunday than Zhang was Carlota Ciganda, who shot a closing 64 to move up 26 spots on the leaderboard. Her 4.79 strokes gained putting in the final round was her second-most in any single round so far in 2023. It was the seventh top-10s finish in a major since 2015 for the 12th-year pro – only Lexi Thompson has more top-10s in majors without a win (11) in that time span.
Ciganda’s final-round 64 was 6.9 strokes better than the field scoring average Sunday. Through two majors in 2023, Ciganda (who tied for 12th at The Chevron Championship) has picked up 22.44 strokes gained total, second-best of any player. Only Megan Khang has more (+24.44).
In just one week, the world’s best will convene at one of the most iconic venues in golf, Pebble Beach. The U.S. Women’s Open begins July 6.