As the old adage goes, anything can happen in match play. If you ever doubted the truth in that statement, Sunday’s semi-finals at the Hanwha LIFEPLUS International Crown taught you a lesson. There’s a fine line separating the best in the world. And when they put on the colors of their countries, you can throw rankings and records out the window.
That history goes back to the very first Crown when Belen Mozo, the lowest-ranked player on the Spanish team, turned into the hero for her homeland. In 2018, In Gee Chun, the youngest player teeing it up for the Republic of Korea, came through in the clutch in front of a raucous home crowd.
And this year, with a new, easier-to-follow Sunday format where the semifinals were played in the morning, followed by the finals in the afternoon, the morning matches provided some of the best drama of the week, along with the biggest upsets.
Australia came into the week ranked seventh out of eight teams. The Aussie’s top player, Minjee Lee, ranked No.6 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. Hannah Green, who won last week at the JM Eagle LA Championship presented by Plastpro, came in ranked No.14. For reference, the entire team from Korea showed up at TPC Harding Park ranked higher than Green, and three of the four Americans sat above the second-best player for the Aussies in the rankings.
The other two Australians, Steph Kyriacou and Sarah Kemp, ranked 116 and 161, respectively.
On paper, they didn’t have much of a shot.
But on grass by the shores of Lake Merced, it was a different story.
Early in the week, Kemp threw down the gauntlet when she said, “Minjee is (ranked sixth in the world) and Hannah won last week. We have to be one of the favorites, don’t we?”
The rest of the world might not have believed so, but the Aussies certainly believed. And that belief paid off on Sunday morning when the Aussies swept the previously unbeaten team from Sweden.
Kyriacou got things rolling early when she took a 4-up lead over the red-hot Anna Nordqvist through the first 7 holes. That lead slipped to 3-up when Kyriacou bogeyed 11. But on 14, the Aussie won another hole with par and closed things out 4 & 3 on 15.
“I think I play my best when I'm aggressive, and in match play you only need to beat one person so there's not as much pressure,” Kyriacou said afterward. “I played pretty aggressive all day. All week actually.”
Kyriacou then hustled over to 16 to hug Green, who was in the midst of a thumping of Caroline Hedwall, 3 and 2. “This is the best result we've had as a team in this event, so I'm super proud of the girls,” Green said. “I almost felt like I was letting them down because they were so up in their matches today, and I knew Caroline is obviously a great match play competitor, too.”
Tied through the front nine, Green took a 2-up lead with birdies at 10 and 11. She maintained that advantage until 16 when, after hugging Kyriacou on the tee, Green made another birdie to close out the match.
That left Lee and Kemp who played foursomes (alternate shot) against the stellar, long-hitting duo of Madelene Sagstrom and Maja Stark.
The Swedes took a quick 1-up lead with a birdie at the second, but the Aussies charged back, winning three straight holes starting at the fifth. They extended the lead to 3 up with a par at 11, and then made it 4 up with another par at 13. On 15, Lee poured in a 20-footer for birdie – a putt she walked after as it fell into the hole – to close out the sweep 5 and 3.
“It's huge,” Kemp said afterward. “I'll say it again. I'm not really surprised with -- not in a cocky way, just because of the way we are around each other and the team that we've built from the beginning. We've had lunch together; we've had breakfast together every day; we've had dinner together; we do everything together, and we've just come together really well. And it's paying off as you can see on the course.
“In that aspect, I'm not surprised that we're all playing so well.”
The top-ranked Americans could have used some of that mojo. After finishing second to Sweden in Pool A and fighting off a late scare when the People’s Republic of China Team made a run that might have forced a playoff, the Americans fell to Thailand with two of the three matches going all the way to 18.
Atthaya Thitikul birdied her first two holes to take a 2-up lead over Lexi Thompson, then added another birdie at the fifth to go 3 up. Thompson birdied 6 to get one hole back, but Thitikul birdied 9 and then tied the remaining holes to close Lexi out early.
The other two matches were thrilling late. Patty Tavatankit, the 2021 Chevron Championship winner, jumped out to a 2-up lead on this year’s Chevron champion, Lilia Vu. But Vu, as she had done all week, came roaring back with birdies at 11, 13 and 14 to flip the script and take a 1-up lead. The pair tied 15, 16, and 17, but not without drama. After Vu made par on 17, Tavatanakit had a putt to tie that she poured into the middle, but it just wasn’t enough to take down arguably the hottest player on Tour this season.
After Vu closed out Patty T. 1 up on 18, all attention fell to the foursomes match which pitted the Jutanugarn sisters, Moriya and Ariya, two of the four players who have participated in every International Crown going to back to 2014, and the American duo of Nelly Korda and Danielle Kang.
Once again, the Thais jumped out to an early lead, this one 2-up at the turn. But a birdie at 13 pulled the Americans to within one. When Kang stuffed an approach shot to 3ft on 16 and Korda made the resulting birdie putt to tie the match, Kang’s family and the gallery went wild.
The celebration was short-lived, though. One hole later, Ariya drained a midrange putt for birdie to regain the lead, prompting a yell from Tavatanakit that could have been heard in Sausalito. A tie on 18, and the upset was complete. The team from the USA, highly decorated and favored, was eliminated from the finals.
“Playing against the USA, it's actually a really big match for us,” Moriya said. “It was very tight. They both are very good players. But we just tried to play one shot at a time, and we tried to support each other and make sure we got like 100-percent commitment out there. Outcome is something you can't really (control). You just have to do your best.”
Their best turned out to be good enough to advance to the finals, two unexpected but sensational teams battling for the Hanwha LIFEPLUS International Crown.