SAN MARTIN, Calif. —Our national championships are the most merciless of golf tournaments. You can be the sweetheart of the LPGA, beloved by your peers even as you’re dusting them at a historic pace, but the U.S. Women’s Open will still push you to the breaking point, as happened to lovable Lydia Ko on Sunday.
You can play the round of your life and storm into a playoff only to have the Open taken from you because a few grains of sand twitched, as happened to Anna Nordqvist, now one of golf’s great tragic heroines.
You can even win the damn tournament, the crowning moment of an otherwise disappointing career, and still a pall will be cast over the achievement by yet another unsatisfying Sunday of rules dithering, as happened to Brittany Lang. Bobby Jones once said, "No one win the Open. Everyone else just loses it."
That was mostly true again here at CordeValle Golf Club.
Everyone's All-American at Duke, Lang had won just once in a decade on Tour but she is now a national champion thanks to a rock-solid final round that included the putt of her life, a 24-footer for birdie on the 70th hole that gave her the outright lead at -7.
But Lang three-putted the next hole and wound up tied with Nordqvist, who had taken the clubhouse lead with a spectacular, bogeyless 67. (Given that she hit all 18 greens in regulation on Thursday, it might've been only Nordqvist's second-best round of the week.)
In the ensuing aggregate 3-hole playoff Nordqvist was in a fairway bunker on the second playoff hole when, at address, her 5-iron grazed a tiny clump of sand. She didn’t feel it but TV cameras caught it and soon enough another Open was plunged into chaos. Unlike at Oakmont, the USGA acted swiftly, reviewing the video and concluding that Nordqvist deserved a two-stroke penalty. It was an easy call. But golf tournaments are chaotic logistically and communication does not happen at the speed of light. By the time the information was relayed to on-course officials both players were in the fairway of the 18th hole, a par-5 with the green fronted by water. Nordqvist played her third shot just as the officials arrived. They caught Lang before she played her own third shot.
Should they have waited to tell her until after she hit her approach? That might seem more equitable but post-Oakmont there has been an outcry to convey rulings as soon as possible. So that’s what the USGA did. Lang, therefore, knew she suddenly had a two-stroke lead and so she played a more conservative shot deeper into the green. Two putts later she was the champ.
Nordqvist was classy in defeat, saying,"Hey, I made a mistake, and I will have to take the consequences for it."
She did acknowledge that she would had liked to have known of the penalty sooner. But with the pin tucked just five paces over the water on a rock-hard green, and with a hard wind behind her, it’s hard to imagine Nordqvist could have gotten the ball close in any scenario. (She had not gone for that green in two all week, and S.H. Park—a much longer hitter than Nordqvist— lost out on a chance to join the playoff when she rinsed a hybrid from 236 yards on the 72nd hole.) Of course, if Nordqvist had been told of the penalty and thus made a more aggressive play and stuffed her shot maybe Lang would have felt more pressure and misplayed her own approach, leading to a two-shot swing that would have extended the playoff.
We can second-guess this forever but Lang sounded reasonable in summarizing the finish, "I think the USGA did the best they could do. I think they handled it in a timely manner. I think they would have told Anna had they known before. But I think they waited to look at the video and then confirm it. And then once they knew, they couldn't control who had hit what shot and they told people as quickly as they could.”
As for Lang, 30, she rightly called the victory "a huge, a huge step in the right direction for my career." She finished tied for second at the 2005 U.S. Women's Open in her final tournament as an amateur and stardom seemed inevitable but she battled swing problems and mental demons throughout so many fruitless season.
Eschewing a swing coach in the last couple of years she has developed a new trust in herself. She also has built a solid support group, with her brother Luke on the bag and a tireless cheerleader in her husband Kevin Spann, who had wooed Lang in the parking lot of Dallas’s TPC-Craig Ranch by challenging her to match. (She won, of course. A year later he proposed, memorably, on the 9th green during the 2013 LPGA North Texas Shootout.)
Long and straight off the tee and possessing a silky touch on the greens, Lang looks ready to become the player she was always supposed to be. But this Open will always be remembered for the two players who didn’t win it.
Before Nordqvist’s wrenching denouement, Ko, 19, threw away a chance to make history, as she could have become the youngest player ever to win three major championships, rendering Young Tom Morris just a bit too old.
Leading by one stroke through 54 holes, she began the final round in quintessential fashion, picking apart the course with thoughtful, precise golf. When Ko rolled in a curling 25-footer for birdie on the sixth hole she went to -8 and two shots in the lead, having made only one bogey in the preceding 43 holes. A coronation seemed inevitable but then, suddenly, the Open turned on her.
A loose approach and indifferent chip on the eighth hole led to what she called a "dumb bogey," cutting the lead in half. The ninth hole at CordeValle is a 523 yard par-5 with a hazard that snakes across the fairway. Given Ko’s relative lack of power, it is always a three-shot hole for her. But after a drive into the rough she got too aggressive with her second shot, trying to muscle a hybrid out a lie she described as "juicy." Her ball disappeared into the hazard, leading to a ruinous double bogey that dropped her out of the lead.
Shaken, she made two more bogies coming in, falling to a tie for 3rd.
Afterward, Ko was her typically upbeat self, noting it was her best finish at the Open and that with five straight top-3s in the majors she has learned to elevate her game when it matters most. With the Women’s British Open and Olympics on the horizon she said she has more "fire" to nab some glittering rewards. Her sister Sura sounded a philosophical note, which may be of some use for Nordqvist.
"I think on Sunday morning it is already decided who will win," Sura said. "I don't know if it's god or fate, but the outcome has been determined and everyone simply has to play their role, like from a script."
This Open, like so many others before it, turned out to be mostly a tragedy.