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Ryu wins dramatic ANA Inspiration as Minjee Lee records best major finish

A gutted but gutsy Lexi Thompson walks from the playoff hole as Ryu embraces her caddy.
There was already the expectation of drama on the final day of the ANA Inspiration with so many of the game’s leading players within striking distance heading into the fourth round of the year’s opening major but nobody, even in their wildest dreams, could have imagined what was about to unfold.

The fact that South Korea’s So Yeon Ryu further extended her lead on the 2017 money list and won her second major in a playoff over Lexi Thompson tells only a very small part of the story of one of the more heart-wrenching two hours of golf in LPGA Tour history.

When Thompson extended her overnight lead to four through 11 holes, it appeared that she was well and truly on track to secure her second ANA Inspiration title. A bogey at the 12th would have appeared to Thompson as only a minor hiccup on her waltz to victory but as she walked towards the 13th tee, two LPGA Tour officials told her that a television viewer had informed the LPGA via email of a rules infringement the previous day.

The resultant four-shot penalty (two for not replacing her ball correctly on the 17th green on Saturday and two for signing an incorrect scorecard) turned Thompson's two-shot lead to a two-shot deficit and, with the emotion and surreal nature of what had just happened, it was difficult to see how the 22-year-old could find the resolve to fight back.

But fight back she did. Thompson birdied the 13th from 22 feet then, at the 15th, birdied from eight feet to move to 14-under-par and into the outright lead but lost her advantage with a bogey at the par-four 16th. It was stirring stuff but, ahead on the golf course, Ryu was playing mistake-free golf and when she produced a stunning up-and-down for birdie from an awkward position at the 72nd hole, she had moved to 14-under and one clear of the final pairing of Thompson and Suzann Pettersen.

Thompson and Pettersen had been locked in battle for so much of the day, and as they headed to the tee at the reachable par-five 18th, each needed a birdie to force a playoff with Ryu.

Pettersen found the fairway and although Thompson missed the right side of the fairway, she was in the first cut and lying well. The American then proceeded to hit one of the gutsiest shots imaginable given the circumstances within 15 feet of the hole. Pettersen was long with her second and then chipped to six feet while Thompson left her putt to win outright on the right edge of the cup.

When Pettersen missed her short birdie putt, it was time for a playoff which Ryu won with a birdie at the first extra hole. Ryu's aggressive second shot with a fairway metal missed the green slightly right and after pitching within six feet, she holed the tricky birdie putt for the title. Thompson could not match Ryu's birdie having been forced to lay up before missing a birdie putt from about 25 feet.

Thompson had fallen short in what would have been remembered as one of the most remarkable bounce-backs from adversity in major championship history.

She was classy in her bounce-back but so too in the manner she handled her post-round interview. “It's great to have the fan base that I do and they really got me through the whole round. It's unfortunate what happened. I did not mean that at all. I didn't realize I did that. I fought strong through the finish and it was great to see the fans behind me.

“My caddie helped me out tremendously. We have a great relationship and he just said: (on the 13th tee) 'Stay with it. You can still win and we can birdie this hole', and I just tried to gather myself before I hit that tee shot. Made a great putt there. But it's all to the fans. I mean, they helped me get through the rest of the round which helped a lot.

“I learned a lot about myself and how much fight I do have in me. And I don't know, every day is a learning process, and I wasn't expecting what happened today but it is what it is. It happens, and I'll learn from it and hopefully I'll do better.”

Ryu’s win will be remembered as much, if not more, for Thompson’s misfortune as it will be for her own great play but the 26-year-old Korean-born Dallas resident has been in great form already this season and is considered one of the LPGA Tour’s most consistent players since joining the tour after winning the US Women’s Open in 2011. Ryu is a deserved winner and should be remembered as such but there was genuine and heartfelt sympathy for Thompson.

“Yeah, I just, you know, cannot believe this situation,” said Ryu. “During play, I didn't even check the leaderboard, but I thought Lexi played really, really well. Then I didn't expect it, what happened to Lexi. It's like very unfortunate situation.

“I thought, I'm well behind, so all I wanted to do was just play my game and enjoy my game. I was paired with my best friend, Inbee Park today, so I just really wanted to have a really good, strong finish.

“It's kind of a weird feel but, at the same time, I'm really proud of myself and then, yeah, I just really appreciate everything right now.”

The playoff pair finished one ahead of Australia’s Minjee Lee, Inbee Park and Pettersen. Lee produced her best ever finish in a major championship and one that she too might look back on with regret. The 20-year-old reached the lead herself before she bogeyed the 14th and 17th holes but would birdie the last to get within one of Ryu, who was the clubhouse leader at that point.

Minjee Lee

Never one to say much in her press conference after her round, Lee said; “I probably didn't come in as solid as I wanted to, but obviously you can't win them all. So, yeah, I'm taking a lot from this week and just learn from my experience.

Victorian Su Oh finished 56th and Queenslander Sarah Jane Smith stumbled to a final round of 80 to finish 60th.               

 INBEE PARK FEELING REINVIGORATED FOR 2017

 

   

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