NAPLES, Fla. – This is what they had in mind when they created the Race to the CME Globe culminating at the CME Group Tour Championship. The whole idea was to end the LPGA season with snap and sizzle and on Sunday everyone got more than they bargained for.
In an ending no one could have predicted – or even imagined – the best players in women’s golf roared across the finish line at Tiburón Golf Club when Ariya Jutanugarn birdied the last hole to win the tournament and Lexi Thompson took home the $1 million bonus for the season-long points race.
And once gain, golf put on full display the emotional roller coaster ride known as tournament play. Performing brilliantly, Thompson was a bogey-free, six-under par on her round when she brilliantly lagged from 60 feet to 2 feet on the final hole for a virtual tap-in that would put her in the clubhouse at 15 under par.
But she missed.
Playing two groups behind her, Jutanugarn hit her approach shot to 20 feet and calmly rolled in the putt to finish birdie-birdie and win the $500,000 first prize. It ended what had been a disappointing year for Jutanugarn, who won five times last year but only twice this season.
“To be honest, I had no expectation at all [this week],” Jutanugarn said. “I really did not think about the outcome. I really focused on the things I can control and I had so much fun this week.”
Despite the fact her caddie told her not to, she sneaked a peek at the leaderboard on the final hole. “I knew I had to make the putt, but I didn’t expect to make it.” But she did, ending the year on an upswing after “a bad last few months in which I learned a lot.”
Despite her disappointment on the 18th green, Thompson took home some hardware and some cash. She captured the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average and got that $1 million bonus.
If she had won the tournament, Lexi would have been Rolex Player of the Year but instead that race ended in a tie between So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park, who joins Nancy Lopez as the only players to win both Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season.
“It’s a great honor to be walking the same path as such a great player as Nancy Lopez,” Park said.
Thompson also was projected to be No. 1 in the Rolex Ranking if she won but now the projection has Shanshan Feng staying there.
“It was a good way to end the season” Thompson said about collecting the $1 million and winning the Vare Trophy. “Overall, a lot of positives to take from today. Winning the CME Globe and the Vare Trophy was a huge honor.”
As for the disappointing finish on the final green, she said: “It wasn’t the way I wanted to end it. I really don’t know what happened there. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I putted great the whole day. I did my routine; I guess it’s just golf. I’ll move on.”
This was a day of emotional runs as 31 players began play in the final round within four strokes of the lead. And at various times during the day some of the biggest names in women’s golf made an appearance on the leaderboard, including Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis, Suzann Pettersen and the Korda sisters – Jessica and Nelly.
In the end, Jutanugarn’s 15-under par, 273 total – capped by a final-round 67 – was one-stroke better than Thompson and Jessica Korda, who also both shot 67, with Eun-Hee Ji and Pernilla Lindberg two-strokes back. Park and Wie tied for sixth at 276.
Park, who played near flawlessly except for a hiccup of a 75 on Saturday, whetted everyone’s appetite to see how she will build on her rookie LPGA season in 2018, as did Wie, who played extremely well this week considering it was her sixth consecutive tournament after missing six weeks following complications from appendectomy surgery.
Since the ANA Inspiration, where a four-stroke penalty cost her the tournament, Lexi has taken her game to a whole other level, winning twice and finishing second four other times. She simply added a new fire and focus to her considerable talent. You have to feel her disappointment will propel her into 2018 with even more determination.
The part of Thompson’s game that has improved the most this year is her short game and she displayed that on No. 17 when she played a delicate pitch from a downhill lie to 18 inches for a birdie that gave her the lead at 15-under par and then hit that great lag putt on the final hole.
Rarely, if ever, has a tournament had such a bittersweet finish. And that is part of the genius of this format. Thompson lost a tournament, but she also won so much more. Jutanugarn won a tournament and rediscovered her love of the game.
Truly, they were both winners as were Ryu and Park in an ending that was both heartbreaking and heart-stopping.