Sports are defined by remarkable moments; by perfectly timed, fleeting acts of brilliance. Such points in time are rewound and re-lived and become etched in history.
One such moment came at the final hole of the ANA Inspiration in 2016—the first major championship of the year—when Lydia Ko was tied for the lead at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. The New Zealander, aged only 18 at the time yet already established as number one on the Rolex Rankings, had 88 yards to the pin for her third shot on this 490-yard, par-five, with Poppie’s Pond to clear before reaching a green flanked by a packed grandstand. The anticipation was humming.
With stunning composure, Ko calmly lofted a wedge onto the green, where her ball took three hops before stopping a foot from the hole. Ko tapped in for birdie and claimed her second consecutive major title.
“To birdie the last hole of a tournament is always a good feeling,” said Ko that day, after she had taken the customary winner’s leap into Poppie’s Pond. “But for that wedge shot to mean I won the tournament makes it extra special. I decided not to go for the green in two and to leave a good yardage for my wedge. I was worried the ball might come up short but it ended up being perfect.”
The women’s majors build-up towards the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award, which rewards the golfer who has performed best over the year’s five major championships. Having won the 2016 ANA Inspiration, Ko finished runner-up at the next major, the Women’s PGA Championship, before finishing in a tie for third at the U.S. Women’s Open.
Ko could not pin her name to any further major wins last year, but her consistency secured the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award, which was presented to her by Annika Sorenstam after the final major of the year, The Evian Championship in Switzerland.
“Winning the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award is a huge honor, especially as it is named after Annika and considering what she achieved in the majors and what she has done for the game,” says Ko, who became the youngest ever world number one in men’s and women’s golf in 2015, at the age of 17 years and nine months.
“We all play to win out here but my goal for 2016 was to improve my consistency, and this award shows that I have been the most consistent player across all five majors, so I can take a lot of pride and satisfaction from that.
“It is exciting to be in contention in the majors and that is where I need to be in 2017. If I can get into contention on the Sunday then hopefully I can close them out and who knows, perhaps I can win the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award again!”
Sorenstam, who will captain the European Solheim Cup team this year, won 10 major titles between 1995 and 2006.
“I thought the competition for the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award was incredible last year,” starts the Swedish golfer. “We literally had the top three players in the world along with U.S. Women’s Open champ Brittany Lang all with a chance to win going into the last major of the year, The Evian Championship. That’s about as good as it gets.
“Lydia knows her strengths and builds on them, and her consistency in the majors in 2016 shows that she is wise beyond her years. What she has achieved already, at the age of just 20, is really hard to believe.”
High Heavenly Ground
So far in 2017 the majors story has seen South Korea’s So Yeon Ryu take the ANA Inspiration title at Mission Hills after outlasting American star Lexi Thompson in a playoff.
The next major of the year is the Women’s PGA Championship, being played at Olympia Fields in Illinois from June 29 to July 2, before the U.S. Women’s Open—the longest standing of the women’s majors, dating back to 1946—Danielle Kang becomes the 2017 champion in July, playing Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey.
The defending champion at the Women’s PGA is Canadian teenager Brooke Henderson, who was 18 (and nine months) when she won the title last year. Henderson became the second-youngest woman to win a major after Ko (who won The 2015 Evian Championship at the age of 18 years, four months) and it was fellow teenager Ko who Henderson beat in a play-off for the Women’s PGA title.
Prodigious golfers at the forefront of the sport, Henderson and Ko are part of a select group of extraordinary professionals making up the Rolex “New Guard”.
The 2016 Women’s PGA Championship was played at Sahalee Country Club. Amid the ancient forests of the Sammamish Plateau, stands of red cedar, Douglas fir and hemlock frame each hole beautifully. “Sahalee” means “High heavenly ground” in the region’s native Chinook language and it is fitting.
Those towering trees cling to the atmosphere of a major championship and keep it hemmed in, with cheers, groans and ovations echoing down the fairways and around the golf course, culminating around the 18th green. It was here where Henderson played the shot of her young career to date, in the playoff against Ko, when it really mattered most.
Henderson had a seven-iron in her hands for her second shot on this 412-yard par four, 155 yards from the hole, with Ko’s ball already on the green. Without hesitation, Henderson delivered her ball unerringly towards the flag, where it rolled to within three feet of the cup. A short putt later and Henderson was a major champion.
“I knew I was going to have to do something special to beat Lydia Ko,” said Henderson after her round. “Everything just went perfect for me. To win my first major like that is a week I’ll never forget.”
Like the wedge from Ko at the 2016 ANA Inspiration, that seven iron onto the 18th green was one of those rare moments from one of the world’s best, playing one of her greatest shots just as the gatekeeper of history beckoned her in.
The Women’s British Open unfolds in August on the brilliant Scottish links of Kingsbarns, just outside St Andrews, before the final major of the season is played out at the Evian Resort.