RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. » Lydia Ko got the help she needed to win the ANA Inspiration.
Taking advantage of Ariya Jutanugarn’s late collapse and caddie Jason Hamilton’s sage advice, Ko found herself splashing around in Poppie’s Pond at the end of a wild Sunday afternoon at Mission Hills.
“This is an unbelievable moment,” Ko said before taking the traditional victory leap into the pond.
Michelle Wie, tied for seventh entering the round, shot a 77 to drop into a tie for 36th at 5 over. She’s winless since the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open and hasn’t had a top-10 finish in 31 events.
When Jutanugarn — playing in the group behind — blew a two-stroke lead with bogeys on the par-4 16th and par-3 17th, the top-ranked Ko had the opening she needed on the par-5 18th.
That’s when Hamilton stepped in.
“I think I’m lucky that Jason kind of talked me out of not going for the green in two,” said Ko, facing a 3-wood shot over water from a downhill lie if she went for it.
“I knew if I mis-hit it, it was going to go straight in the water. ‘He said, ‘Hey, we can still make birdie going the conventional way.’ I decided to hit an 8-iron out and hit a sand wedge.”
And what a sand wedge it was, an 88-yarder that gently released to a foot for a tap-in birdie.
“Every shot is special in its own way, like every win is special,” Ko said. “But just playing the 72nd hole, birdieing the last hole, that’s always a good feeling. For that shot to mean so much that I would win the event, that makes it extra special.”
She closed with a 3-under 69 to finish at 12 under, a stroke ahead of playing partner In Gee Chun and Charley Hull, and two ahead of Jutanugarn.
Jutanugarn bogeyed the final three holes. The 20-year-old Thai player three-putted 16, failed to get up-and-down from a bunker on 17 and hooked her drive into the water on 18.
“I really get nervous, especially being my first time leading,” Jutanugarn said
Until Sunday, best known for blowing a two-stroke lead with a closing triple bogey in the 2013 LPGA Thailand, Jutanugarn made four birdies in a five-hole stretch in the middle of the round to move into position for a breakthrough victory that slipped away. She finished with a 71.
“I got a lot of experience from this week,” Jutanugarn said.
Ko won the final major last season, the Evian Championship in September in France, and took the LPGA Tour event last week in Carlsbad. The 18-year-old New Zealander has 12 LPGA Tour victories, the first two as an amateur and five last season when she was the tour’s player of the year.
“For these amazing things to be happening it is unbelievable, but it also motivates me to work harder,” said Ko, also the winner of the Ladies European Tour’s New Zealand Women’s Open in February.
Ko birdied the two front-nine par 3s in bogey-free, making a 22-foot putt on the fifth and a 40-footer on the eighth. She had three key par saves on the back nine, the first with a 15-foot putt after crisscrossing the par-5 11th. She ran in an 18-footer on the par-4 13th, and a 10-footer on 17.
“At the end of the day, they were all important,” Ko said. “If I had missed my par putt on 11, who knows what would have happened. If I had missed my par putt on 13, I might have been a few more shots behind. If I missed my putt on 17, I might not have birdied.”
Hull birdied the 18th for a 69 and her best finish in a major.
“I know I can play well under pressure now when I have to get it going,” the 20-year-old English player said. “I’m happy I holed that putt on the last. I’m proud of myself.”
Chun also closed with a birdie for a 70. The U.S. Women’s Open champion was making her first start after sitting out a month because of a back injury. She was hurt when she was struck by a hard-case suitcase that rival South Korean player Ha Na Jang’s father dropped down an escalator at the Singapore airport.
Lexi Thompson, the third-round leader, eagled the last hole for a 73 to finish fifth at 9 under. The 2014 winner had three front-nine bogeys and didn’t make a birdie.”
“Just overall tough day,” Thompson said. “I struggled today, ball-striking, and the bad ball-striking didn’t give me many birdie chances, so I struggled a bit with the putter as well.”
Brooke Henderson shot a 67 for the best round of the day. The 18-year-old Canadian tied for 10th at 7 under to run her top-10 streak to six events.