Olympic Club delivers excitement again on a hectic Sunday
Play started this morning at 8:20 a.m. Pacific time, when the first group left the 9th tee box. The sun was out and shining, but the temperatures were a chilly cool 55° F / 12° C with a light breeze. Approximately 2 hours later, the final group of Lexi Thompson, Yuka Saso and Megha Ganne took to the tee box to start their final rounds. Conventional thinking was that the winner of the 76th U.S. Women’s Open would come from this group, with an outside chance for the penultimate group of Jeongeun Lee6, Shanshan Feng or Nasa Hataoka.
Of course, this is a U.S. Women’s Open and nothing can ever be guaranteed, especially when playing at a course as difficult and challenging as the Lake Course at Olympic Club. There is a long history of “upsets” and “collapses” at Olympic Club. With the exception of 1966, it is hard to say that any were collapses, despite the notoriously difficult playing conditions.
The day started off well for Lexi Thompson, the overnight leader who had a one-stroke lead over Yuka Saso. Thompson striped her tee shot 300 yards on the opening par-5 hole. Her second shot reached the green, leaving her a putt of 8' feet 9" inches for an Eagle. She missed the Eagle putt, but made the next one for a birdie to take her score to -8 under.
Yuka Saso, entering the day at -6 and 1-shot behind, started her round with a shaky tee shot of 262 yards, landing on the right side of the fairway after skirting the rough. Instead of trying to reach the green in two, Saso laid up with a 195 yard shot short of the green leaving her 67 yards to the hole. She pitched her third shot 75 yards over the back of the green, relying on her short game in getting up and down to make her par.
Both players started falling back to the rest of the field on the second hole as they both gave up strokes. Saso got herself into trouble by driving into the second cut of rough, only able to get back to the fairway with two more shots. She would record a double bogey 6, to drop her to -4 under. Thompson recorded a bogey – 5 to drop her back to -7 under.
Thompson settled down at that point, making birdie on the par-4, 5t holes at -1 under, going out in 34 shots and -8 under for the tournament. Saso on the other hand, was mired in bad shots, recording another double bogey on the 191 yard, par-3, 3rd hole, taking her score to -2. After three holes of play, Saso had given up 4 shots to the field, her demeanour changing demonstrably as she plodded along the course, constantly looking down. She managed to birdie the par-4, 7th to get one stroke back, before making the out turn at 38 and -3 under for the tournament.
After the intervention of her caddie on the 3rd hole, Saso was able to gather herself and settle down her play, recognizing that there were still 15 holes of golf left to play. “For the first few holes I had two double bogeys, and I was actually a little upset. But my caddie talked to me and said, just keep on going; there's many more holes to go. That's what I did.”
Heading into the second nine, Thompson built a 4-shot lead over Shanshan Feng, who was now the closest player to the leader. Thompson's lead over Yuka Saso was -5 shots and a 6-shots over Nasa Hatakoa.
By the time Lexi Thompson finished the 10th hole, she was striking the ball confidently and with little error, finding fairways off the tee and hitting her approach shots with impunity. She walked off the 10th green, with another routine par and a score of -8 under. Maintaining her 4-shot cushion over Shanshan Feng, the 5-shot cushion on Saso, while increasing her lead over Nasa Hataoka to 7-shots. It was starting to look like a coronation for the veteran American player, but this is the U.S. Women’s Open and Olympic Club, which has a long history of springing surprises on the front-runners, including some of the biggest names in golf history.
It was on the par-4, 11th hole where Lexi Thompson “sprung a leak”, surrendering 2-dropped shots to the field with a double bogey. Her 245 yard tee shot found the rough left of the fairway. The thick rough coupled with a tough lie resulted in a “hacked” shot that only went 136 yards, leaving her with 43 yards to the hole. A stubbed chip shot compounded her previous errors and from there, she three-putted for a double bogey six, leaving her at -6 under as she headed to the 12th tee box. Just like that her lead was cut in half to 2-shots over Shanshan Feng.
Playing in the group ahead, Feng had been playing a good round of golf, hitting her shots well and making putts at crucial times. She appeared to be the only player left in the field who might be able to mount a Sunday charge. Yuka Saso, the sole holder of second spot at the start of the day, bogeyed the 11th hole, dropping her to -2 under for the tournament. leaving her with what appeared to have been a missed opportunity for victory. Finishing the 12th hole, Nasa Hataoka remained at -1 under.
Despite the double bogey by Thompson, her lead was still sufficient; all she had to do was play par golf from that point on as the chasers would have to take risks in an effort to close the gap. It proved to be easier said than done as the leader dropped another stroke on the 14th hole to reduce her score to -5 under. But by then, Shanshan Feng dropped a shot on the 12th hole taking her to -3 under. Thompson still had a 2-shot cushion with 4-holes left to play, including two par-5’s at the 16th and 17th holes. The par 5's were legitimate birdie opportunities for the long hitting Thompson.
Meanwhile, Nasa Hataoka birdied both the 13th and 14th holes to get her score to -3 under, so that by the time Thompson reached the 15th hole, a 132-yard, par-3, she had a 2-shot lead over Hataoka and Feng with a 3-shot lead over Yuka Saso. After making a routine par on the 15th hole, Thompson's lead had dwindled to a single shot over Nasa Hataoka who birdied the par-5, 16th hole to reach -4 under for the tournament.
With 3-holes to play for both Thompson and Saso; 2-holes for both Hataoka and Feng, the game was afoot. Yuka Saso, sensing that the two par-5’s represented her best chance to pick up a couple of birdies, seized her opportunities, combining some of her best tee shots of the tournament with some clutch putting to birdie both holes, taking her score to -4 under and 1-shot back of the leader.
Meanwhile, Thompson made an easy par on the 16th hole. On the 17th hole, Thompson’s tee shot strayed to the left, landing in the second cut of rough. Given the thick and deep rough, Thompson could only advance the ball 60 yards, chopping it out of the rough. With 142 yards to the hole, Thompson played a 9-iron, hitting her shot flush. Unfortunately, her shot came up short as her highly flighted ball found a strong gust of wind knocking her ball down with 59 feet to the hole. With putter in hand, she knocked her ball onto the green, finishing pin high, some 5’ feet right of the hole.
Putting very well all week, with a confident stroke and a solid command of her speed, the putt should have been a high percentage “make” for Thompson. Unfortunately, she picked the worst time to put a tentative stroke on the ball, resulting in a weak putt, drifting left of the hole with a 1’ foot bogey putt remaining. The dropped shot erased her lead, she was now at -4 under and tied with both Yuka Saso and Nasa Hataoka with one hole left to play.
With Thompson and Saso waiting on the 18th fairway, Nasa Hataoka stood over a 19’ foot downhill putt for a birdie to take her to -5 under and a 1-shot lead. Hataoka’s putt was beautifully stroked, tracking all the way towards the centre of the hole, when it veered ever so slightly to the right, sliding past the hole by 2’ feet. She would make the par putt, going into the clubhouse as the co-leader.
Thompson was business-like on the 18th hole, hitting a pressure tee-shot to the middle of the fairway. Again, she struck a beautiful approach shot, but it was not enough to reach the hole. It came up short again, this time in a greenside bunker. Thompson needed to get up and down from the bunker to save par and give her a chance to get into a playoff. Instead, she took three shots, finishing her round with a bogey, finishing the tournament at -3 under. She would not win the 76th U.S. Women’s Open.
Meanwhile, Yuka Saso hit her best tee shot of the entire tournament, a 215 yard hybrid that landed to the left side of the fairway, gradually settling in the middle. Her second shot landed on the green, rolling up the slope before trickling back down towards the flag. The crowd erupted with cheers as many Filipino-Americans were in attendance to cheer on their compatriot. Saso had a quick downhill putt of 18’ feet for birdie and a chance to win the U.S. Women’s Open.
Despite some tentative putts early in the round, Saso had been one of the top ranked putters all week. She managed to refocus, regaining her touch with the putter. After taking a moment to determine her line and the pace needed, she stood over the ball, drawing her putter back. The ball went down the slope with the correct pace, tracking towards the hole, but with a foot to go, slid to the right, nearly identical to Nasa Hataoka’s putt. Left with a testing 4’ foot putt, Yuka Saso stroked it home and they were off to a playoff.
The U.S. Women’s Open, like the men’s counterpart, used to have an 18-hole playoff played on Monday to determine the winner. Now, it is a two-hole aggregate playoff format, meaning that the players play the 9th and then the 18th holes. The player with the lower score over the two holes wins; if tied, the playoff becomes a “sudden death” format. Nasa Hataoka had the honour, playing first from the 9th. Both players hit some good shots and after completing the two holes, nothing separated them, so the players returned to the 9th hole and sudden death.
Hataoka was the first to play, hitting her tee shot into the middle of the fairway. As was the case most of the week, Saso’s tee shot was a little offline, landing in the left side rough. Playing from the thick grass, Saso managed to get enough club on the ball, launching it out of the rough, landing on the front apron of the green before it released and rolled up the green some 6’ feet below the hole. With a shorter distance to the hole, Hataoka played a short iron from the fairway, launching a high shot that landed on the front of the green, but with too much spin. Instead of sitting softly, Hataoka’s ball spun back and trickled down the front of the green leaving her with a lengthy 60 foot putt. She put a solid stroke on the ball as it started online towards the hole. After what must have seemed like an eternity to the players, Hataoka’s ball continued to track towards the hole, coming to a gradual stop a mere 3’ feet from the hole.
Yuka Saso, playing out of Canlubang Golf and Country Club in her native Philippines, stalked her putt, taking measure of what she needed to do. Standing over her ball, she pulled the putter back, starting her ball on a line just to the right of the hole. Rolling smoothly along the grass, the ball started turning left at just the right time, dropping into the cup for a birdie 3, and victory at the 76th U.S. Women’s Open championship. The Philippines had its very first ever major golf champion.