It’s all Masters fever this week, more fervid than ever given Tiger’s return and the stellar form of a host of hopefuls, including former champions but let’s not overlook the mammoth achievement of the first major champion of the year: Pernilla Lindberg of Sweden.
I hope you noticed that she won the ANA Inspiration in far-off California because it was a victory worthy of acclaim, though there seemed to be a dearth of spectators at Rancho Mirage, at an event that used to attract large, sometimes raucous crowds. Perhaps they’ve all grown up to be just too large and too old to walk the golf course, which is a pity because it’s a lovely spot, with some spectacular views of the San Jacinto Mountains and plenty of houses to gawp at too.
That said, the people who returned early on Monday morning to watch the continuation of the playoff between Lindberg and former world No 1 Inbee Park made plenty of noise. The two players had finished with a 72-hole total of 273, 15 under par, alongside Jennifer Song and the three headed off for a playoff that proved to be not-so-sudden death. Song bowed out after three holes and Lindberg and Park managed one more hole before it got too dark to carry on.On Monday, they started at the 10th, which was halved in par 4s; at the par 3 17th, Park holed a 15-footer for par and Lindberg followed her in from 10 feet for another half. The 18th, a watery par 5, was halved in par, with Park laying up and Lindberg, on in two, three-putting from distance. Then, at last, back at the 10th, Lindberg holed from 30 feet for a birdie three that Park, the Olympic champion, who has won seven major titles and is already as close as dammit to being a genuine all-time great, could not match.
It’s Lindberg’s first win as a professional, at the age of 31 and the Swede, described as “the friendliest, sweetest person you could meet”, has been beaming her trademark smile ever since. Did I mention that she led from start to finish, wire to wire? What made it even more special was that her caddie Daniel Taylor is also her fiance and that her parents Gunilla and Jan were there too. All four made the now traditional leap into Poppie’s pond, which guards the 18th green, with Daniel performing a particularly showy, head-first dive. There’s a white robe for the champion – not quite as elegant as a green jacket – and towels for everyone else.“It was so cool that my parents could be here with me,” Lindberg said, “because I got into golf because of them and I don’t know how many heart attacks I have nearly given my Dad this week!” She, fortunately, remained calm and kept thinking, “Maybe this is my week.”
All in all, it was quite a championship. Tied for 4th, a shot behind the leaders, were Jessica Korda and Ariya Jutanurgan, who were a shot ahead of Ariya’s big sister Moriya and Charley Hull. Jodi Ewart Shadoff, another Englishwoman, was in the top ten, at 11 under par and at seven under, sharing 20th place with Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson, were the Spaniards Azahara Munoz and Beatriz Recari. All being well, they’ll all be at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes in August. Put it in the diary. They’re worth a watch and Lancashire’s a lot closer than California.
Even closer to home and closer to my heart, at Whittington Heath in Staffordshire, the Ladies’ Whittington Trophy survived rain, hail, thunder and lightning – and a fair bit of sunshine – to reach a successful conclusion. Eilidh Briggs, a schoolteacher who plays at Kilmalcolm, near Glasgow, won with a one-under-par total of 143 (70. 73), three shots ahead of Morgan Thomas, of Beau Desert (76, 70) and Caitlin Evans-Brand, of Yelverton (74, 72).
Finally, back to Augusta because I have to mention the Par 3 Contest, the 9-hole fun fest played on Wednesday afternoon. Tom Watson, at 68 easily the youngest member of his threeball (his partners were Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player), putted beautifully to become the oldest winner of the trophy, one shot ahead of Tommy Fleetwood. But the highlight of the day was a Nicklaus hole-in-one at the 9th, something that Jack said gave him more joy than any of his six green jackets. And he wasn’t joking, as one look at the delight on his face confirmed.
The man with 18 major championships to his name wasn’t celebrating another, minor, addition to his Augusta resume: he was ecstatic because it was grandson GT (son of Gary) who had demonstrated the family flair for the spectacular, producing a crisp shot that had Player purring long before anyone else realised that the ball was tracking inexorably towards the hole. The crowd went wild – and that included Player, Watson and the Golden Bear himself. Like Pernilla, Eilidh and their parents, he hasn’t stopped grinning.