Coolest head amid the heat

Coolest head amid the heat

LOS ANGELES • Before Lee Mi-rim took the traditional champion’s leap into Poppie’s Pond on Sunday, she had just wiped away tears in her eyes following a dramatic win.

The South Korean eagled her final hole of regulation to force a three-way play-off with American Nelly Korda and Canadian Brooke Henderson at the ANA Inspiration, then birdied the first extra hole to earn her first LPGA Major title.

It was a wild finish on a scorching hot afternoon in Rancho Mirage, California, which ended with Lee taking the cool plunge into Poppie’s Pond that rings the 18th hole at Mission Hills Country Club.

“I can’t believe it. Honestly I have no emotions,” offered a tearful Lee through an interpreter. “I just told myself, ‘Let’s finish this quickly’.”

The 29-year-old, who claimed her fourth LPGA victory and her first since the 2017 Kia Classic, added later: “To be honest, I feel like I must be a little crazy for winning and for having won this, and I think I’ll be able to feel it once I meet my family and reunite with them.

“It was a bit disappointing having the bogey on the 17th, so my plan for the 18th was just to have a birdie and do what I have to do to keep my head up.

“When the shot went in, I think I was really surprised. It must have been a bit of luck that helped me.”

The tournament is normally played in balmy April, but was rescheduled and played without fans because of the pandemic.

Korda, who had led after every round, had looked poised to claim a first Major victory when she stepped onto the 18th tee with a one-shot lead but a few minutes later found herself in the play-off.

As she prepared to tee off on the last hole of regulation, ahead of her on the par-five 18th, Lee was chipping in from off the green for an eagle and a final-round five-under 67 to join her at 15-under 273.

Henderson would follow with a birdie at the last for a three-under 69 while Korda could do no better than par, also for 69.

Back on the 18th for the first playoff hole, Lee once again relied on her wedge chipping to within five feet and making a nerve-wracking putt for birdie with Henderson and Korda both carding pars.

Lee’s victory came courtesy of a gut-churning roller-coaster finish after being in the hunt for the title one minute, out of it the next and then back in it again with a birdie, bogey, eagle end to regulation.

Her red-hot wedge came to the rescue when she chipped in for birdie on No. 16 to pull within one of the leaders before seeming to throw it all away with bogey at the 17th, dropping her two off the pace.

But another pitch-perfect chip for eagle on No. 18 put all the pressure on the two women behind her.

It was a heartbreaking defeat for Korda, who became the fourth player to lead after the first three rounds but not end up winning.

“I played solid today,” she said. “Didn’t hit a really good shot on No. 18 off the tee both times, so that’s what got me in trouble.”

Henderson, who was cut at the Women’s British Open last month, had been looking to bounce back with a second Major after the 2016 Women’s PGA Championship.

While she admitted that it was “tough to lose that way”, she would take confidence into the Portland Classic, which starts on Thursday.