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Monday, July 11, 2016

US Women's Open - Did Lang Win or Did Nordqvist Lose?

Did Brittany Lang with the 71st US Women's Open or did Anna Nordqvist lose it when she grounded her club in that fairway bunker on the 2nd playoff hole? The same question might be asked of others who were battling for the top of the CordeValle leaderboard Sunday afternoon.

The back nine on Sunday at the 71st US Women's Open was packed with drama - much more than any of us expected. And it wasn't limited to Anna Nordqvist's tragic mistake on the 74th hole.

There was Lydia Ko's massive stumble that began before she made the turn, starting with her bogey on the 8th and her double on the 9th - the result, I think, of a rare and unusual course management error on Ko's part that sent her tumbling down the leaderboard. That was the end of Lydia Ko's bid for the championship not because she fell back three shots - Lydia Ko is perfectly capable to picking up three birdies in nine holes - but because it was the end of her focus. By the time Lydia Ko made the turn her confidence in her game was badly shaken. The woman with the flawless short game who had started the final round leading the field, carded two more bogeys and ended her final round with a 75.

Then there was Sung Hyun Park, who had for 54 holes delivered the kind of golf most of us can only dream about, climbing into contention against almost impossible odds including a language barrier that should have proved insurmountable. Park's caddie gets a big shout-out from me. There's no doubt that his creative and professional work kept his player in contention until the magic drained out of her flat stick Sunday afternoon on the back nine. Those three back nine bogeys were what made the difference between hoisting the trophy and a 3rd place finish for the Korean who told the media she didn't feel her game is yet ready for the LPGA. Indeed? It looks ready from where I'm sitting.

Still, there's nothing like the pressure cooker environment of a major to wear players down to a nub and it was no surprise that at the end of 72 holes of regulation play two seasoned professionals were heading for a playoff. In addition to being friends - the kind of friends who play practice rounds together and who have competed against each other for many years - Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist are both splendid golfers. They have solid technical games and the mental fortitude that is forged in the heat of repeated competition. They both play with incredible grace and impenetrable resolve.

The 3-hole playoff began on the CordeValle par-316th hole. Lang and Nordqvist matched each other shot-for-shot for the 73rd and 74th hole, including errant tee shots on the 74th, Lang into the right rough, Nordqvist into a fairway bunker on the left. Then came the grounded club and subsequent penalty decision, rendered mid-way through the 75th hole, that put Nordqvist two shots back. I'll leave debate about the timing of that decision to others. It was a properly rendered decision.
Yes, the wind was howling. No, Nordqvist didn't ground her club intentionally. Yes, the grounding barely occurred. But the Rules of Golf are clear: there was indeed a violation, no matter how small, and the penalty was imposed as soon as the decision was reached.

While nobody wants to win on the mistake of a competitor, the fact of the matter is that every win comes on the missteps of competitors. Certainly, Lang and Nordqvist advanced to the top of the leaderboard on the ladder of Ko's and Park's missteps.

In the game of golf technical skill is only one element of the winning equation. Club decision and course management strategies, the direction and strength of the win and the speed of the greens, and many other factors - some well beyond the players' control - all figure into ultimate success or failure. That's the allure of the game.

Let's not detract from Brittany Lang's enormous triumph at CordeValle. In the game of golf, the survivor of the contest hoists the trophy!