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Back against the wall, Mirim Lee wins ANA playoff with clutch short game

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In a wild finish that was defined as much by the wall lining the 18th green as the play that occurred on it, Mirim Lee and her magical short game delivered a breakthrough major title.

The ANA Inspiration packed all of the drama of a major championship, even if the fans weren’t there to see it at Mission Hills Country Club.

Lee was an unexpected entrant into a three-way playoff, having chipped in for eagle on the 72nd hole, and she was viewed as a longshot in overtime when facing two of the top 9 players in the world, Nelly Korda and Brooke Henderson. But after the two more decorated players faltered on the first extra hole, Lee coolly sank a 6-foot birdie putt that delivered her first LPGA win in more than three years and ensured a jump into Poppie’s Pond.

Lee, 29, started the day two shots off the lead shared by Korda and Henderson and put together a rally that was fueled in large part by a trio of unexpected hole-outs from off the green. The first came at the par-4 sixth, her second birdie of the day, and she holed a 30-yard, downhill chip on No. 16 to move within a shot of the lead. A subsequent bogey on No. 17 seemingly knocked her out of contention, but instead it set up the first chapter of theatrics featuring the signature hole on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course and the blue façade surrounding the back of the island green.

M. Lee leaps into Poppie's Pond after ANA triumph

M. Lee leaps into Poppie's Pond after ANA triumph

While players are used to an approach shot framed by grandstands and galleries behind the 18th hole, the fans were nowhere to be seen this week because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the visual was nonetheless largely similar, with a blue wall lining the back of the green, placed even closer to the action than the grandstands would normally sit and becoming a discussion point for much of the week.

Lee’s approach into the final green would have likely sailed into the water over the green, but she purposely played a bank shot into the wall that stopped the ball just a few feet off the putting surface. Her eagle chip was the third and most important hole-out of the day, capping a final-round 67 and giving the South Korean the clubhouse lead and ultimately a spot in the playoff.

“I definitely thought to utilize the back and the backboard,” Lee said. “When I had practice rounds, I had practiced that shot. So it was a definite for me to use the space there.”

Henderson was the next to encounter the wall, firing a 5-wood missile from the rough that actually went under the wall, requiring a head-turning search by volunteers and masked marshals to find the ball. After taking free relief, she got up and down to finish the week alongside Lee at 15 under.

But while Lee flourished with wedge in hand, Henderson faltered with the putter. Short misses became the story of her day, as the Canadian stumbled to a double bogey on No. 13 and missed a handful of mid-range birdie chances on the back nine. While she holed an important putt on No. 16 to keep alive her chances of a second major title, Henderson’s lengthy eagle putt on the first extra hole raced past. Her subsequent birdie attempt from 8 feet didn’t touch the hole and set the stage for Lee’s clincher.

“I feel like I missed a lot of putts, especially those final (holes) where I feel like maybe it could have been a different story,” Henderson said after a closing 69. “But Mirim and Nelly played great, and I really fought my way around. So I’m happy.”

Full-field scores from the ANA Inspiration

Korda appeared to be the one in control for much of the back nine, only to let a potential first major slip away on the par-5 18th. Seemingly locked in a head-to-head duel with Henderson down the stretch, she followed the Canadian’s double bogey at No. 13 by stuffing her tee shot on the short 14th. After rolling in the subsequent putt, she held a two-shot lead with four holes to go.

But Lee’s short-game theatrics drew her even as Korda played the final hole of regulation, unaware of the eagle hole-out that had occurred in front of her. Korda hooked her drive into the left rough, necessitating a layup and leading to a disappointing par. She followed the same script in the playoff, pulling her tee shot and ultimately leaving a 20-foot birdie putt short.

“I played solid today. Had a couple bogeys kind of starting on the back nine, but I kept my calm,” Korda said. “Didn’t hit a really good shot on 18 off the tee both times, so that’s what kind of got me in trouble there.”

While Korda and Henderson were left to rue missed chances, and the greenside wall played a larger role than perhaps tournament officials would have preferred, the day belonged to Lee. Entering the week at No. 94 in the world, she had missed both cuts since the break and had won just once on the LPGA since 2015. But thanks to a trio of chip-ins in the final round and a timely birdie in the playoff, she rallied from the pack to chase down two more accomplished players and left with the major hardware.

And on a whirlwind afternoon filled with dramatics and career-changing moments, doubt only crept in for Lee during the champion’s traditional leap into Poppie’s Pond.

“Usually I’m not afraid of water, but the pool looked a little deep,” Lee said. “So it’s true that at that moment, I hesitated a little bit.”