HOBART — It’s the biggest birdie-fest in women’s golf, and maybe in golf at any level anywhere. Assaulting Old Man Par isn’t a crime at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic. It’s not even a misdemeanor. If you’re not throwing darts at greens as soft as Charmin, you’re missing the party.
Before she teed off in the final round Sunday, Marina Alex saw the limp flags and knew the Thornberry Creek at Oneida course was going to be as docile as 6,646 yards can be. Did she have a score in mind?
“Yeah, 59,” Alex said with a laugh. “If there ever was a time to shoot it, today was the day.”
There were no 59s, but there was a course-record 61 by Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand. Alex shot one of four 63s and there were five 64s.
Such was this tournament’s brief two-year history as a place where par goes to die that Shanshan Feng of China went into the week thinking she’d need to shoot 30-under to win. (For comparison’s sake, only two golfers in PGA Tour history have finished at 30-under or better in a 72-hole tournament.)
It turns out she was one stroke off.
Feng, 29, a one-time Rolex No. 1 who has struggled this year, knocked down flagsticks all day and shot a 63 to finish at 29-under 259, two strokes off the tournament and LPGA record of 31-under shot by Sei Young Kim in winning here last year.
Feng made nine birdies – four of them over the final six holes, including a clinching 4-footer on the 18th after sticking her 8-iron approach – to edge 2018 player of the year Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand by one shot and win the sleek Sky Woman trophy and $300,000 from the purse of $2 million.
Feng, who never looks at leader boards, was so far into the zone – or was it the Twilight Zone? – that she had no idea as she approached the 18th green that she was tied for the lead with Jutanugarn, who shot a 64 but made a costly bogey on the par-5 15th.
“I thought I was winning because like everything was set and you could tell around the green, like the people were ready for the trophy presentation,” Feng said. “So, I was like, maybe I was winning already. Then before I putt, I looked up at the leader board and I said, ‘Oh, now I have to make this one.’
“So suddenly the little putt made me a little nervous, but I’ve been playing really well this week and I was like, ‘Just another good putt, good stroke.’ And it went in.”
Thus ended one of the biggest birdie-paloozas in LPGA history. The field made 43 eagles and 1,930 birdies for the week, including 13 and 397 in the final round. Twenty-two women finished at 20-under or better, 60 finished at 10-under or better and only five players failed to break par Sunday. The final-round scoring average was 67.49 but the top 14 finishers averaged a scorching 65.5.
Like a major championship, this tournament tests a player’s patience. The difference is, at a major the challenge is to stay patient after a couple bogeys or a double and here the challenge is to stay patient after a run of pars.
“On the front nine, I made one birdie and eight pars and I felt like I was getting lapped – and then I looked up at the scoreboard and confirmed that I was getting lapped,” said Tiffany Joh, who played with Feng in the final pairing, shot a 67 and tied for third. “You can’t do stupid things because you’re getting upset. On a course like this, when you can potentially make nine or 10 birdies in a row, it’s especially important to be patient.
“It didn’t help that Shanshan was out there just throwing darts. She is such a phenomenal player and I think she’s one of the best ball-strikers on our tour.”
Individually, Jutanugarn played hole Nos. 5 through 9 in 6-under with two eagles; Jeong Eun Lee birdied seven consecutive holes in a 64; Alex birdied nine of the first 16 holes, and Alana Uriell made 10 birdies in a 63. Yealimi Noh, a 17-year-old Monday qualifier, made two eagles and 22 birdies in her LPGA debut and tied for sixth at 23-under.
Then there was Tavatanakit, who left UCLA after her sophomore year and was making her fourth start as a professional. She eagled No. 3, birdied No. 5 and eagled Nos. 6 and 9 – that’s three eagles in a seven-hole stretch – and then birdied Nos. 10 and 11. She hit all 18 greens in regulation.
“The last (eagle), I was like, OK, this will be my third eagle and if I make this, I’ll be a little happy,” said Tavanakit, who got to 11-under through 15 before finishing with three consecutive pars. Bummer.
The question is not whether the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic is good for golf. It showcases some of the most talented women in the world doing things the likes of which weekend hackers can only dream, and what’s wrong with that? No, the question is whether the tournament has a future.
When the final numbers are in – dollars, not birdies – the Oneida Nation will have to take a hard look at whether continuing to prop up the tournament makes financial sense. Without a title sponsor, it’s a $2 million commitment for the Oneida. Also, though it’s hard to believe a third-year event could have run its course, the galleries this week appeared to be disappointingly small.
Within weeks, the financials will be presented to the general tribal council and approximately 1,700 members will vote on whether to continue the contract with the LPGA. In May, tribal chairman Tehassi Hill told Wisconsin.golf that it was “50-50” whether the tournament would continue.
It would be a shame to see it go away. It’s only $30 for a single-day grounds and clubhouse ticket ($25 in advance) and kids 17 and under are admitted free of charge. That’s a small price to pay to witness a shootout the likes of which occurred Sunday.
“It feels,” said Uriell, “like it was a surreal day.”
Hopefully, we haven't seen the last of Thornbirdie.
LPGA Tour: 2019 Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic | FINAL results (Thornberry Creek at Oneida GC)
|CUT||-||-||Presley Cornelius (a)||96||103|
|5||20||20||Hyo Joo Kim||-24||F||-8||71||63||66||64||264|
|T6||3||2||Sung Hyun Park||-23||F||-3||65||62||69||69||265|
|T15||99||93||Anne van Dam||-20||F||-6||69||68||65||66||268|
|T26||91||84||Jeong Eun Lee||-18||F||-8||63||73||70||64||270|
|T33||81||76||Nicole Broch Larsen||-16||F||-2||71||66||65||70||272|
|T35||23||24||Mi Hyang Lee||-15||F||-6||69||70||68||66||273|
|T45||47||46||Mi Jung Hur||-13||F||-1||70||66||68||71||275|
|T49||88||T88||Hee Young Park||-12||F||-6||74||65||71||66||276|
|T49||13||14||Sei Young Kim||-12||F||-1||69||70||66||71||276|
|T55||40||40||Jodi Ewart Shadoff||-11||F||-3||67||71||70||69||277|