It didn’t take long to adjust, which is a good sign for the rest of the year.
The leadup to the ANA Inspiration was all about what would be different, with the championship in September instead of April, on thick Bermuda fairways (and even thicker rough) instead of traditional overseed, and without fans. How would Rancho Mirage, California, look? How would the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills play? Would it be weird seeing the water behind the 18th green instead of the large grandstands? And what would the vibe be for viewers as they watch a course that they know, but in a different context?
The answer to those questions turned out to be a big, collective shrug, which is a good sign. It took about five minutes of televised coverage for fans to forget what was different and focus on what was the same: great golf from marquee names. Nelly Korda shot 6-under-par 66 for the first-round lead, with major champions lining up behind her. In Gee Chun was a stroke back while Brooke Henderson and Danielle Kang trailed by two. And Sei Young Kim, Sung Hyun Park, Georgia Hall, Hannah Green, Brittany Lincicome and Lydia Ko joined four others at 3-under 69. That kind of star power made it easy to forget that there was nobody there to cheer.
People adapt, not just players and their teams but fans watching at home. And you can bet that other tournament organizers are paying close attention. There are only two major championships held at the same venues every year – the ANA Inspiration and the Masters. Rest assured that more than a few men and women with green jackets in a closet off Washington Road are glued to LPGA Tour golf this week to see what’s different and how those differences are perceived.
There are even a few carts on the fairways, a first for major championship golf as far as anyone can remember. But the LPGA Tour was not about to endanger anyone’s health, especially in a year when health and safety are at the forefront of every action and decision. Temperatures are expected to hit 113 degrees over the weekend and wildfires just west of Palm Springs have added a layer of smoke to the air. As a result, LPGA officials, in consultation with medical personnel, gave caddies the option of riding during tournament rounds and allowed players to take carts out to practice. According to chief tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio, herself a former LPGA Tour player, “It’s a major championship, and of course in major championships you want to walk. But what’s most important right now is the health and safety of our athletes and our caddies.”
Those concerns seemed to float away in the hot, smoky breeze on Thursday. Carts were unobtrusive and, from a telecast perspective, mostly invisible. Like everything else in 2020, fans adjusted and moved on to what really mattered: the golf.
“I normally would never agree to taking carts,” said Henderson, who celebrated her 23rd birthday with an early tee time on Thursday. “But definitely under the circumstances with it being so hot out here, I felt like since the LPGA was allowing us to use them, it was an advantage for us. It was nice that (Brittany, my caddie) was able to zoom along, get to my ball fast, calculate some numbers, really get a feel for all the conditions, and then by the time I arrived she already had everything set out and we could discuss a little bit more specifically.”
Lincicome didn’t think twice about her caddie being in a cart. She was just happy to be walking. “I’ve been cooped up in a cart for three days,” she said, referring to the practice rounds. “I’m just happy to be out.”
As for the golf course, Henderson said, “It’s funny what a few months, how much it can change the course. I feel like it was a bit of a learning curve the first few days to kind of adjust to the different types of grass and just how differently the course was playing.”
“I’m so happy that this event stayed on the schedule and that we got to come back here and play.” – Brittany Lincicome
Lincicome, the only multiple ANA Inspiration winner in the field, found the course to be like a twin sister of the one they’re used to seeing. “There are some places that look the same but are just a little different,” she said. “If you hit it in the rough, for example, it’s going to the bottom and you’ve kind of got to dig it out. And I think they lost about 100 trees, they said, which you can tell visually. It looks a lot more open, but if you hit it in the rough, you have no chance.
“But I’m so happy that we’re back,” Lincicome added. “I’m so happy that this event stayed on the schedule and that we got to come back here and play. I definitely would have been really bummed if we would have missed this event. Even though it’s going to be over 100 degrees here in a couple days on the weekend, I’ll still take that as long as we’re here.”
Lexi Thompson, like many of the fans watching at home, shrugged at the differences this championship presents in 2020. “Yeah, it’s different coming here and seeing Bermuda grass,” she said. “But they did what they could with this heat to get it in the best shape possible like they always do, so we’re always happy to come back here. Just being able to play in general is a big thing for us right now.”
That is the widely held view of everyone on site in California and fans watching the action from home. Just being able to play is a big thing. Adapting to everything else is easy.
Danielle Kang shot a 4-under-par 68 to tie for fourth place after the first round of the ANA Inspiration. Photo: Christian Petersen, Getty Images
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