We only got three hours of it on television, but Sunday’s finish at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was a must-watch drama with many moving parts. Here’s some of the good, the bad, and the ugly from a special major championship at Congressional.
In Gee Chun
As the legend Justin Ray pointed out, Chun completed one of the weirdest and wildest wire-to-wire wins with her par putt on the 72nd hole to clinch it. Rarely can you go 75-75 on the weekend and win, and it was especially slow and painful to watch from the middle of her 3rd round late Saturday afternoon though most of Sunday afternoon. But it still feels like the best golfer for the week won it?
Her Thursday 64 was one of the great rounds in major championship history, by strokes gained metrics. That and a solid second round in easier conditions were enough to weather the weekend regression, and capitalize on a Lexi Thompson stumble. No one else played particularly well on a tough weekend setup.
Three of her four wins on the LPGA are majors, and she now joins legends Se Ri Pak and Inbee Park as Korean women with at least three of those most important championships, beating the great Jin Young Ko to the mark. She’s been open about battling depression and other injuries in the lengthy six-years between majors and the emotions flowed throughout Sunday night after she won. So this Sunday resolution was not all about who lost and how but also about a great player adding to her résumé in a week when she was actually in a class by herself for about 40 percent of it.
We’ll get to more of Lexi in the other “not good” categories as well, but it can’t be all bad if you’re once again in contention at the wire of a major. The shotmaking into several holes—9, 13, 15, and even 18—was nails down the stretch and something to behold, especially with the mid-irons. Her birdie at the 15th, a hole that was awesome to watch eject balls with its firmness coming into that elevated green, was one of the best birdies of the day.
Also, there literally may be nothing more dramatic in golf right now than Lexi with a lead on the back nine of a major. It’s absolute must-see TV and she delivered that kind of product again on Sunday. It made Jordan Spieth look like the diet stuff, especially the rollercoaster whiplash from a shorty that missed the entire hole at 14, to the outrageous birdie at 15, to the mess around the green at 16, to another disastrous shorty yip at 17. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and you were almost relieved for her when it was over and that last birdie putt at the 18th didn’t even scare the hole.
Congressional’s return to major championship golf was a resounding success. Andrew Green’s work was a well-publicized aspect of the championship preview, and that work showed out testing the best in the world. Like the PGA at Southern Hills, the leading number slowly receded as the weekend progressed, in part due to In Gee Chun coming back to earth after an otherworldly 64 on Thursday. Also like the PGA, conditions varied during the span of the championship: there were varying breezes to contend with, it was colder, soft, but incredibly long and difficult on Thursday, and then it got hot, firmer, and faster over the course of the weekend. Though there was some angst about the letting up on the gas on Friday with an easier setup following Thursday’s brute, the PGA mixed it up though the variety of weather on a course that was perfectly conditioned for a major.
On the ground, it was a fabulous spectator experience, with the tree removal creating the ability to watch multiple holes all over the course. At the 9th green, for example, you could see 6th green, all of the par-3 7th, and the tee shot off to the short par-4 8th, in addition to the obvious hole in front of you. These wide-ranging views existed throughout the back nine too, and the TV broadcast used shots from adjacent holes and angles frequently. The DC market should get majors every now and then, and the crowds were impressive with kids running everywhere on the grounds. As a venue, the course is now more fun and this was a much improved championship product. This builds anticipation for more future majors and the Ryder Cup.
The three-tiered 14th green, where it started to really go sideways for Lexi Thompson. Photo: Andy Johnson
PGA + KPMG
These two have worked together to elevate women’s major championship golf in a way that’s created an arms race of sorts. That race continued this week with an all-out doubling of the prior purse to a new total of $9 million. We don’t need to fete #thebrands, but this is a championship that’s really pushed women’s golf to new places in the last decade and stepped up again this week on the purse front.
The Internet is almost never a friendly place for the broadcast and network executives. Sometimes the critiques are unwarranted and unfair. But this was one that never looked right from the start. The three hours of coverage allotted for Saturday and Sunday never made sense. Why? There are a billion channels and streaming services. The team and infrastructure was here, and did good work when they were actually on the air. Only three hours for the weekend at major is a disservice. Do KPMG and/or the PGA need to fork over more… something for a greater window? It just didn’t add up when you consider the breadth of options for showing golf in 2022.
The impacts were significant, as we missed some interesting holes on Congressional’s front nine, like the shots into the third green, the two par-3s, especially the dramatic 7th green, the short par-4 8th, and monster 9th. We also missed Lexi’s big move early in the round to shoot into first. It also exacerbated…
Pace of play
This was a problem throughout the weekend. Slow rounds were made interminable because players were sent off split tees and in groups of three to accommodate the targeted 4 p.m. finish on network TV. Of course, playing as threes in the crucible of a major weekend pushed the rounds toward the six-hour mark and blew through that targeted finish on network TV on Saturday, with golf jumping from NBC to CNBC.
Rules official just informed Lexi Thompson’s group that they are on the clock.
Took them just shy of three hours to play the front nine … 😬
— Zephyr Melton (@zephyrmelton) June 26, 2022
It also diminished the product, creating longer waits between shots and just a slower, worse presentation both in person and on TV. It was noticeably different, and worse, after walking with twosomes last weekend at the U.S. Open, where the pace of the action added to the overall championship.
Of course, the blame is not just on the tee time arrangement, but the snails going through all their pre-shot routines. We’ll not name names at this point, but it was widespread and rampant, especially among the final groups. It’s got to get better at the highest level of women’s golf.
For all the Sturm und Drang about beer prices at Southern Hills, a 16 oz can of Miller Lite cost $14 at the Women’s PGA. That’s more per ounce than the 25 oz big boys at the men’s PGA. Beer just costs a lot of money at sporting events.
The playbook after a tough Lexi loss now seems to be refusing to talk about it with the press. She is due some space, and does go out and sign autographs during that time, but it’s also part of the job, especially when you’re arguably the most popular player in the game and were a critical character on the biggest and most important stages like a major. It’s part of what attracted fans to Mito Pereira after the men’s PGA, where he spoke through it after a heartbreaking finish. Sharing an agent with Bryson probably means Lexi gets expert advice in bypassing any speaking requests from tournament organizers and the press.
The Lexi stroke
It felt like a clean running lane had opened up for Lexi. In Gee Chun looked cooked, going out in 40 and in continual freefall since Saturday afternoon. Minjee Lee was concerning, but no one ahead was really making a move and the top players had mostly faded away thanks to Congressional sharpening its teeth on the weekend. It’s still Lexi, and it had been 50 starts since her last win, 8 years since her last major, and the wound of the U.S. Women’s Open last year still open. So it would be tense no matter what. But this had less of a sense of doom than the slow bleed of Olympic, with that yippy stroke not appearing through the first four hours or so on Sunday. It truly felt like she had it, even after the bad bogey with a short iron in her hand on 12.
Then came the putt at 14, a horrifying complete miss of the cup from three feet or so after playing to the back tier with another precise approach. She played the long par-5 16th just about perfect through two shots, but the short grass around that green exposed the nerves, with two different kind of clubs—a hammered chip shot and a hammered putt from the short stuff. Usually, going play-by-play through each hole means you’ll get lost in the weeds and miss the bigger picture or theme of the round. But each hole was its own separate ride in the theme park worth recounting to truly understand how this played out over the final few hours of one of the most thrilling majors you can see, just not for all the positive reasons.
The good is so good, and the bad is so bad. It’s the tragedy genre of drama, but it’s as compelling and unnerving as it gets in golf. Can she ever overcome these last two major losses? Presumably it will come together for her—Sunday still felt like the drought was ending up until the final hour—and if or when it does, given this context, that will be another Sunday in women’s golf that’s as good a drama as any major.