Shanshan Feng was right on target when she projected that it would take a 61 in the final round, ten strokes under par, to win the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic. I’m fairly certain Feng was referring to her score, not Inbee Park’s. Park trailed Feng by two shots going into Sunday but tied it up with her fourth birdie of the day on No. 7 and then took the lead on No. 8 with another birdie. Park’s white-hot putter had come back to life. She didn’t let up, making birdies on four of the first five holes on the back nine to pull in front and then capping off the round with a birdie at the last to finish off the 61. When all the cards were signed and it was over, Feng finished in sole possession of third at 18-under-par after a final-round 68.
A year has passed since Inbee Park hoisted the trophy at the 2013 US Women’s Open. For Park, who seemed like she couldn’t be caught at this time last year, the distance between that 9th career win and her 10th at the Manulife on Sunday probably felt like a very long year. Although she managed to stay put at the top of the world rankings as first Suzann Pettersen, then Lydia Ko, and finally Stacy Lewis piled up points and charged for the top, Park seemed to have lost her magic.
As we roll toward the 2014 Open, the stage is set for a dramatic and probably protracted battle to reach and then hold on to the top of the world rankings. Park’s winless year has opened up the sphere of competition and a number of superb golfers have been playing to take advantage of that open space. Anna Nordqvist and Michelle Wie have emerged as contenders. Cristie Kerr and Karrie Webb are very much in the mix. Paula Creamer and Lexi Thompson are lurking. I’m looking for another shake-up in the rankings after Pinehurst.
Pettersen looked strong in the last months of the 2013 season and was openly playing for the top of the rankings, but then faded early in the 2014 season, sidelined with a pesky back injury. But Pettersen relied on power moreso than finesse — Park’s strong suit — and wasn’t able to close the gap, even before her injury slowed her down.
Pettersen’s a superb athlete. Her -14, T8th finish at the Manulife, her four top-10 finishes this year, her number 1 rank in reaching greens in regulation all underscore her skill and her command of the game. But is her athleticism enough to get Pettersen to the top of the rankings and keep her there for a while?
Ko, who turned pro around the time Pettersen declared her intention to take the top of the world rankings, has fewer events in her Rolex Rankings equation than the other top-10 challengers. She plays a more targeted game than either Park or Pettersen and when Ko settles into the rhythm of life on the Tour her tightly dialed-in precision will keep her at or near the top of the world rankings. But is she ready to surge up now?
Stacy Lewis plays golf with a killer instinct, but it’s fragile and quickly turns defensive if she’s not at or near the top of the pack. Her current 2-week hold on the top of the world rankings isn’t at all secure. How will Lewis cope with threat? Can she withstand Park’s challenge to take back the top? Can she withstand Ko’s persistent, consistent target practice? Getting there and staying there may be two entirely different phenomena for Stacy Lewis.
The Open is emerging as a test not only of skill — much has been written about the renovations at Pinehurst No. 2, the conversion of the rough to a more naturalized terrain, and the killer greens — but also a test of mental strength. Given the technical challenges of the course, the US Women’s Open may boil down to a contest in which will, endurance, course management, and blind optimism figure more prominently than the ability to drive the ball and hit the green.