The 49th annual playing of the ANA Inspiration got underway Thursday morning amid a vibe of studied quietude across at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Akin to the men’s major predecessor played 500 miles up the Cali coast a month before, the virus-driven lack of fandom for the ladies gave the opening round something more of a club championship feel, rather than a major stage.
Though, really, the event should be lauded for playing at all.
Historically the first golf major of the season for men or women — and, save for The Masters, the game’s longest running event continuously held at the same locale — the ANA’s September slating serves as part of the LPGA’s scheduling revamp, taking the time-honored tourney from its annual April slot into late summer.
Which, in the SoCal desert, comes with a certain sizzle.
While morning conditions were exceptional for the opening round – 72 degrees, no wind and near-primo course shape (at a time which finds many Palm Springs-area courses with a patchy, burned-out aesthetic) – the seasonal heat will soon prove as much a test as the stellar Desmond Muirhead-designed Dinah Shore Tournament Course.
The local forecast calls for 103-degree temps on Friday, followed by a pair of 108s for the weekend. While caddies were provided the option of using ride or push carts for the event, the seasonal heat will translate to leaders stalking a major crown in a highly demanding afternoon heat.
Calendar changes weren’t the lone alter for this atypical ANA, as agronomy is also playing part in the change and strange, with nature further narrated by suspect air quality, considering the dozens of ongoing wildfires across the Golden State.
On the ground, more than 100 trees were recently removed from the routing, and, provided the annual overseed of seasonal grasses, an event annually played across ryegrass is now taking on the stickier blades of Bermuda, translating to slightly slower greens and slightly-meaner rough.
Translation: Don’t expect Dottie Pepper’s aggregate ANA record of 269, authored in 1999, to be bested this year.
An additional, key change for the 2020 event is found at the famed par-5 home hole, where a new bunker has entered the pre-water layup area and, sans fans, the lack of buildout and infrastructure on 18 has resulted in grandstand-less silence across a walking path and ensuing island green bridge which women play their entire lives with aims of traversing.
Watching and covering golf is no doubt as strange as playing it in these times.
With twosomes playing in front of galleries of maybe a dozen (and in most cases far fewer) marshals and media, everything outside the ropes feels woefully conspicuous.
An opened soda can sounds like a geyser. A lit cigarette and the ensuing plume looks like Fourth of July. The stop-start of a golf cart is like drag race. Every conversation is hushed. To step on a broken tree branch is to likely elicit scorn from those around you. With snowbirds yet to flock back to the desert, many of the homes at Mission Hills appear summer-shuttered, only adding to the ether of near-eerie placidity.
Since the LPGA’s fan-less restart, some players have no doubt acclimated better than others to the lack of galleries.
Coming to the desert with a pair of wins and a T-5 since the ladies return to the course after a five-month COVID pause, Cali-native Danielle Kang would seem to among those most at-ease with golf’s new norms. At the ANA, Kang, second in the Rolex rankings, arrives among the short-list of favorites, especially considering that defending champion and world No. 1 Jin Young Ko has yet to play this year due to coronavirus concerns.
For a nuanced course which generally rewards experience, Kang’s ninth playing of the tournament would appear to find her primed to add a second major to her C.V.
“The great players that have won here, they’re one of the best women golfers that have ever played here,” Kang said Tuesday. “The drama that the golf course has presented itself, the final stretches coming down, there has been multiple playoffs out here; especially with the 18th hole being reachable the final day, you get eagles or birdies.”
Following a tie for sixth at last year’s ANA, Kang picked up where she left off in ’19 at the Dinah.
“I don’t expect anything below what it has already given us, which is just the epitome of kind of a major that we come back to every year,” Kang said. “This is just the one place that I feel consistent at when I come here and I know exactly what to expect, and it’s just been the traditional consistency, and that’s what I love about it. Year in and year out, you come here and you expect it to be the way it is, and it actually even exceeds your expectations when you come.”
On Thursday morning, with her mother in the tiny gallery, Kang’s expectations were tested from the outset. Starting on the back nine, she got up-and-down for a par save from the dewy Bermuda on the par-4 10th before back-to-back birdies saw her soar up the early leaderboard. Showing her comfort with the demanding rough, Kang saved a 4 on the 13th with a sideways putter-toe chip which led to an easy par.
Her round started to slip at the turn with a bogey on the easy par-4 first, but Kang righted herself with four birdies in her final eight holes — including a near ace on the par-3 fifth — to conclude the day with a 4-under 68, tied for 4th and two shots behind leader Nelly Korda.
“I think it’s more so than for a major for me, to win this specific tournament, the ANA Inspiration, just because it’s in California, it’s Palm Springs and it’s a tournament I’ve been playing since I was an amateur and I was invited here,” Kang said after Thursday’s seven-birdie round. “I think it would just be a little bit different than winning different majors. Every major has its own uniqueness, and this one itself has its own, as well.”
Near the top of the leaderboard heading into Friday play are In Gee Chun and Madelene Sagstrom, who are both one shot back. Among those three back are 2016 champion Lydia Ko and two-time ANA winner Brittany Lincicome (2009, 2015).
Whether it be Kang, Korda or another who makes the annual victor’s leap into Poppie’s Pond adjacent to 18 green come Sunday, the strange calm and searing temps may well see this year’s dive as much a necessity of cooling respite and needed noise as an annual rite of winner’s passage.
The ANA, like all of pro pandemic golf, cries out for a ripple in the placidity.