The 112th and final head-to-head showdown of the week in the first LPGA event to feature matchplay since the 2019 Solheim Cup turned into a likely preview of the 2021 edition. American Ally Ewing beat German Sophia Popov, 2&1, for her second career tour title, as the Bank of Hope LPGA Match Play morphed into a rock fight of sorts under the sweltering 36-degree Las Vegas heat.
“It was exhausting. I think I was limping in on the finish line, really,” Ewing said after her win. “This week was unlike any other. I’m definitely going to have to tape up the feet I think for another week next week, but well worth it.”
Ewing had played 105 holes, Popov 98, before they added the final 17 from their championship match at Shadow Creek. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the duo combined to win just four holes in their fatigued state. (Maybe Shanshan Feng was the smart one when she conceded her consolation match for third place against Ariya Jutanugarn, citing fatigue and the desire to rest ahead of this week’s US Women’s Open.)
They did come alive, briefly, on the par-3 13th, splitting birdies for the first time since the fourth hole. Ewing was 62 feet out on the 14th before dropping a bomb to go 2 up, the last hole won of the final match.
Ewing and Popov traded pars on the 16th before heading to the tricky par-3 17th with the German needing to win to extend the match. The shadows emerged over Shadow Creek Golf Course as the clouds covered the sun when they arrived on the tee. Ewing, first to go, dumped her tee shot into the water.
“I knew I was going to have to re-tee and I knew based off previous matches that the hole can be won with bogey,” Ewing said.
It was a prescient insight. Popov’s first brutally plugged like an overdone fried egg. It then turned into army golf, going past the cup with two chips before missing a 15-foot uphill putt for bogey.
Ewing played her fourth out of a clean lie in the same bunker and knocked it to four feet. She punched in another short look for the win. Her husband, Charlie Ewing, ran onto the green and picked her up to celebrate. It memorably marked their first anniversary.
“Second coolest thing to happen to us on May 30,” Charlie said.
The winner of the Drive On Championship Reynolds Lake Oconee late last year also separated herself to represent her country at the Solheim Cup. American captain Pat Hurst was on site all week and came away impressed with Ewing’s steadiness. “She’s come into her own starting in 2019,” Hurst said. “We want her there. She’s got the experience now.”
Ewing is just as excited for the chance at redemption. “It’s super exciting to represent the United States. The first time was unbelievable,” Ewing said. “Obviously losing makes you want to go back even more.”
While Popov didn’t come away with the victory, it seems a near guarantee she’ll wear Team Europe’s blue and yellow in September at Inverness Golf Club. Before this week, she held the top of the four ranking positions to make the team, and her world ranking will only rise after her runner-up finish. “For her, it’s going to be a great achievement for her career and reward to be on the team,” Anne van Dam, a 2019 Team Europe Solheim Cup member, told Golf Digest.
Van Dam is one of Popov’s closest friends, and arrived at Shadow Creek on Sunday morning while Popov was on the 10th hole against Feng wearing a neon green hat emblazoned with “Best Friend”. She booked a flight while attending a wedding in Texas the night before at 11 o’clock to get to Las Vegas, carrying Popov’s 9-month-old niece throughout the day as she cheered on her friend along with the Popov extended family. It meant the world to the 2020 AIG Women’s Open winner that her family watched her play for the first time.
“I’m just lucky to be able to hug my nieces when I got off my round,” Popov said, her mother also watching from the gallery. “She said it was really boring today, so obviously it wasn’t that important to her. You know, priorities are different, and that’s what I love them for. Yeah, I’m a very, very lucky person with the family I have.”
If this match is any indicator, Hurst and European Solheim captain Catriona Matthew should be excited for what these finalists can bring to the LPGA’s next matchplay event.
PHOTO: Jed Jacobsohn