The women stole the show. It was the best possible scenario for the inaugural Grant Thornton Invitational.
Lydia Ko, without a victory this season on the LPGA, birdied the penultimate hole at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, to send her and teammate Jason Day to a one-stroke victory in the latest iteration of mixed-team golf. The Down Under duo combined to post 26-under 266 after a best-ball 66 to edge the Canadian pair of Brooke Henderson and Corey Conners.
Sweden’s Madelene Sagstrom and Ludvig Aberg were another stroke behind after a sterling 60.
Although there have been male-female pairings recently in other events, including the QBE Shootout and PNC Championship, the Grant Thornton Invitational is the first pure mixed format since the 1999 JCPenney Classic.
The women, keyed up by the opportunity to show how well their games compare to their male counterparts, brought their A-games to the tournament, which featured three formats – ambrose, foursomes and modified best-ball – highlighted by Ko’s second shot into the par-5 17th hole from 190 metres with a fairway wood.
“That looks so good,” Day said as the ball sailed towards the pin.
“As soon as it came off the clubface, I was like, I think it’s good. Please be good, and it was heading right towards the pin,” said Ko, who with Day began the final round with a two-stroke lead after an impressive 66 in alternate-shot play on Saturday. “I don’t think I could have hit that shot 100 times and it would turn out better.”
The ball checked up 10 feet behind the hole, and Ko two-putted for the go-ahead birdie. Ko, 26, also did the honour of closing it out on the par-4 home hole, two-putting for par from 30 feet, though Day, after missing the green, chipped to three feet that also could have won it. Each a former world No.1, Ko and Day split $US1 million of the $US4 million purse.
“It was kind of weird because it felt like the most stress-free win because I knew Lydia was going to step up in the end, which was fantastic,” said Day, 36, who won his 13th PGA Tour title earlier this year at the AT&T Byron Nelson. “It was a fun week. Having the two tours join this week was a fun way to finish the year. I’m hoping we get to do it for a very long time.”
Aberg, the rookie sensation who was solid in his Ryder Cup debut during Europe’s victory in Italy and then won his first PGA Tour title at the RSM Classic last month, gushed that “I was a passenger at times [on Saturday]”, during foursomes play. He also was a happy spectator when Sagstrom snaked in a long, double-breaking eagle putt on 17 that forged a momentary three-way tie for the lead.
“It’s been a very big week for us, for women’s golf this week, and showing how good we are with you guys,” Sagstrom said. “I feel like on every team we all contributed equal ways.”
They sure contributed their share of fireworks. Another example: Lexi Thompson’s ace at the par-3 16th hole on Saturday that put her and Rickie Fowler in the thick of things before dropping to T-6 on today.
Mutual gushing was the order of the day through 54 holes. Each side had a lot to appreciate about the other. The women got to witness the power the men unleash with their drivers. The men saw just how well the women score with overall skill and tenacity.
“I think it’s really cool to marry the tours together,” Tony Finau said. “They’re seeing shots that they haven’t seen with us, and vice versa. We’re seeing shots that we haven’t seen, and we only get to watch these guys on TV, they only get to watch us on TV.”
Ko underscored perfectly what it meant to be paired with Day when she told her caddie she wanted to hang back at the men’s tee on the final hole to watch Day hit one more drive. Afterwards, she joked about the natural regional rivalry between Kiwis and Aussies, “but that was not there this week.”
What was there was a showcase of pure enjoyment of the game along with excellence. You know what that’s good for? Anyone? We’ll let Ko spell out it for you.
“This week I think every player that’s here, whether it’s the PGA Tour player or LPGA player, I think we’re here for more than just the prizemoney and winning. It’s about the growth of the game,” she said. “It’s great that we got to win on top of that, but I think with the help of Grant Thornton, this is, I think, a start for so many more exciting things to come, and I’m excited to be a part of this partnership.”
“It will be interesting to see kind of the after-effects going into next year, but I think one of the things is seeing the guys and the gals tee it up together and have fun and us just enjoying being out there together,” Fowler agreed.
Megan Khang, who teamed with Denny McCarthy to finish T-4, also was thinking ahead. “I feel like this is a great… step in the right direction,” she said. “I feel like people are going to get a taste of this event, see how fun it is and how engaging it is of how many families come out, boys, girls. They just see these players on both levels competing and having fun and showing up and putting up some good scores. I think it’s great for not only golf, but for the future of golf.”