Hannah Green's KPMG Women's PGA win: passing the torch
CHASKA, Minn. -- Maybe it felt a little like "Mission: Impossible" when Australia's Hannah Green took her 54-hole lead to the first tee on Sunday for the final round of the KPMG Women's PGA Championship.
Only one stroke separated the three-time Symetra Tour winner still seeking her first LPGA title from big-hitting, 2018 Player of the Year Ariya Jutanugarn, looking for her 11th LPGA win and third major championship.
In world rankings, Jutanugarn was No. 8 and Green was No. 114.
It could have been daunting, but instead Green, 22, viewed it as an opportunity to not only make a major championship her first LPGA victory on the formidable Hazeltine National Golf Club, but also to tip her cap to another LPGA player who made this week possible.
And that, she did, saving par from a bunker on the final hole with a tricky finishing putt just inside 6 feet to card an even-par 72 and finish at 9-under 279 for a wire-to-wire victory.
Jutanugarn faded early, but Green also held off defending champion Sung Hyun Park of Korea, who charged from five shots back with a final-round 4-under 68 to finish a stroke behind the first-time winner at 8-under 280.
Park was waiting in the clubhouse Sunday to see if Green would falter on the last hole, but the second-year LPGA pro steeled her nerves and got it done to avoid a playoff.
"I knew I needed to par 18," Green said, as she sat in the media center beside the giant trophy she had just won. "I've always wanted to win an event, [but] to win a major championship as my first event is crazy."
After her winning par putt dropped, Green sobbed as her compatriots draped in Australian flags rushed the green and enveloped her with hugs and soaked her with shaken cans of beer. Leading that celebratory pack was her Australian mentor and idol, World Golf Hall of Fame member Karrie Webb.
It was actually Webb who visited the media center first after Green's victory on Sunday, and the normally reticent veteran pro, with tears in her eyes, made it clear how she felt to see a young Australian step up her game as she was winding down her own.
"For this to be her first win and first major, it's just fantastic," Webb said. "That's world class the way she closed out that tournament."
It was four years ago that Green came to the United States as a scholarship winner of the Karrie Webb Series back home in Australia -- a series of tournaments started in 2007 and designed to groom top Australian women amateurs for the highest level of women's golf.
Like all of Webb's scholarship winners, Green flew in on an all-expense-paid trip to spend the week watching how Webb, the program's benefactor, prepared for and played in a major championship.
She went on to qualify for the LPGA's 2017 Symetra Tour, where she won three times to finish second on the feeder tour's season money list and earn 2018 LPGA Tour membership.
Last season, however, wasn't as successful for the LPGA rookie. She missed 10 cuts and her only top-10 finish was a third at the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open. She missed the cut at last year's KPMG Women's PGA Championship.
This year has included only one top-10 and three missed cuts, including last week's Meijer LPGA Classic.
"It's taken her 12-18 months to sort of settle in and feel like she belongs out here," observed Webb.
When asked to explain how she held on to win this week's major championship after such a bumpy season, even Green admitted she "had no idea."
"I wasn't really feeling as confident at the start of the week with my swing, especially with the result last week," said Green, who became Australia's first women's major champion since Webb's win at the 2006 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Paired Sunday in the final group with Green and Lizette Salas of California, Jutanugarn struggled uncharacteristically. Her final-round score of 5-over 77 was birdie-free with five bogeys to drop her back into a tie for 10th at 3-under 285. The Thai player bogeyed No. 8 and never got back on track.
Around that same time, Nelly Korda birdied No. 7 to draw even with Jutanugarn at 7 under, four shots behind Green, before a bogey on the 15th sapped Korda's momentum.
England's Mel Reid, who carded a final-round 66 to charge into a tie for third with Korda, and several others made a run for the championship.
Sunday's final round also rendered some rough patches for Green. She struggled with a stretch of three bogeys on holes 9 through 12, before finally making par on No. 13 and draining a 12-foot birdie putt on the signature 16th hole to take a two-stroke lead.
Park's birdie on No. 15 moved her to within one stroke of Green, but the Australian's birdie on 16 provided a little more breathing room with two holes to play.
"I was a little frustrated with the three bogeys, but the par on the 13th settled me," Green said.
Green stopped to read a child's poem handed to her on Sunday after walking off the seventh green. On the paper with the poem were the scribbled words, "You can win this." They were words the Australian needed to see.
And they were words she unfolded and looked at again as she marched to an uncertain finish in the most important round of her life.
"I had it in the back of my yardage book because I didn't want it to get rained on," Green said. "A couple of times on the back nine when I was feeling nervous and had some time, I actually read it to myself. I think it really helped me."
What also helped was the support she felt all week from Webb. Webb, Green and five other Australians -- including this year's scholarship recipients -- all shared a house during tournament week.
Webb missed the cut by one stroke, but walked the course on Sunday with the young Australians to cheer for Green. The group enjoyed an Aussie barbecue together Saturday night where banter was fun and the Hall of Famer served as chef.
But this week, Green's dreams turned into reality. She won a major championship and pocketed a $577,500 winner's check. As she looked at the fresh-faced amateurs in her gallery cheering for her just as she had cheered for Webb only a few years ago, Green realized she had come full circle.
And that circle began when Webb provided the opportunity for Green to see just how good she could be.
"Yes, the [scholarship] money is a great bonus, but being able to stay in a house with her -- watching everything she does in a tournament -- definitely gave me a big insight into what it was like," Green said. "I'm very grateful to her."
But perhaps not as grateful as Webb, who knows Green will lead the next generation of Australians as her own career begins to wind down.
Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.