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Last year’s ANA Inspiration featured a playoff that forced eventual winner Pernilla Lindberg and Inbee Park to play into Monday.

This year’s edition featured no such edge-of-your-seat drama—but it did feature another surprising winner.

The LPGA’s top players battled brief displays of Coachella Valley winds and heat, along with their own inner demons, before 23-year-old South Korean Jin Young Ko took the victorious jump into Poppy’s Pond after rolling in a birdie putt on the 18th green to cap her 10-under-par score.

Asked what went through her mind as she addressed that putt on 18, Ko replied, “My grandfather. My grandfather died one year ago … I couldn't believe my grandfather (was) dead, so I miss him.”

Ko’s total bested fellow South Korean Mi Hyang Lee by three shots. Lee was the only player to nip at the winner’s heels during Sunday’s final round, pulling within one shot as late as the 15th hole. Ko responded immediately with a birdie on the 16.

When asked how she’s gotten such a fast start thus far in 2019—only her second season on the LPGA tour—and how she feels about playing in Coachella Valley, Ko told the media: “I tried (to be the) happiest golfer on the course, but if ball goes right or left, it doesn't make me happy. But I'm still try(ing to be) happy. Also, I really try not to think about the future. … I practice in Palm Springs in January, so I know I like desert course, because all the time, the ball goes far.”

In the final round, fan favorite and 2014 champion Lexi Thompson stayed close enough to the leaders to have a chance if she could mount one of her familiar charges—and on the back nine, she started whittling into Ko’s lead. Thompson, playing a dozen groups ahead of Ko, stood on the par 5, 18th green with a long eagle putt to pull within a shot of the lead. However, Thompson’s eagle attempt came up well short—and then she missed the makeable birdie putt.

“I just got up to the putt and said, ‘You know, Ii it misses it misses, but just get up there,’” Thompson told the media after her round.

An interesting side note: As final-round play began on Sunday, four of the six lowest scores belonged to women from South Korea. This small nation is leading the way in LPGA play, and 2019 could be the year of South Korean women’s golfing domination.

Scroll down to see some photos from the ANA Inspiration tournament.

Published in Snapshot

The LPGA tour’s annual arrival at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage means that spring, too, has arrived in the Coachella Valley.

The 2019 ANA Inspiration tournament—“Golf’s First Major,” as the program cover declares—begins in earnest on Thursday, April 4, and will wind up this Sunday, April 7. Will we see another edge-of-your-seat playoff finish this year? No one can say. But all of the world’s top women pro players are here, and they’re all teeing off for a shot at the title and the winner’s check of nearly $500,000.

As a result of the wet winter, the verdant rolling hills of the championship layout are lush and thick. Traditionally, courses hosting major tournaments are prepared to be at their most challenging. In particular, the length of the rough is always a major discussion point.

“It’s tall (at) a few holes, but just the thickness of it definitely slows the club down going through it. It’s how the rough usually is at majors, so it’s definitely setting up as it should,” said 2014 winner and perennial crowd favorite Lexi Thompson.

Said two-time winner Brittany Lincicome: “It’s fantastic. They’ve lengthened three holes, and I’m hoping they play it back as far as possible. The rough is thick. I’m playing the yellow ball probably again this week so (it) may be easier to find in the rough.”

Last year’s winner, Pernilla Lindberg, added: “The rough is juicy. I know it’s been a wet winter out here. … If they just leave it the way it is at the moment, it’s going to be a good test, a good challenge.”

The magic of the legendary Dinah Shore tournament on this famous golfing track was best summed up by 2011 winner Stacy Lewis: “I love this golf course. It was the first time I played as an amateur. Obviously, I had a really good result. I love playing in the desert and just the history of this tournament. Just coming in with good vibes, seeing all the girls jump in the pond—it’s my favorite tradition we have. I’d love to be able to do it again.”

Rest assured: Some victorious and thrilled woman will take the jump on Sunday. Scroll down for a handful of photos from the day before the start of this year’s tournament.

Published in Snapshot

Imagine legendary U.S. soccer stars Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy kicking around a soccer ball here in the Coachella Valley … on a golf course.

No, it’s not an April Fool’s joke.

Welcome to the fast-growing sport called FootGolf, a combination between soccer and golf, that’s getting lots of attention, nationally and internationally, across all generations and genders.

Wambach and Foudy, both retired U.S. National Team soccer players, each with two Olympic gold medals to their credit, will participate along with LPGA golf stars in an exhibition match against Japan on Tuesday, March 29, at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, as part of the ANA Inspiration women’s golf tournament (formerly known as the Dinah Shore).

In fact, the headquarters of the American FootGolf League (AFGL) is here in Palm Springs.

“Coachella Valley is the U.S. golf capital; hence AFGL was established here (in) 2011,” said Roberto Balestrini, the founder of the AFGL. The AFGL is the national governing body for the sport and a member of the Federation for International FootGolf.

Balestrini said anybody can play the sport regardless of age and skill.

“The game is played with a regulation No. 5 soccer ball at a golf course facility on shortened holes with 21-inch diameter cups located yards away from golf greens,” Balestrini said.

The point is to reach the cups with as few kicks as possible. FootGolf can be played on nine holes for about an hour, or 18 holes for about two hours. The sport itself does not require expensive gear and equipment.

“All you need is golf attire, a soccer ball and shoes with no cleats,” Balestrini said.

According to Balestrini, the game is on the rise in large part because youth are discovering the sport and coming out to play it. It’s also helping the revenues of some golf courses.

Locally, FootGolf can be played at Desert Willows Golf Resort in Palm Desert, at The Lights in Indio, the Golf Center of Palm Desert and the Cathedral Canyon Golf Club in Cathedral City.

“The AFGL has a partnership with the National Golf Course Owners Association and works very closely with the entire golf industry since it is (the sport’s foundation),” Balestrini said.

There are 125 golf courses in Coachella Valley, so there’s a lot of potential for this new sport to grow.

“The beauty about FootGolf is that it can be as fun or as competitive as you want,” Balestrini said.

The ANA Inspiration’s Footgolf Faceoff: USA vs. Japan will take place at 5 p.m., Tuesday, March 29, at the Mission Hills Country Club, in Rancho Mirage. Admission and parking for the event are free; park at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Complimentary shuttles to the course begin running at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.anainspiration.com/footgolf.

Published in Features

The newly named 2015 ANA Inspiration—the first LPGA major tournament of the year—delivered challenges, frustration, exhilaration, relief, celebration and, yes, inspiration to the players who came to the Mission Hills Country Club over the last week.

For the winner, Brittany Lincicome of Florida, the final day of play brought her plenty of exhilaration and celebration after she persevered through sporadic wind storms, the challenging Mission Hills Country Club layout and the determined play of runner-up Stacy Lewis.

Lincicome, who had spent most of the tournament a few shots behind the leaders, exploded into a tie for the lead at the end of her final round with an eagle on the par-5 18th hole. It was repeat of the extraordinary display she put on in 2009, when she won her first Dinah Shore championship. Playing right in front of the leading pair, her score of 69 put the pressure squarely on Lewis. With a makeable birdie putt to claim the title outright, Lewis rolled her ball past the cup, setting up what became a three-hole mini-marathon playoff between these tour friends as darkness threatened to bring its own halt to the proceedings for the day.

Finally, on the third hole, Lewis faltered, and Lincicome closed out her win with a par.

“I mean, to make eagle on any hole is pretty incredible, and then to do it on Sunday at a major, at this major where I did it in 2009, it’s really surreal,” Lincicome said.

Lewis was congenial in defeat.

“We’re good friends,” Lewis told the media afterward. “I don’t think she’s won in a while, so it’s a great win for her. … If anything, I like seeing three American flags at the top of the leaderboard.”

Fellow American Morgan Pressel finished third.

As for pure inspiration: The low amateur for the week was California’s own Haley Moore, who won her spot with a victory last Monday in the Champions Junior Challenge on the Mission Hills Arnold Palmer course.

“When (tournament director) Gabe Codding asked me a week ago how I hope to be inspired, I’m like, ‘I really want to qualify,’” she said. “This whole past week, I’ve just been inspired by being here. The other amateurs are really good, and I was surprised to be the low amateur.”

Moore’s caddy for the four days of the ANA Inspiration competition was Lisa Stanley of Rancho Mirage, the 2012 Mission Hills Country Club women’s champion, as well as a fan.

“I volunteered to caddy for her. It was the first time I ever caddied, and it was awesome,” Stanley said. “It gave me goosebumps. It was super-fun.”

Stanley offered some personal observations about Moore, an aspiring tour pro. “Haley’s a good listener, and yet she makes her own decisions. We worked well together, and it was a very special experience for me.”

What was Moore’s most memorable moment of ANA Inspiration, other than some of the shots she played? “It was probably at the end of this final round as I was walking down along the grandstand to the bridge. Every one was so happy for me. If I’m here next year, they’ll know exactly who I am.”

Scroll down to see a photo gallery from the tournament.

Published in Snapshot

In the words of Peter Allen, “Everything old is new again.”

That lyrical observation was certainly appropriate as the 44th edition of what is now called the ANA Inspiration tournament—you may know it as the Dinah Shore—kicked off on Monday, March 30, with the return of the popular Champions Juniors Challenge, organized by the Southern California Golf Association.

The winner of this one-day amateur 18-hole shootout claims the last spot in the field of the 72-hole LPGA major tournament, which begins this Thursday at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage.

Thirty-three young women from all over Southern California competed in teams of three, and each team was captained throughout the round by a former LPGA tour pro and champion. This year, two Coachella Valley high school students competed: Malia Ebersberger, of Palm Desert, who attends Xavier College Prep; and Jiyoon Jang, of Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert High School.

For Ebersberger, this was her first appearance in this special event.

“It was a 10 for sure! I’m so glad I was able to play in the tournament,” she said.

Her team captain and mentor for the round was Donna Caponi, winner of four LPGA major titles. “I’m so lucky I got her as my captain. She was truly amazing. She’s awesome,” Ebersberger said.

What tips did Caponi share during their time on the course together? “We were checking the wind and the slopes of the greens,” Ebersbeger said, “and she helped me read, like, every putt, because I needed help.”

Overall, how did Ebersberger feel that she played? “I played pretty well,” Ebersberger said. “I just had one bad hole, but other than that, I’m super excited.”

Her father, J.D. Ebersberger, is the director of golf and COO of the Palms Golf Club in La Quinta; he offered some insight into the play of his daughter.

“She played every other sport except golf, and then finally, almost four years ago, she took the game up, and quit all the other sports. She’s really dedicated herself to golf, and I’m real proud of her,” he said.

While Ebersberger finished at 2 over par for the day, seven shots off the pace of winner Haley Moore, of Escondido, Team Caponi took home the overall team trophy.

This was Jiyoon Jang’s second consecutive appearance at the Junior Challenge, and we asked how she felt about her play on this day.

“Terrible. I don’t know why,” Jang said. “I feel like I prepped well for this tournament, and then when I got out there, I just couldn’t control my shots, and then that lowered my confidence, and it’s hard to play well when you don’t have confidence in your own swing.”

What did she pick up this year from her team captain, six-time LPGA major champion Pat Bradley (with whom she was paired last year as well)?

“She’s like literally the most positive, encouraging, motivating person that I’ve ever met,” Jang said. “It was nice to have her encouraging me even when I made a bogey, and I made a lot of those.”

Jang finished at 5 over par for the round.

Does Jang plan on a return next year? She sighed, then brightened quickly and stated, “Yeah, I think so. Yes. Yes. Yeah, there will be.”

See a gallery of photos from the Champions Junior Challenge below.

Published in Snapshot