Martin Dempster: Ladies’ game suffers pair of spectacular own goals

‘Great Wall of Dinah’ and Sophia Popov exclusion have done LPGA no favours

Monday, 14th September 2020, 4:45 pm
Mirim Lee plays her pitch to the 18th green after  using the blue wall as a backstop. Picture: Getty
Mirim Lee plays her pitch to the 18th green after using the blue wall as a backstop. Picture: Getty

Turn your back for five minutes – well, it seemed that way during a much-needed break after an exhausting few months covering this, that and everything during lockdown then during the careful journey out of that – and the golf world goes to pot.

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but what on earth has happened in the ladies’ game since I signed off at the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon to start that holiday because it is suddenly doing itself no favours in terms of publicity?

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Talk about a spectacular own goal when it emerged that Sophia Popov, who handed the game a huge boost all around the world by pulling off a fairytale win in Ayrshire, had not secured a place in the second major of the year, the ANA Inspiration, due to missing out on a five-year exemption as she was a non-member of the LPGA at the time of her victory.

Mike Whan, the circuit’s commissioner, stuck to his guns over that, saying he couldn’t change the rules in the middle of a campaign. Don’t get me wrong. Along with many of his members, I’ve been impressed with how Whan has led the circuit, but this was an error in judgement, one that should have been avoided when Japan’s Hinako Shibuno was in the same boat last year in being denied that exemption.

It just didn’t feel right that Popov, who has taken new-found stardom in her stride during interview after interview, wasn’t in the field at Mission Hills Country Club in California last week for that next major and now, as the dust settles on that, the women’s game is at the centre of another huge talking point.

“Oh, my god” was my initial reaction early last week when a photograph appeared on social media of a blue wall that had been erected at the back of the island green at the Rancho Mirage venue because, quite frankly, it looked hideous.

It has now been dubbed the “Great Wall of Dinah” after Dinah Shore, the American singer whose name was in the event’s title for a number of years, after it became a focal point in a victory claimed by Korea’s Mirim Lee on Sunday.

In effect, Lee used that blue wall as a backstop, knowing that she could be bold with a 5-wood approach at the 72nd hole knowing it would not end up in the drink by being long. Right enough, her ball came back off it and she duly chipped in – for the third time in the final round – from 65 feet for an eagle before beating American Nelly Korda and Canada’s Brooke Henderson in a play-off.

“I definitely thought to utilise the back and the backboard,” said Lee after taking the winner’s customary dip into Poppie’s Pond to celebrate her maiden major victory. “When I had practice rounds, I had practised that shot, so it was a definite for me to use the space there.”

It’s not Lee’s fault, of course, and most of her fellow competitors probably had the same thought standing over that second shot, but backstops have no place in golf. Indeed, think of the contrast at Royal Troon in that AIG Women’s Open. There was no danger of anyone trying to bounce a shot back off the clubhouse with out of bounds lurking.

Whan, of course, will say that the blue wall ticked a big box for the title sponsor, which had its logo adorned on it, and I was most impressed with what he had to say when it came to trying to do the right things at the moment in an interview in the build-up to the circuit’s double-header in Scotland last month.

This, though, was another of those glaring examples of golf shooting itself in the foot a bit and that was a pity because, 24 hours earlier, a similar tale to Popov’s but not in the same league in terms of headline-grabbing was delivered by Amy Boulden.

The Welsh player was landing her breakthrough win on the Ladies European Tour with an impressive three-shot success in the VP Bank Ladies Swiss Open, with her close friend, Kelsey MacDonald, as well as Michele Thomson, among the first to congratulate her as that long-awaited victory started to sink in.

Dreams do indeed come true in golf and you can bet your bottom dollar that players such as MacDonald and Thomson will have been inspired by seeing Boulden, a former winner at Troon herself in the Helen Holm Trophy, and Popov becoming winners in recent weeks.

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