Kingsmill continues to produce elite champions

Now in its mid-teens, the Kingsmill Championship has been determined in regulation and overtime. It’s been shortened by monsoon rains and graced by ideal weather.

But regardless of duration or conditions, Pete Dye’s River Course invariably produces an elite winner.

Ariya Jutanugarn’s playoff victory Sunday over In Gee Chun and Nasa Hataoka added to that striking legacy.

The win elevated the 22-year-old Jutanugarn from No. 6 to No. 5 in the world rankings. Moreover, she has won a LPGA Tour-best eight times in the last two-plus seasons, a stretch of excellence that includes the 2016 Kingsmill Championship and, later that year, the Women’s British Open.

Entering Kingsmill’s final round Sunday, 28 players were clustered within six shots of the lead, hardly unusual since rain had trimmed tournament to 54 holes. With one less tour of the par-71 layout, there was less time for the field to separate.

But this Sunday sprint to the finish was especially difficult to handicap.

Eight of the 28 contenders were major champions, Chun, Jutanugarn, Brooke Henderson and Anna Nordqvist among them. Still two others were ranked in the world’s top 15: No. 9 Jessica Korda and No. 11 Moriya Jutanugarn, Ariya’s older sister by 16 months.

And if you don’t have major-championship pedigree, good luck prevailing at Kingsmill.

Grace Park won the inaugural LPGA event at the resort, in 2003, edging Lorena Ochoa, Cristie Kerr and Webb by a shot. Less than a year later, she claimed a major at the Nabisco-Dinah Shore, now called the ANA Inspiration.

So began Kingsmill’s run. Three of its champions — Se Ri Pak, Annika Sorenstam and Webb — are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame and own a combined 22 major titles. Fellow Kingsmill winners Suzann Pettersen, Lexi Thompson, Jiyai Shin, Kerr and Jutanugarn boast eight majors among them.

In short, 11 women have won the 14 Kingsmill tournaments, Kerr (three) and Jutanugarn (two) the lone repeat champions. All except Lizette Salas (2014) and Minjee Lee (2015) had won majors before their Kingsmill victory, or did so after.

Kingsmill remains Salas’ lone career LPGA Tour win, but she was 3-1 in the Solheim Cup last year for the United States and is ranked 26th in the world; Lee is No. 15, won twice the year after her Kingsmill triumph and finished one shot out of the Thompson-So Yeon Ryu playoff at last season’s ANA Inspiration.

Fluke champions simply need not apply at Kingsmill, a testament to the course and the strong fields it attracts.

That the course was even playable Sunday was a tribute to the tournament staff — yes, they pitched in, too — resort grounds crew and their Escalante Golf colleagues who jetted in from elsewhere.

The task was like Whac-A-Mole. Whenever one issue was resolved, another popped up. Whenever the course approached playable, another deluge ensued.

Korda said her routine during bad weather is Netflix, food and sleep. Well, the grounds crew had time only for food on the fly and the occasional nap.

Aided by spotlights, they toiled in the middle of the night. They sweated under rain gear in the stifling humidity.

Take it from someone who spent a college summer mowing rough and raking bunkers, it’s not glamorous work on the best of days — I’ve never been more startled than when a snake jumped out of the shallow water hazard where I was weed-wacking.

“I have no idea how they pulled through and got it playable for how much rain we’ve gotten this last week,” Korda said Sunday morning after completing her second round. “So huge props to the grounds crew. All the volunteers, everyone involved has done an amazing job.”

After finishing two shots out of the playoff Sunday, Megan Kang morphed into the grounds crew’s agent.

“With the amount of rain that Mother Nature has been putting on them day after day, I think they deserve like a week off just doing nothing,” she said. “The amount of effort and time they put into this golf course made it very playable for us. It’s definitely much appreciated, and I don’t think they're told that enough from us.”

That effort and time helped produce yet another worthy champion.

Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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