Sometimes when Brittany Lincicome makes her way down the Walk of Champions at the ANA Inspiration, she’ll glance down at the plaques below. Her name is listed twice there (2009, 2015). Sometimes she’ll look over at the 18th green and strategize her next shot. Sometimes she’ll look up and high-five the fans who are leaning over the railing.
The walk will be eerily quiet this year with no spectators on property. Lincicome joked that she might high-five the air on her walk by Poppie’s Pond.
“With fans there’s so much more adrenaline,” said Lincicome, “and you just feed off of their energy and smiles and support.”
The LPGA will have staged five tournaments, including a major, without fans before the tour gets to the Coachella Valley. But silence at the ANA, often referred to as the Masters of the LPGA because of its history on the same course and longstanding tradition, will be the strangest feeling yet.
Three years ago, the excitement at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course was palpable after Lexi Thompson received a four-stroke penalty on the back nine of the final round. Fans willed her around the course, chanting “Le-xi! Le-xi!” as she came to the final hole needing eagle to win the championship.
The atmosphere was even more spine-tingling in the playoff. And when it was over, as a defeated Thompson collapsed in her mother’s arms, a crowd of kids lined up outside the autograph tent to meet America’s best player.
None of that will happen this year. High-octane drama isn’t the same without people there to share it.
But in this COVID-19 era, the next-best things are often better than expected, certainly more appreciated.
Whoever jumps into Poppie’s Pond at the 49th edition of the ANA will relish the chance and happily slip on that white robe in the oppressive desert heat, because by today’s standards, it’s somewhat of a miracle that it’s happening at all.
“It would still be sweet,” said Stacy Lewis, the 2011 champion, “doesn’t matter how many people are there.”
Lewis played the ANA as an amateur in 2007, finishing tied for fifth, and came back that summer to play in LPGA Q-School and described it as a totally different course.
Mission Hills also put in $3 million worth of changes over the summer. For starters, they’ve pulled out 100 large eucalyptus trees and trimmed all the remaining trees.
“Aesthetically the course is going to appear to be much more open to them than what it has in the past,” said Mission Hills general manager Michael Walker.
But while recovery shots might look more appealing, pulling them off might be a different story. The additional sunlight pouring through means the rough will be much thicker and deeper than in the past. And it will grow fast in the summer heat.
The club also has expanded some of the runoff areas in key locations: two par 3s (14th and 17th) and the par-5 18th. Balls that miss those greens are now more susceptible to rolling off into trouble.
Plus, the warm-weather Bermuda grass will present a completely different feel than the over-seeded rye that players see in the spring.
“I think it’s really going to start to favor the pickers verses the gougers,” Walker said.
Every bunker on the course has had work done, and five fairway bunkers were added.
And then there’s the heat. Temperatures in mid-September range somewhere between 90 and 105 degrees. Caddies will not be wearing the traditional white jumpsuits but instead have bibs.
The quiet will be noticeable with the lack of bodies. Players are allowed two preregistered guests on property, and surely there will be residents who live along the course watching from their patios. There are usually around 600 volunteers during tournament week, but with no pro-am and no spectators, that number is down to 150 this year.
While there won’t be any seats around the first tee or the 17th or 18th greens, there will be scaffolding and signage. That’s of particular interest for those who like to go for the green in two on the closing hole: There will still be something there to stop the ball.
As for scoreboards, there might be the manual kind. If not, players are allowed to check their phones during the round.
With so many events on the LPGA’s schedule falling off in 2020, the major championships became more paramount than ever. The added cost of COVID-19 protocols combined with a loss of revenue in ticket sales, pro-ams and corporate hospitality created an impossible situation for many.
“It was never a doubt that we were going to play this event,” said ANA executive director Teo Sodeman.
A warm water dip awaits.