Brooke Henderson went to the wall in trying to win the ANA Inspiration on Sunday. Her sister went under it.
At the conclusion of a bizarre day that saw Henderson and Nelly Korda battle for top spot on the leaderboard for most of the round, and Mirim Lee chip in four times before eventually winning in a playoff between the three who ended regulation at 15-under, an odd blue wall behind the 18th green became the focal point of the tournament.
The wall is normally there as the lower part of a grandstand but this year, with no fans in attendance, it stood alone as a golf monolith, serving as a backstop for incoming shots on the par-5 hole.
None of those was more important than Lee’s second on the 18th that hit the wall, giving her a drop. She used that advantage to chip in for eagle, getting her into the playoff.
Henderson had her own version of wall ball. Her approach on 18 in regulation with a five-wood sailed over the water, hit the green and then disappeared under the blue plastic wrap that covered the structure. Only after caddie/sister Brittany Henderson shimmied under the wrapping, identified the ball and wiggled back out, was Brooke given a drop, which she used to make a birdie and join the playoff.
"I was laughing pretty hard when she was trying to get out from underneath there," she admitted of the tight squeeze. "But she does a good job as always, going above and beyond to help me out."
For most of the day, Henderson battled with the long rough, finding just seven of the 14 fairways, and struggled with a putter, which she used 30 times, that had a case of the lefts.
None of those putts was as crushing as the one the Smiths Falls, Ont.-product missed from four feet that would have extended the playoff another hole. Instead, it slid just past the left edge. Despite the loss, she was mostly positive about her game.
"I think I played really well," said Henderson. "I thought my ball-striking was good, giving myself a lot of birdie opportunities all day. Unfortunately I just didn’t make as many putts as I would have liked."
The 23-year-old was steady in the early going, making birdies on two of the first four holes to keep pace with Korda. She missed an opportunity to add another birdie to her card on the par-5 ninth hole when her drive ended up in the rough and she attempted to hit a three-wood onto the green. It came up short in the rough and she couldn’t control the wedge, leading to a two-putt par.
She corrected that on the 11th off another drive that found the rough. This time she punched the ball back into play, hit a smooth approach shot and rolled in the 20-foot birdie putt.
But on the 13th, an errant tee ball cost her dearly. Her second from the rough squirted right and she found herself short-sided in deep rough with a bunker between her and the pin. She tried to finesse the approach but lobbed it into the bunker and ended up recording a double bogey that took her from one up to one behind Korda.
"It was a tough one on 13," admitted Henderson. "I kind of made a couple of mistakes in a row, but I was able to fight my way back. It was nice to get the birdie on 18 in regulation to get into the playoff."
A gutsy birdie on 16 set up the craziness with the wall on the final hole, leading the playoff between the three golfers. On the second trip down the 18th, Korda could only manage a par, while Lee drained a five-footer from above the hole for birdie and watched as Henderson missed her attempt.
"I definitely missed a lot of putts, especially in those final holes where I feel like maybe it could have been a different story," said Henderson, "but Mirim and Nelly played great and I really fought my way around so I’m happy."
The sting of the loss didn’t seem to hang with Henderson after the round. She was already looking at the positives. At the first major last month she missed the cut and in her last start two weeks ago, she was tied for 49th. Now, she said, she’s pleased to be making birdies and getting into contention.
"You can’t really beat a Sunday when you’re playing against the best players in the world and you’re right there," she summed up.
Henderson was set to play next week at the Cambia Portland Classic, where she’s won twice before, but that may be in doubt due to the wildfires raging in Oregon.