Intriguing stories all around as LPGA Match-Play goes to final day

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LAS VEGAS—The Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play is down to its final four players. Sophia Popov, Ariya Jutanugarn, Shanshan Feng, and Ally Ewing will play two matches on Sunday, with the day ending with a championship final and consolation match.

Ally Ewing (seeded 20th) vs. Ariya Jutanugarn (16th)

Danielle Kang was hotter than her hometown of Las Vegas over the first five rounds, not trailing on her home course of Shadow Creek at any point over the first 75 holes. Ewing snapped that streak on the 14th hole in the afternoon quarterfinals on Saturday, and with two more birdies on the 16th and 18th holes, Ewing won the battle in which each player shot 66, including concessions.

It’s not the first time Ewing took down Kang in a clutch moment. It was reminiscent of the battle the 2019 Solheim Cup teammates had at the 2020 Drive On Championship at Reynolds Lake Oconee, where the 28-year-old Ewing notched her first career win.

“I know Danielle is a competitor. Playing on the same team with her even she can be intimidating, for sure,” Ewing said. So I just tried to stay within my own lane, my own zone, do what I needed to do.”

Ewing last played match play in the 2019 Solheim Cup. Then Ally McDonald, she lost to the emotive Bronte Law on Sunday before Team Europe earned the win with Suzann Pettersen’s birdie. Ewing sees herself as a different player now.

“I think I’ve just gained a whole lot of confidence in my game,” she said. “I think I’ve just gained confidence through the years. I’ve certainly trusted my training through the years with my coaches, friends, family, so much support telling me that I have the ability.”

She’s matched up against Jutanugarn on Sunday with an opportunity to advance to the finals, with U.S. Solheim Cup captain Pat Hurst on-site to watch the last American in the field.

Jutanugarn was the first to advance to the semis, beating Minjee Lee 5 and 4. Jutanugarn played 29 holes, the fewest of the competitors Saturday, also beating Anna Nordqvist 4 and 3 in the morning’s Round of 16.

Getting off the course as quickly as possible was important for the 25-year-old because she did not sleep well on Friday night due to a routine she normally has after finishing play that starts in the morning. She had her usual green tea, but that was at 7 p.m.

“So I drink it,” Jutanugarn said. “I stay up until 12 and then I sleep, I woke up at 2:30, so that why I’m so tired now.”

Jutanugarn has taken to Las Vegas, considering the weather in the desert isn’t as hot as she’s used to in Thailand. She has plenty of match-play experience on the LPGA Tour, representing Thailand in all three UL International Crowns. She was also a runner-up in the last LPGA match-play event, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, in 2017 to Sei Young Kim.

Shanshan Feng (20th) vs Sophia Popov (15th)

Feng has her first opportunity to win on the LPGA since the 2019 Thornberry Creek Classic, where she carded the second-lowest 72-hole score in tour history of 29 under. She earned a spot in Sunday’s semis with 41 holes of play on Saturday, with only 32 minutes between her 22-hole match against Brittany Altomare and her 19-hole duel with Eun-Hee Ji. The most holes Feng ever played in one day concluded with Feng dropping a 50-foot double-breaking bomb on the first playoff hole to win.

“If you win today, you just need to beat two more person to win the tournament,” Feng said. “So my last time to have a chance to win a tournament was 2019; my last victory. So I thought about this and I was like, I’m getting close and just don’t give up and fight until the end. I was very happy that the putt finally fell in the hole on that 10th hole there.”

For reasons she did not disclose, Feng had to replace her longtime caddy, Mercer Leftwich, whom she affectionately calls “Boss”, with Taneka Mackey, Amy Olson’s caddie, for the day.

Mackey told Golf Digest that Leftwich reached out to her at 7 p.m. on Friday to ask if she coud be his sub. Mackey initially had plans to be on the range while Olson worked with her coach Saturday morning.

“When I got the message, the first thing I told her caddie was I have to talk to Amy first,” Mackey said. So I called Amy and asked if it’s OK. Obviously, she’s my first priority. She was nice enough to say go for it.”

Mackey first worked with Feng as an emergency replacement caddie at the ANA Inspiration, helping out the final seven holes when Leftwich needed help.

“She is very inspiring and very positive. I think that’s really helping me to get through those 40 holes,” Feng said.

Mackey herself nearly didn’t make it to the tournament. She arrived in Las Vegas at 10 p.m. on Tuesday night, after getting six hours of treatment for multiple sclerosis that morning. Now, Mackey has an opportunity for her first win as a looper, assisting Feng’s possible 11th career win.

Popov, the 2020 AIG Women’s Open champion, was in a clash of major champions on Saturday. She bested seven-time major champion Inbee Park in 20 holes in the morning and then beat 2021 ANA Inspiration winner Patty Tavatanakit 3 and 2.

Popov noted she played some of her best golf of the year, in part, she said, because her 3- and 5-year-old nieces are watching her on-site. Before her playoff against Park, her youngest niece held her hand as she walked to the playoff tee box.

“I think it’s the cutest thing when I make a birdie or win a hole and they know,” Popov said. “ They know what’s going on and they’re so excited. So when I come off the green they give me high fives and fist bumps For me, I think it’s a quick reminder that golf is not everything. My family is everything to me.”

Popov already is in the top Rolex Ranking to make Europe’s Solheim Cup squad, and a victory this week would ensure her trip to Inverness Club in Ohio.

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