Matt Cooper previews the uniquely challenging Evian Championship, where in the absence of several big names Jin Young Ko looks the one to beat.
4pts win Jin Young Ko at 11/1 (General)
1pt e.w. Austin Ernst at 60/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Ally Ewing at 66/1 (Unibet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Jennifer Kupcho at 70/1 (Betfair, Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
The history of the Evian Championship is a messy one.
The Evian Masters which preceded it was a popular event. The hospitality was extravagant, the Alpine setting stunning, and the golf was a lovely warm-up ahead of the final major of the year – the AIG Women’s Open.
Then, a decade ago, it was announced that the tournament was becoming a major and it all went a bit askew. The very fact that there was suddenly a fifth major was clunky enough, that it wasn’t a world or Asian major was awkward, and fact that the elevated status had effectively been bought by corporate power was just plain annoying.
To compound matters its spot in the schedule was moved, the weather was routinely appalling (the first and fifth editions as majors were reduced to 54 holes), and then there was the small matter of the test.
Where previously the quirky nature of the course was offset by the charming nights out, the glorious scenery, and the sense that everyone was on holiday, when it became a major it looked out of its depth. It’s all a little bit like returning to a favourite bistro, tucked away up a cute street, serving honest grub with a nice backdrop, suddenly transformed by new premises, going large… and losing all the appeal.
Oh yeah, and now the Olympics have got in the way: Danielle Kang, Lexi Thompson, Nasa Hataoka, Yuka Saso and Hannah Green have all got gold, silver and bronze on their minds so sit the week out. And Stacy Lewis isn’t travelling because she’s long been in a huff with the place.
That leaves Nelly Korda at the top of the market and while she deserves it on form (victories in both her last two individual starts, including a first major championship triumph), I suspect that the course is not a good fit for her. True, she broke 70 for the first time in the third round of the last edition, but her tie for 25th by the end of that week is the closest she has ever been to the lead in 10 laps.
I prefer the claims of JIN YOUNG KO who appears to have turned the corner after struggling with an injury during last summer and through the early months of this year. On her last start in the Volunteers of America Classic she opened with a 63 to grab a one-shot lead which she never let go of.
This week looks an ideal opportunity for her to land a third major championship triumph and a second win in this event after she completed victory in 2019 carding 65-71-66-67. Her game was undoubtedly a neat fit that year. Finding fairways? She ranked fifth. Hitting greens? Ranked seventh. Draining putts? Second in the field.
"This course is a little narrow, so good for Korean players," she said that week. "It is hilly. A little bit like home. In Korea the courses are more like mountain courses so we know how to play this course."
Next up is American AUSTIN ERNST who is a two-time winner since the return from lockdown last summer and has also played nicely in the majors during that period.
She was second at halfway in last year’s AIG Women’s Open before settling for fifth and I liked the way she performed when tied seventh in last month’s KPMG Championship.
Ernst followed that with tied fifth at the Marathon Classic where she said: "The putter has been feeling really, really good from inside 15-feet. When I'm putting it well from that range I feel like I play my best golf because I give myself a lot looks typically from around that range. It gives you momentum and confidence."
She’s got off to quick starts in the last three renewals of this event (top 10 after 18 holes each time) and pressed on for second in 2018. "You really need to have control of the ball so you can attack the pins," she said that week. "You can definitely make birdies out there."
She then added: "Overall I haven't played well in majors. But here today, a major championship, coming down the stretch, great shot on 15, almost made eagle, hitting the shots I did on 16, and then two great shots on 18. Shows what I'm capable of. I kind of knew it already. To do it, you kind of prove to yourself even more."
She hadn’t won in five years then. With two of them under her belt in recent times, and more good golf at the top level, she can kick on from those excellent memories of the tournament. The fact she led the field for greens in regulation in the KPMG is a bonus – she said you need to control the ball at Evian and had it on a string there.
JENNIFER KUPCHO came to prominence when winning the first edition of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, in 2019, after a superb head-to-head with Maria Fassi, both of them not only playing great golf but displaying real character and personality along the way.
She didn’t muck about when she hit the pro ranks, making the cut at the US Women’s Open in her first start, contending in her third start, landing a top five in her sixth start, and then finishing tied second in her eighth start, which came at this very championship.
It also turned out that it wasn’t her first experience of the course – and the fact she had been there before had really helped her performance. "I had never been over to Europe before," she explained. "Having been in this area already I know where the golf course is, I know where food is and all that. It's kind of nice to have that familiarity."
And what of the result that first time, in the Arnold Palmer Cup (a sort of Ryder Cup for college golfers)? "I played well," she said. "So we won." One of her team-mates that week was a bloke called Collin Morikawa. Touch of inspiration factor, maybe?
She’s still looking for the breakthrough win on the LPGA, but she has added another two seconds and has been solid in the majors. Form-wise, she has three top 15 finishes in her last four individual starts, including tied ninth last time out in the Marathon Classic. Her GIR numbers are really strong too.
Final pick came down between Meghan Khang and ALLY EWING (and the format has blown the reveal).
She’s a really solid performer in the majors who first impressed me when contending the AIG Women’s Open at Kingsbarns in 2017. It was very noticeable that nothing fazed her, that challenges sparked something in her, and that lodging with Stacy Lewis in St Andrews provided the opportunity to pick a major winner’s brain.
At the recent KPMG Championship she said: "I feel like my game suits major championship golf. I've put together some good tournaments in majors and certainly know that if I play to my capability, I can contend."
Two years ago she said at the US Women’s Open: "I've learned that it doesn't take heroics to play well. It's just playing smart, playing steady." She’s used those lessons to pick up her first two LPGA titles in the last 10 months and she can contend here.
She was in the top 30 all week in her Evian debut in 2016 (finishing T30), added T13 in 2017, had a bright start ahead of T43 in 2018, and was T11 in 2019, also her best week tee-to-green. With those wins behind her, she can continue the good work on this course.
Posted at 1320 BST on 20/07/21
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