Vu's closing 65 and playoff heroics carry her to Meijer LPGA title

 Vu's closing 65 and playoff heroics carry her to Meijer LPGA title

By Jeff Babineau

BELMONT, Mich. – A grand finish to the 10th Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give saved a surprising plot twist for its final act.

Facing off in a three-way playoff after a wild fourth round would be the soon-to-retire Lexi Thompson, the prohibitive favorite among the large, six-deep galleries outside Grand Rapids; Australia’s Grace Kim, who started the final day with a five-shot lead; and a surprise guest – World No. 2 Lilia Vu.

Oh, right. Lilia Vu. Remember her?

All Vu did a year ago was win four times, twice in majors, on her way to LPGA Player of the Year honors. A bad back kept her from defending her title at Chevron two months ago, and placed her golf future on temporary hold. She had been been home in California, trying to get healthy.

Vu hadn’t played more than 18 holes at home during her two months of rehab, and wasn’t ready to go in the recent U.S. Women’s Open in Pennsylvania. Wisely, she waited, and she arrived to Meijer with pretty modest goals: First, she wanted to see how she would feel after 18 holes. Secondly? “I just wanted to make contact,” said the 26-year-old Vu.

She did much better than that.

First, she closed an eight-shot gap on Kim with a Sunday 7-under 65 at Blythefield Country Club. Then, with three birdies in as many playoff holes, she took home the Meijer LPGA for Simply Give title in her first start in more than two months. It was the fifth victory in 16 months for Vu, ranked behind only No. 1 Nelly Korda in the Rolex Rankings.

Vu got up-and-down from a greenside bunker at the 550-yard fourth hole, the third playoff hole, to secure the win, pouring a 5-footer for birdie into the center of the hole. She was as surprised as anyone when the ball fell and victory was hers.

“I want to thank my team,” Vu said in the champion’s ceremony just off the 18th green. “They trusted me, I got better, and somehow I have a trophy in my hands.”

When Vu finished her round in regulation, there was lots of golf left to be played behind her. She figured Thompson, who was a shot back headed to 18, might pass her with an eagle, or Kim might even win outright with a birdie at the par 5.

Ally Ewing, the 36-hole co-leader, ran off five birdies in six holes early Sunday to catch, then pass, Kim. Her 57-foot (her words) eagle putt at 18 caught part of the hole; she would birdie and finish alone in fourth.  Korea’s Narin An was in the mix down the stretch, too, but finished bogey-bogey and missed the playoff by two.

This was the madcap finish: Vu, playing five groups ahead of the leaders, got down in two for birdie from just in front on 18, her seventh birdie (no bogeys). Thompson nearly pitched in for eagle, her ball tumbling down the hill to the flagstick and pulling up just short. ("I thought I made it," she said.) Kim had a birdie putt from just off the green to win, but it also missed, just barely.

Vu, Kim and Thompson all finished at 16-under 272, and headed to 18 for the playoff. Twice. Six birdies were made, then one more hole, with Vu providing the knockout punch.

“I wasn't thinking about winning. I was thinking about shooting 8-under to make top 10,” Vu said afterward. “I feel like it can get scorable out here, but I think it's just my kind of delusional mind where I'm like OK, everybody is probably making a million birdies.

“I was just on my own journey. This is the one day I was playing really well. Felt really good with my swing. Obviously coming back from an injury I was a little up in the air not knowing my swing ...I was just trying to make contact today. That's it.”

Kim, who squandered a four-shot lead midway through this year’s JM Eagle LA Championship, shot 73. In fairness to Kim, who started the round with a pair of bogeys and fell out of the lead early, she bounced back and battled hard to reach a playoff. And as Vu and Thompson made birdies in the playoff, so, too, did she.

“I mean, going three playoff holes with the Player of the Year last year, two major championships, and obviously Lexi just being an icon for women’s golf says a lot about my game, I guess.” Kim said.

Thompson announced a few weeks back that the 2024 season will be her last on the LPGA as a full-time player, deciding to step away on her terms at age 29. She will miss places like the Meijer, and the tournament, in turn, will really miss her. Thompson, as she is known to do, signed so many autographs during the week that she wouldn’t dare to count them. For the young girls who follow the LPGA, Thompson is their pied piper.

She gave it everything on Sunday, too. She started slowly, turning in level par, and then made a charge with four birdies on the back nine. The hit 13 greens she hit were the fewest of any round this week, but still hung in there, chasing victory. Needing birdie at the last hole of regulation to make the playoff, she nearly did one better, her pitch with a 50-degree wedge just pulling up short.

“It was an amazing day out there,” said Thompson, who drew the biggest galleries each day. “You know, the golf is one thing, but just to be able to play in front of all amazing fans, especially coming down the stretch and on the playoff holes. I don't think I've heard cheers like that unless it's like Solheim Cup, which is just an amazing feeling. I got chills every time.”

Facing a 14-footer for birdie to stay alive on the second hole of the playoff, Thompson stepped up and buried it, and she had a good birdie look on the final playoff hole, too. Sometimes, you just come up a little short, and somebody else wins. She believes her play is something she can build upon.

“It would just help my confidence, you know, knowing I made those putts and pulled the shots off when I needed to under the pressure. It only helps,” Thompson said.

“And it only happens when you put yourself in that position multiple times. Sometimes you fail, sometimes you succeed. You learn from the failures and you get through them. ... It's not easy. But you have to keep on pushing through because when you pull them off, it's a special feeling to have.”

Thompson said she’ll have 10 or more tournaments to try to chase that 12th career victory. As for Vu, another victory secured, she jumped into a waiting cart just off the fourth green to take her to the interview area. First, there was a phone call she wanted to make to California. As the cart sped off, she dialed, then put the phone to her ear.

“Hey Dad,” she began, “Happy Father’s Day ...”

June 16, 2024
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