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Pernilla Lindberg defends LPGA’s ANA Inspiration title after a major learning experience

Pernilla Lindberg of Sweden watches her shot from the second tee during the first round of the Kia C
Pernilla Lindberg watches her shot from the second tee during the first round of the Kia Classic LPGA golf tournament on March 28 in Carlsbad.
(Orlando Ramirez / Associated Press)

Her victory a year ago was the product of years of tirelessly trying to perfect a flawless putting stroke, of refining an athletic and graceful swing, of learning to cope with the frustration of never coming close to winning a professional golf event.

Pernilla Lindberg had held or shared the lead in each of the four rounds of the 2018 ANA Inspiration, the LPGA Tour’s first major championship of the season, then won the longest sudden-death playoff in major championship history.

She had prepared most of her life for such a championship moment, one that at times seemed might never happen.

But, as with many first-time major winners, she hadn’t prepared for the aftermath.

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“For me, it doesn’t come natural to say no, and obviously I had a lot more requests and opportunities coming my way after my win,” Lindberg, 32, said this week as she prepared to defend her title at Mission Hills.

“I embraced it all … I probably didn’t realize until later, but it did make a higher stress level inside me. I could tell my focus wasn’t 100% there. … All these different factors led me to not playing my best golf the rest of the year, that’s for sure.”

Lindberg managed only one top-10 finish the rest of the year, though she made the cut in all five majors.

Few find themselves prepared to deal with the unexpected barrage of demands placed on first-time major winners. Stacy Lewis, who won this tournament in 2011, knows from experience.

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“Gosh, when I won here, you go to the next tournament and all of a sudden everybody wants to talk to you when they didn’t really care before,” she said.

“Every step of the way there was more obligations, more people wanting to know what you’re doing. The tournament asks more of you. It’s a process of learning how to deal with it all.

“I know Pernilla said yes to a lot of things. You have to learn how to say no in a very nice way. … But she’ll figure it out; her game is good enough.”

Lewis, who has won 12 times on tour including the 2013 Women’s British Open, learned to say no fairly quickly.

“I’ve always been crazy about my time,” she said. “Golf was always first, and then I put a block of time aside for everything else. If it doesn’t fit in there, it doesn’t happen.”

Lewis is one of seven tour players who had children in the past year and also has become a sounding board for two participants who are expecting children: Brittany Lincicome, who is due in September, and Sarah Jane Smith, due in July.

“I get a text every couple days,” Lewis said of her contact with Lincicome in particular. “I get a lot of questions; probably even more after the baby is born.

“But it’s been really fun. Between her and Sarah Jane, I was talking to her about stuff yesterday, trying to figure out her golf swing with a belly. It’s fun to be able to help them. I was just trying to figure it out on the fly last year.”

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The ANA field contains virtually all the top players in the world, including the top 25 in the world rankings. Crowd favorite Michelle Wie, who has battled wrist injuries since surgery in October, is in the field after pulling out of last week’s Kia Classic.

Among the entry list are four amateurs who were faced with the decision of accepting invitations to the the California desert or to the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, the final round of which will be played at the home of the Masters on Saturday.

UCLA sophomore Patty Tavatanakit, Florida State freshman Frida Kinhult, Stanford junior Albane Valenzuela and 17-year-old Tennessee high schooler Rachel Heck chose to play against major-caliber competition rather than head to Augusta.

That starts with Lindberg, who is hoping to replicate her play of a year ago when she entered the tournament after tying for 22nd at the Kia Classic. She enters this one after tying for 23rd.

“My game’s going in the right direction,” she said.

If the trend continues, that would mean another playoff. Lindberg won last year on the eighth extra hole — a playoff that extended to Monday — by sinking a 30-foot birdie putt to beat former No. 1 and seven-time major champion Inbee Park.

Before the playoff, Lindberg’s father, Jan, told his daughter’s putting coach, Jon Karlsen, he was worried about Pernilla going up against a player so formidable on the greens.

Karlsen corrected him and said, “Pernilla is the best putter in the world.”

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For that week, there wasn’t much argument.

sports@latimes.com


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