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Lydia Ko-Jason Day win closely contested Grant Thornton Invitational

NAPLES, Fla. – The choreography veered between Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and a middle school dance, what with half the teams meeting each other for the first time.

Still, at the inaugural Grant Thornton Invitational, the first comingling of the PGA TOUR and LPGA Tour since 1999, game recognized game. The top women marveled at players they’d seen only on TV. The top men were wowed by the accuracy of their partners. There were laughs and high-fives, the takeaway being that golf looked like fun.

“I hope a lot of juniors who are either here or watching on the TV get inspired,” said Lydia Ko, who with Jason Day took a two-shot lead into Sunday’s Modified Four-ball, in which both players teed off before switching balls for their second shots, then playing that ball until holed.

Ko and Day (66, 26 under) pulled away at the par-5 17th hole as Ko, using Day’s drive, hit a stellar 3-wood that found the green to set up a two-putt birdie from 15 feet.

Canadians Corey Conners and Brooke Henderson (63) finished second.

Although the Grant Thornton is an unofficial event, the winners got $500,000 each, making this one of the biggest purses on the LPGA Tour outside of the majors.

The final-round format, with two balls in play per team, made for twice as many birdie chances, but Sunday brought windier conditions at Tiburón Golf Club.

Ko and Day stalled with a 2-under front nine, while Henderson and Conners made a double and two eagles, including Conners’ hole-out from the ninth fairway, for a 4-under 32. When they birdied 10 and 12, it was tied at the top. Swedes Ludvig Åberg and Madelene Sagström joined them at 24 under par when Sagström eagled 17 from long range.

Sagström and Åberg (60) ran out of holes, while Henderson and Conners failed to birdie the par-5 17th. That left Ko and Day needing to birdie just one of the last four holes.

Befitting its December date, the tournament was equal parts business and pleasure. The players mostly didn’t do team uniforms but did do nicknames (Tony Finau + Nelly Korda = Team FiNelly). Among the fans Sunday was a white-bearded man with a Santa hat and tattoos on his calves, who wished Ko good luck as she was shuttled to the back of the driving range.

The tournament’s 16 mixed teams had, truth be told, mixed motivations. Day said he was working on things for 2024 but wanted to win now. Ko said, “I think the outcome and result is secondary,” but after Round 1 she practiced until dusk, and after Round 2 she worked on the practice green amid the din of a rock concert on the driving range.

With their final-round tee time approaching, Ko’s caddie ignored the balls whizzing past him as placed eight cones in a line in front of her, using a rangefinder to place them. Day’s caddie came over to get samples of the kind of ball Day would be hitting into and around the greens.

You don’t get this far – each player has been world No. 1 – without a burning desire to win.

Ko, 26, has 19 LPGA victories, including two majors. Although she’s had a bit of a lackluster year, she won three times last season and was Player of the Year again. At Tiburón, Day raved to his inner circle about how good she is, especially “under the pump.”

“It felt like the most stress-free win,” Day joked, after the final putt. “I just knew she would step up in the end, which was fantastic”

He would know. Day, 36, won five times including the PGA Championship in 2015, and tacked on three more victories, including THE PLAYERS Championship, in ’16. All told he racked up 10 TOUR titles in a three-year stretch, reaching world No. 1 in the process.

After a long dry spell, he returned to the winner’s circle with a victory at the AT&T Byron Nelson this year – his 13th TOUR win – and finished 28th in the FedExCup.

Ko said Day was only the fourth PGA TOUR player she’s played with, and the most impressive.

Still, other teams enjoyed a similar rapport.

Joel Dahmen and Sahith Theegala, paired with world No. 1 Lilia Vu (Dahmen) and Rose Zhang (Theegala), already an LPGA Tour winner at age 20, were almost in awe of their partners.

“I’ve never played with a No. 1 player in the world,” Theegala said after he and Zhang shot 14-under 58 in the (scramble format) first round. “Now I’ve played with two, the current No. 1 and the former No. 1 amateur golfer for so long and probably a future No. 1.

“Me and Joel were joking Lilia and Rose will be better than maybe we ever will be,” he added.

Zhang, who shares the same trainer as Theegala, shook her head.

“I doubt that,” she said.

Åberg and Sagström are connected by not just a flag but also Jack Clarke, Åberg’s caddie and Sagström’s fiancé. They also share the same coach, Hans Larsson.

“I used to have you as the background picture on my phone for a bit,” Sagstrom said to Åberg. “The impact position, like, with an iron? I was like, ‘I need this in my life.’”

That was a common refrain at the Grant Thornton, the feel-good event we didn’t know we needed.

“Now that I think about it,” Theegala said, speaking for many, “this should have happened sooner.”