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As the ANA Inspiration celebrates its golden anniversary this week, Golfweek caught up with the incomparable Judy Rankin, who as a past champion and Golf Channel analyst, knows and appreciates the totality of this event—from start to present—better than anyone.
The ANA turns 50 this year. You won the fifth edition of the event. What’s your favorite memory from your victory here in 1976?
I think just winning because I had sort of taken up the feeling that the actual winning of it was for somebody else. I think around the last three holes, I finally was slapping myself in the face and saying somebody has to win this, and it might as well be you. I birdied the 15th hole which kind of got me going pretty well, and then I hit a really good long iron into 16. But you have to understand, 15 and 16 were different holes than they are today. … There have been tweaks and re-dos over a lot of years. Not everything was exactly the way you see it today, but regardless, I won it on a really difficult day. It was very cold and very windy. I think I shot 68 in the final round. I was pretty happy with the round that day. I was just overwhelmed to have won it.
If jumping into Poppie’s Pond had been a thing back then, what kind of jump would we have seen from you?
It was so cold I would’ve needed a wet suit. I don’t think it would’ve been anything glamorous or very funny. I think I’d have just jumped. At this point right now, I’m glad we weren’t jumping in those days.
LPGA golfer Judy Rankin. (Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
How important has this event been to the LPGA since Day 1?
So important. I can’t even tell you. It was, I think, the real catalyst for the mid 70s and the way the LPGA started to be recognized and treated. An awful lot of it was the tournament, an awful lot of it was a really good golf course, but at the time a very young golf course. And the icing on the cake was when Dinah came on after a couple years. Dinah had so much respect in her industry that it seemed like she brought that respect to our industry. She was just wonderful.
For those who came along after Dinah Shore, how would you describe her?
She was warm and smiling and encouraging. She was such a fan of the players. She took up golf because of us and really became kind of an addict, a fanatic. I still have my cookbook that says she’d teach me how to cook if I’d teach her how to play. As famous as she was or not, you would really like to know her.
Does the LPGA need a modern-day Dinah?
I don’t think it would hurt. It’s not something I’ve thought about a lot. At that time, a name like Dinah Shore opened a lot of doors. Anything that gets eyes on how good these players are today is a worthy experiment.
The 18th will go back to its island roots this week with no wall or grandstand. How tough was that hole in its original island form?
It was never a two-shot hole for us, certainly not for me. I do remember a player or two who hit the green in two, but I don’t know if we played an alternate tee or not. To tell you the truth I can’t remember. … When we played it, at least initially, there was a much bigger driving area. It was just before the corner, where the water sticks out to the left. Initially, the tee shot at 18 was not as hard as I see as it is now.
Over time they started tightening that area and then adding bunkers on the right. As years went by, it kept becoming a more difficult driving hole. In our case, if you go back to the first several years, the key was really the layup. If you laid it up in trouble, there were bunkers to the right and the rough was thick. The layup was kind of tough. I cannot tell you how many times we played that hole, where if you got there in three it was a miracle. It was that long. I’ve hit a 3-wood into that green and it wasn’t my second shot.
The 18th hole at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course, host of the ANA Inspiration. (Photo: Desert Sun)
How important is it that the ANA Inspiration stays at Mission Hills?
I know there could be another great tournament. But this is the signature golf course for this time of year, right ahead of the Masters. I do think something would be lost. But I would also say that in this professional golf thing, longstanding places, this tour, the PGA Tour, sometimes areas run their course. Sometimes the volunteers have volunteered so many times and they just don’t have it in them anymore. It’s just a fact of life. It’s not anybody’s fault. I hope that’s not happening here, but I think it’s going to be a very hard championship without fans.
What’s been your favorite ANA finish as a broadcaster?
In my recent memory, as much as I like Inbee, I was holding my breath for Pernilla Lindberg. She had just stood up to the pressure so well.
The leaderboard last week at the Kia was packed with big names. Who’s your dark horse for this week?
You know who I think should play well? Minjee Lee. She was playing just well enough last week, and I always think that she’s going to explode on a difficult golf course. Last week she was showing tremendous length off the tee.
Michelle Wie West during her practice round ahead of the KIA Classic at the Aviara Golf Club on March 23, 2021 in Carlsbad, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Michelle Wie recently came back on tour as a mom. You won all 26 of your titles after son Tuey was born. What’s the best part about life on tour as a mom, and do you think Michelle Wie can enjoy another chapter of success?
Based on what I saw last week of her golf game, I would say yes. But based on what I know of last year’s history, I would say I don’t have a clue. She’s always been somewhat of a mystery to me. It seemed like she came back with a little bit of her old style, her old swing, which I sure liked seeing. …. I thought she made a lot of swings that were gorgeous.
We didn’t have daycare or any of those things. Juli Inkster talks about having her kids sleep in the closet in the hotel room. The best part about it is when you survive it and you’re somewhat successful and your kids are out there with you. Because as much time as you don’t spend with them playing, you spend more quality time with them on the road than you would at home. … There’s a lot of hard things, but make no mistake there’s a lot of perks.
This is the final major with LPGA commissioner Mike Whan. What are your must-have qualities for whoever comes next?
I’m not the first person who has said this, but he’s going to be very hard to follow. You have to be a high-energy person. Going to have to smile easily, draw people in right away because of the warmth. He or she might talk just a fraction slower than Mike. I think we need a high-energy marketer who really believes in this product.
This would not be a good job for somebody who is trying to find some sort of ladder of success in the business world. You’ve got to have your heart in this job.