Alexa Pano, former Netflix documentary star, fulfills prodigy label with first LPGA win
Alexa Pano gave herself a heck of a 19th birthday present, rallying on Sunday to win her first LPGA title at the ISPS Handa World Invitational.
The ISPS Handa World Invitational marks the end of the LPGA's European swing, with the women’s tournament in Northern Ireland co-sanctioned by the LPGA and Ladies European Tour and played concurrently with a DP World Tour men’s event. Both men and women competed for separate $1.5 million prize money payouts in Galgorm Castle. Here's how Alexa Pano won the women's side with a birdie on the third playoff hole after shooting a closing six-under 66.
Alexa Pano, -8 (closing 66)
Gabriella Cowley, -8 (70)
Esther Henseleit, -8 (69)
Ryann O'Toole, -7 (70)
What it means
Pano turned 19 on Sunday, but she’s a name golf fans have heard of for a decade now after having the early days of her junior golf career chronicled in the Netflix documentary “The Short Game” while competing at the U.S. Kids World Golf Championship at Pinehurst. Subsequently, she qualified three times for the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National and was the youngest participant in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019.
Alexa Pano, age 7, and Allan Kournikova in "The Short Game." (Photo courtesy Phase 4 Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Rather than play college golf, Pano turned pro in 2022 and earned an LPGA card in Q Series last fall. This was her 12th start of the 2023 season, and with her father, Rick, on the bag, Pano made her first top-15 finish of her rookie season was also her first career victory. She’s the youngest winner on tour this year, taking that title from Rose Zhang, and the eighth first-time winner on the LPGA in 2023.
"I've kind of been saying that I really wanted to win this event because it's on my birthday. My best friend can contest it's been for like two months. It feels so surreal that it's happened." —Alexa Pano
How it happened
Pano played an impressive final round at Galgorm Castle, but she got a little help along the way. For much of the day, it looked like LPGA veteran Ryann O’Toole was going to run away with the title, the 2021 Trust Golf Women's Scottish Open winner jumping out to a three-stroke lead after an eagle on the par-5 10th hole to get to nine under. O'Toole would be the only player to reach nine under.
The smooth sailing for the American ended on No. 13, the short par 4, when O'Toole made the only double bogey on the hole all day, dropping into a tie with Pano at seven under. O'Toole missed two putts inside five feet on the 15th and 17th for dispiriting bogeys. Even still, O'Toole had a chance on the final hole.
Pano started the day four off the lead at two under, displaying resilience by responding to a bogey with a birdie twice on the back nine. She stepped up to the tee on the par-5 18th, having birdied all three par 5s beforehand. A stress-free up-and-down from the greenside fringe for her ninth birdie of the round gave Pano the clubhouse lead at eight under.
Still, all three players in the final group—Esther Henseleit, O'Toole, and Cowley, stepped to the 18th tee with opportunities to catch Pano. Birdies on the 15th and 17th meant Henseleit needed a birdie on the last to get to eight under. O'Toole and Cowley needed eagles.
All three reached the closing 443-yard par 5 in two. Henseleit two-putted from 45 feet, Cowley hammered home a 30-footer to match Pano. O'Toole’s 10-foot eagle putt skimmed the left side to settle for fourth place.
Henseleit, Cowley and Pano went back to the 18th to begin the playoff, the seventh on tour this season, with all three searching for their first LPGA victory. Henseleit exited after missing a 15-foot birdie bid from the fringe on the first playoff hole. Pano and Cowley returned to the 18th after they both birdied.
Pano's drive missed wide right into the trees, forcing her to chip out and give Cowley a decisive advantage. Cowley, 208 yards to the flag, put her approach on the front of the green, leaving 60 feet for her third eagle look of the day. Cowley nestled the putt to four feet short of the cup. Pano settled for a two-putt par. The Englishwoman, who had not made a cut in her previous 11 career starts on the LPGA, pulled her chance to win as the ball barely grazed the left edge of the hole. They returned to the 18th again.
Pano took advantage of the birthday gift from Cowley, finding the fairway and then knocking her approach to the center of the green pin high. Cowley missed the 18th green for the first time Sunday, with her chip setting up a 15-foot birdie chance. Pano two putt for birdie to force Cowley to make it to extend the playoff. Cowley missed wide right.
By the numbers
Pano earned $225,000 for her victory. Previously she had made just $33,548 on the LPGA Tour.
Best of the rest
Azahara Munoz, 35, posted her first top 10 since a T-2 at the 2020 Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open with a closing six-under 66, and Munoz's best result since having her son Lucas in February 2022.
The 14-year tour veteran posted only one bogey Sunday in her charge up the leaderboard from T-16 to T-6, moving her back into the top 100 of CME points.
"I feel like I needed something like this," Munoz said. "I've been playing well but not getting things going. This definitely really helps."
Another first-time winner
Daniel Brown's wire-to-wire win proved far less eventful on the men's side. His six-shot lead over Alex Fitzpatrick, brother of 2022 U.S. Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick, was cut to three at one point after making three straight bogeys on Nos. 11-13. But Brown, 28, rebounded with birdies on the 14th and 15th to reclaim control, paying off a 64-66-67-69 week for his first DP World Tour victory.