With a three-over 74 at the LPGA’s Volunteers of America Classic on Friday, Lee-Anne Pace likely played the final round of her professional career. The 38-year-old South African has struggled with pain and stiffness in her body in 2019, her missed cut at the Old American Golf Club outside Dallas after an opening-round 76 marking the eighth time in 16 starts that she’s failed to play the weekend. She is outside the top 130 on the money list, which means she’s not eligible for any of the remaining five events on the LPGA schedule and must compete in the LPGA Q Series to earn full playing privileges for 2020.
Rather than go quietly into retirement, however, Pace will be anxiously watching LPGA leader boards the next few weeks to see if she can hold on to one impressive going-away gift.
While Pace’s total results in tournaments have been disappointing (just two top-50 finishes), her individual results on certain holes have been outstanding. So much so that she holds the lead in the season-long Aon Risk Reward Challenge, a competition that concludes in November at the CME Group Tour Championship and offers the winner a $1 million prize. That’s big money for a player who in six full seasons on the LPGA Tour (complete with one win in 2014) made a little more than $1.7 million.
The Aon Challenge began this season on the LPGA and PGA Tours, Brooks Koepka earning the title for the men when they wrapped up their season in August. Each week a hole is picked based on its strategic challenge. Players’ two best scores on the hole are recorded, with the best average score to par earning the title and the cash.
Pace entered this week at -.792. The next four in the standings are Carlota Ciganda (-.775), Ariya Jutanugarn (-.773), Hyo Joo Kim (-.714) and Lydia Ko (-.667).
“I’d shoot like 80 but still birdie this hole,” Pace told Golfweek’s Beth Ann Nichols. “It was bizarre. It would be like the most difficult putt ever and I’d make it.”
If not for this unique competition, Pace, who won nine times on the Ladies European Tour before playing full-time in the U.S., would have stepped away from the game earlier this year. But her sister alerted her to the fact that she was in first place and that in order to win she had to play in a total of 40 rounds. Her rounds in Texas this week were the last ones needed to be officially eligible.
There was a minor controversy a few weeks ago when Pace withdrew in the first round from the CP Women’s Open in August. That meant her scores were wiped out, which was a good thing since she made a 9 on that week’s Challenge hole. Pace insisted the injury was genuine and not something to void the bad score.
Subsequently, Pace was diagnosed with Maignes Syndrome, which can lead to pain in and around the core when twisting your torso and will likely require surgery to relieve. But the chance at earning the $1 million prize was too much to pass up.
“I definitely do think about it,” Pace told the New York Times recently. “Money’s never been a motivation for me, if that makes sense, but everyone’s really going on about it at home. It’s super important because it can change my life.”
It had been five weeks since Pace last played in a tournament before competing this week in Texas. And she amazingly did it without her golf clubs, which had been lost in transit according to Golfweek. Equipment reps from Callaway and PXG helped put together and emergency set.
On this week’s Challenge hole, the 499-yard par-5 17th at Old American, Pace made two pars. Of her four closest pursuers, only Ho Yoo Kim was in this week’s field, but they all will all be competing in the limited-field Asia events in the coming weeks. Pace then will have to wait to see if any of them might pass her.
“It’s not going to help in any way to stress about it,” Pace told Golfweek. “If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. I shouldn’t be in this position anyway.”