Desert Defenders: Failing to Defend Happens More Often Than You Think

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Jon Rahm holds the trophy after his win at The American Express in La Quinta, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023.

Will he or won’t he?

Will Jon Rahm return to the Coachella Valley to defend his American Express title in January, or will he instead skip defending his title and join the LIV tour for what is said to be a tremendous amount of money?

While the tour and the desert tournament wait for an announcement from Rahm, it’s possible that Rahm will become the second consecutive golfer to not defend his American Express title by jumping to the LIV tour.

But the desert and its golf events, both PGA and LPGA, have seen several champions not defend their titles locally for reasons other than injury, the most common reason for missing a defense.

For instance:

Jin Young Ko (2020 ANA Inspiration)

Ko was the new star of the LPGA when she played in the LPGA’s major championship in Rancho Mirage in 2019, winning her first major title and securing her spot as the No. 1 player in women’s golf. But something unexpected happened to prevent her from defending the title in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the major from the last week of March to the middle of September. While plenty of golfers managed to make it to Mission Hills Country Club for the September tournament, many Korean players, including Ko, decided not to return to the United States for most if not all of the revamped 2020 schedule. She decided instead to stay in South Korea and not fight the travel restrictions of moving from one country to another during the first year of the pandemic. Oddly, Ko won another major in 2019, the Evian Championship, but did not defend that title in 2020 because that tournament was just canceled.

Jin Young Ko of South Korea tees off on one during round two of the Chevron Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Friday, April 1, 2022.Jin Young Ko of South Korea tees off on one during round two of the Chevron Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Friday, April 1, 2022.
Jin Young Ko of South Korea tees off on one during round two of the Chevron Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Friday, April 1, 2022.

Hudson Swafford (2023 American Express)

Swafford was a good player on the PGA Tour, with the 2022 American Express being his third PGA Tour victory. The first of his wins also came at The American Express in 2017. While Swafford was a decent player, he was not the marquee, major championship-winning kind of player most people associated with jumping to the new rival LIV tour. But when the list of LIV golfers came out that spring, Swafford was one of the names alongside Phil Mickelson and other stars. When Swafford played in the first LIV tournament in London that June, he along with the other PGA Tour members in the field were suspended by the PGA Tour. That meant he didn’t get a shot at a third American Express win in 2023.

Patricia Meunier-LeBouc (2004, Kraft Nabisco Championship)

There was no suspension or pandemic that stopped Meunier-LeBouc from defending her LPGA major title in Rancho Mirage. Instead, it was a far more common reason for members of the LPGA: She was having a baby. Meunier-LeBouc won the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship in her first start in Rancho Mirage, edging out the top player in women’s golf, Annika Sorenstam. Soon though, Meunier-LeBouc announced she was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter in February of 2003, weeks away from the LPGA major. She decided she would not be ready to play and defend her title. She returned to the tournament in 2005 and played in Rancho Mirage five more times.

Jesper Parnevik (2001 American Express)

Pregnancy is a common reason for missing tournaments, but not always for men. But in 2001, it was a pregnancy that stopped Jesper Parnevik from defending his American Express title. Parnevik had won the 2000 event at Bermuda Dunes Country Club by a single shot over Rory Sabbatini. By the time the 2001 event rolled around, Parnevik was in Florida waiting for the birth of one of his children. It didn’t help that The American Express was a five-day tournament at the time, meaning the first round was on Wednesday. The baby didn’t come early and Parnevik eventually withdrew from the tournament, becoming the first golfer not to defend in Bob Hope’s old tournament.

Other golfers have been on the verge of not defending their local titles but managed to make the first tee on the first day. Grace Park won the 2006 Kraft Nabisco but severe back pain nearly forced her out of the event in 2007. Somehow she played and finished fifth. Juli Inkster’s first tournament in 1989 was the defense of her 1988 Nabisco title, 11 weeks after giving birth. Inkster still contended in Rancho Mirage and finished 11th.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Jon Rahm could join list of PGA, LPGA golfers who didn’t defend Palm Springs area titles

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