Clutch Performance of the Year
And the Winner Is: Lydia Ko, CN Canadian Women’s Open Final Round
There were several great performances this year in the heat of battle, but Ko’s back nine in Vancouver was the very best. To some degree, Ko did not have as much pressure on her as the pros did. Even if she had collapsed and only managed a top five, most people would have called it a wildly successful week. Doubtless she would have gone home satisfied.
But on the other hand, Ko had been among the leaders for the first three days of the event. The buzz around her grew the first two days, then exploded on Saturday. By Sunday, no joke, she had at least 10,000 people following her and rooting her to victory. There’s no question in my mind that she was feeling at least some pressure to deliver the closer she got to pulling off the historic win. And on Sunday, the pros were not going to roll over and play dead. Several Major winners and other strong players were breathing down her neck, so that, by the turn, she was tied at the top, any advantage she had previously possessed long gone.
But then, at the exact moment when you might expect she would falter, she did what all transcendent talents do: she found another gear that perhaps even she herself didn’t know she had. And at that point, she treated the fans to one of the most unforgettable displays of golf brilliance they would ever see. The girl who only two weeks before had struggled to beat an amateur named Jay Marie Green at the US Women’s Amateur suddenly found herself lapping several of the best players in the game, including world’s #2 Stacy Lewis and former world #1 Jiyai Shin, both of whom were playing in her group.
So what did she do? Made birdie on the par 5 tenth hole after reaching the green in 2. Followed that with a second birdie on 11. Then a great tee shot on the par-3 12th hole for another birdie, and yet another birdie on 13. After barely missing a birdie on 14, she drained a fifth birdie on the back nine on the 15th hole. By then, it was game over. In just a few holes she had decisively seized the crown, shot the lowest round of the day, and become the youngest winner in the tour’s history. Her glove from that round went on to be displayed at the World Golf Hall of Fame, where, all indications are, she will someday be joining it as an official inductee.
Na Yeon Choi, back nine at US Women’s Open
Choi’s back nine at the US Women’s Open was a wonder. She had the tournament well in hand, made a major mistake to put herself in jeopardy, made a birdie to recover, made another big mistake and recovered, and had a massive lucky break that she took full advantage of, all in the space of 4 holes. A lesser player might have been a quivering wreck at the end of all that, but Choi maintained her composure, toughed out the rough stuff, and walked off with her first Major win.
The main reason I chose Ko over Choi is that Choi was never seriously threatened on Sunday. Yes, it was possible that Choi could have beaten herself, and overcoming your own demons is one of the toughest things to do. But other than Amy Yang, who briefly was within a couple of shots, no other player had a realistic chance of beating her. She didn’t face the massive constant threat to her title chances that Ko had to overcome in Vancouver. So, without doubt a great clutch performance, but only an honorable mention to Ko!
Inbee Park, putting at the Evian Masters
As mentioned previously, Inbee Park had an unfortunate tendency to let wins slip through her fingers in 2012. At the Evian, she was playing brilliantly entering Sunday’s action, but faced a gaggle of inspired opponents who were pulling off all sorts of amazing shots to put the pressure on her. At one point, both Karrie Webb and Shanshan Feng made unlike final hole shots to move into contention, amateur star Hyo Joo Kim threatened to make history by winning the event, and Stacy Lewis, who had dogged Park all day, made a final hole eagle as well. Making Park’s job even tougher was the fact that she had not won on the LPGA tour in four years.
But none of that mattered, because Park was having, simply put, the most jaw-droppingly brilliant putting week I have ever witnessed. In the end she put together only 98 putts over four days, which is pretty much off the charts. And it was her flat stick that time and time again saved her on Sunday, a day when she needed only 22 putts for her round. For instance, after putting herself in severe danger of dropping a shot or two on the 14th hole, she drilled a cross-green par saving wonder that had to be seen to be believed. She followed that with birdies on 16 and 17, and then, needing only a two putt to win, drilled a longish birdie on 18 as well. Her final round 66 showed that she still knew how to rise to the occasion and get the job done even under the most stressful of circumstances.
And the Winner Is: IK Kim missed putt at Nabisco
So much has been written about the bizarre, almost inconceivable way that In Kyung Kim lost the Kraft Nabisco, that it’s hard to know what to add to it. Like it or not, it became one of the most talked about moments in women’s golf in 2012. Kim’s miscue was fodder for sports talk shows that normally would never mention the LPGA. Even several PGA stars and legends took the time to talk about it. PGA legend Gary Player said:
“I don’t often watch golf, but on Sunday, I watched this lady miss a putt that long (gesturing one foot in length). She could knock it in at midnight; she could knock it in blindfolded; she could knock it in at with one hand; she could kick it in and she missed the putt. I pray that that doesn’t have an effect on it, but that could. That could ruin her career. That’s possible. I don’t say it will, but it’s possible. My heart bled for her.”
Bubba Watson, who won the Masters shortly after the Kraft, admitted that even he was careful to take extra time on short putts to avoid imitating Kim’s unfortunate mistake.
For those who somehow are reading this but do not recall what happened, a brief recap. In Kyung Kim, one of the shining stars of the Korean golf world, has for some years been putting up great results in Majors. She is indeed one of the players who contends most often in the big events. But for all her success, she had never won a Major. At the 2012 Kraft Nabisco, however, it looked as though her time had finally come. During a crazy Sunday which saw first Karin Sjodin, then Hee Kyung Seo, seize the lead only to falter, Kim kept playing well and stayed in contention. On 17, she drilled a beautiful birdie putt to take the lead with one hole to play. She reached the 18th green in regulation, lagged her putt to within a foot, and had that simple tap in to claim a one shot victory and her first Major. And then, the unthinkable: she missed the putt that could not be missed. Shell shocked, she went on to lose the title in a playoff against fellow Korean Sun Young Yoo.
How much of a disappointment was this? Simply put, it’s hard to think of any other Korean loss in history that was more stunning than this. There have been bummers before, of course. Se Ri Pak had the lead and a chance to at last win the Kraft back in 2007, but stumbled mightily and allowed Morgan Pressel to win instead. But Pak was still far from having the title in hand when she started her downfall. Then there was the 2003 British Open, where Pak made a couple of key mistakes in a head to head battle against Annika Sorenstam, and it was her Swedish rival who won the crown. Even there, Pak did not have the title locked up at any point during the final day, despite playing brilliantly.
What stung so much about Kim’s miss, and what made it in my opinion the biggest disappointment in Korean golf history, is simply this: she had this tournament won. In the bag. There was no one who could beat her, no superstar who was going to suddenly rear up and steal the prize. All she had to do was something she could literally do in her sleep, a formality, almost a gimme. She hit the putt well, took her time, was not rushed. She should not have missed. But she did.
Adding another level of disappointment to the miss was the fact that it happened to IK Kim. Kim is perhaps the single Korean golfer most overdue a Major win, given how well she has played those events over the years. And with the extreme generosity she showed in her most recent win before the Kraft, where she gave her entire paycheck to charity, she was karma-wise the most deserving.
But none of that matters. All that mattered is that she missed the unmissable putt, and she may forever be known as the golfer who did that. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and though she seems to have bounced back from it, she has yet to win since that moment. The only thing that could make this most unfortunate incident worse would be if it did, as Gary Player feared, ruin her career. I think all golf fans hope and believe that IK Kim is made of sterner stuff, and that she will have many years in the sun to help her forget her moment of despair.
Seo meltdown at Nabisco
Lost in the incredible cataclysm that was Kim’s missed putt at the Nabisco was the fact that another Seoul Sister, Hee Kyung Seo, had just a few holes earlier taken a three shot lead and looked poised to claim a Major title. She had famously grabbed a Sunday night lead at the rain plagued 2011 US Women’s Open, with only three golfers in the field who still could catch her and deny her the win. Alas, it was the last of these, So Yeon Ryu, who did just that, making a final hole birdie to tie her, then beating her in a three hole Monday playoff.
So when Seo just a few months later seized the lead with four holes to play at the Nabisco, it looked like she might kill a few lingering demons from her loss in Colorado. Alas, it was not to be: she made bogey on her final four holes and finished tied for 4th.
Seo + Ryu both three putt on final hole at the Australian Ladies Open
Two former KLPGA superstars led the Australian Ladies Open much of the week. When they reached the final hole, they were tied for the lead, one shot ahead of four other players. They both reached the green in regulation and had around 20 foot birdie putts. If either one made those putts, they had the win. They both missed. They were left with three-foot par saves. Again, if either one made those putts, they could do no worse than a playoff with each other. They both missed. There was a six way playoff, and neither one claimed the title in the end.
Seo had 11 KLPGA wins and 1 LPGA win. Ryu had 7 KLPGA wins, the US Women’s Open crown, and had almost won in Australia the previous week. They both three putted the final green and lost to a player who had never had even one top ten on the LPGA before that week. Golf is a wild game sometimes.
Seo, Inbee and Chella lose to Lang at Manulife
The Manulife Financial LPGA Classic should have been a win for the Koreans. Regulation ended with three Koreans tied for the lead with one American. The Koreans were the aforementioned star Hee Kyung Seo; Inbee Park, who would go on to win the Vare Trophy for low scoring average in 2012; and Chella Choi, who had several near misses for wins in 2012. So Yeon Ryu, the LPGA Rookie of the Year, finished just one shot behind them.
But the player who won was Brittany Lang, an American who had never won an LPGA event before. In fact, no player from Duke had EVER won an LPGA event before Lang’s win in Ontario. But even with all that history on the Koreans’ side, even with the three-to-one nature of the playoff, it was Lang who walked off with the trophy and the Koreans who would have to wait to win another day.
Se Ri injured at Mobile by falling down stairs
Se Ri Pak could not catch a break in 2012. Despite playing really well when she was healthy, she seemed to be struggling against some sort of voodoo curse the rest of the time. Perhaps the nadir came in Alabama. She was there to play at an LPGA event when, while walking down a flight of stairs at the clubhouse, she tripped and fell. She grabbed onto a railing to catch herself and injured her shoulder. She would struggle with that injury the rest of the year. It caused her to miss several big events, including the Jamie Farr Classic, which she had won five previous times.
Bo Mee Lee misses out on tour card at Mizuno Classic
Bo Mee Lee had a great year on the Japanese tour, finishing second on the money list and winning three times, but it was almost an even better year. She shot a second round 64 at the Mizuno Classic, the annual JLPGA/LPGA co-sanctioned event, and held the lead going into the final round. A win would grant her a card for 2013 on the LPGA tour. But Player of the Year-to-be Stacy Lewis shot a ridiculously good final round, Lee struggled, and Lewis overcame a seven shot deficit to win the title and the Player of the Year award. Lee would not be joining the LPGA in 2013 after all.
Most Dominating Performance
And the Winner is: Jiyai Shin, Women’s British Open
There was not a more difficult event on the LPGA tour in 2012 than the Ricoh Women’s British Open. Played in mid-September in Liverpool, the weather conditions ranged from tough to really tough to ridiculous. High winds, cold weather, horizontal rain, sudden sun and even benign conditions – the women never knew what they would be hit with next.
The player who ended up winning that week, Jiyai Shin, was probably not the favorite going in. Yes, she had won the previous week, but that was after a nine-hole playoff that had forced her to arrive a day later than almost everyone else. She would only be able to play 9 practice holes before the tournament started. And she was still recovering from surgery that had sidelined her much of the summer.
But boy, once Shin got going, there was no stopping her. She took advantage of decent conditions on Saturday to shoot a 64, good for a five shot lead. But thanks to a cancellation of play on Friday, the final day would consist of 36 holes, and the conditions much of that day were as brutal as can be imagined.
Still, Shin persevered, shooting a 71 in the morning to hang on to a three shot lead over Karrie Webb. In the afternoon, just a few minutes after she had finished her morning round, the conditions took a turn for the worse. She made a triple bogey on her very first afternoon hole, but luckily for her, Webb had made double minutes earlier, and Shin maintained her lead.
Jiyai responded to the setback by playing the rest of the round so well, it’s hard to imagine she was even dealing with the same conditions as the other women. As a result, her lead grew and grew, eventually reaching double digits with a few holes to play. In the end, she carded a final round 73 for a nine under total and nine shot win over Inbee Park. It was the largest margin of victory since the event had become a Major in 2001, and one of the most dominating performances in LPGA history.
So Yeon Ryu, Jamie Farr Toledo Classic
Ryu started the day tied for the lead with three other Korean stars, but after a 9 under par 62, Ryu cruised to a seven shot smoking of the rest of the field. For the record: Ryu’s 62 tied the all time LPGA record for lowest final round that won a tournament. The other four players who co-hold that record are all Hall of Famers. Not bad company to be in!
Na Yeon Choi, US Women’s Open
After her third round brilliance at last year’s US Women’s Open, it might have seemed like Choi winning her first Major would be a formality. It was not; she struggled against her nerves in a roller coaster back nine, but in the end still dominated the proceedings with a four shot victory.
Hyo Joo Kim, Lotte Open, KLPGA (9 shot win)
As mentioned before (see ‘Best Breakthrough’), Hyo Joo Kim’s total destruction of a field of KLPGA professionals at the Lotte Mart Women’s Open was hands down the most overwhelming win of 2012. But because it did not happen in a Major, against the superstars Shin had to overcome, and with the weather challenges Shin faced, it only gets a runner-up finish in this category to Shin’s triumph.
Koreans win three of four Majors, Evian Masters and CME Titleholders
Never before have the Koreans done so well at the biggest events on the LPGA tour. In 2012, they won three of the year’s four Majors, capturing the second place in each of those events as well. In addition, they won two of the most important non-Majors on tour, the Evian Masters and the CME Group TitleHolders Tour Championship. The Koreans have never even come close to achieving that level of dominance in a single calendar year in the big events.