Posted by: happyfan08 | April 4, 2012

It Had to Be Yoo?

Back in 1840, America celebrated the election of a war hero to the White House.  William Henry Harrison, known as ‘Tippecanoe’ for a victory against the Indians, was at the time the oldest man to ascend to the presidency.  He decided he wanted to do his inauguration in a big way, and gave an extremely long speech, outside, to the folks who had come to celebrate.  It might not have been the best idea.  He caught a cold during the speech that, over the next month, got worse and worse.  Just 41 days after he became president, Harrison died, and Vice President John Tyler found himself in the White House.  Nobody was particularly thrilled; even his own party kicked him out.  Tyler earned the unhappy nickname ‘His Accidency’, a play of words on ‘His Excellency’, owing to the utterly surprising and seemingly random way by which he had come to power.

Cut to 2012, and it’s another election year.  But this article is not about Republicans or Democrats, but rather women’s golf.  At the recently completed 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship, a pitched battle occurred on the final day to see who would come out on top and claim the year’s first Major.  Several players held the lead for a while, several others were a bit back.  But one player was consistent  all day.  In Kyung Kim finally seized the lead on the 17th hole after hanging tough all day, and it looked like she would cruise to the win.  She duly hit the green on 18, setting up a 20 foot birdie try.  She just missed that one, leaving herself a one foot long comebacker.  She carefully examined the hole, stepped up, and inexplicably missed the gimme putt, dropping into a tie for the lead with fellow Korean Sun Young Yoo.  One playoff hole later, Yoo was the champion, but in many ways she was as much an accidental Major champion as Tyler had been an accidental President.

In Kyung after missing a one foot putt to win the Nabisco

The Korean golfers had had a highly unusual 2012 season on the LPGA tour up to that time.  As detailed in the previous blog entry, they had had several great chances to win tournaments, but repeatedly fell just short.  On two separate occasions, Korean golfers even had the lead going into the final hole, only to have bizarre circumstances interfere with their trophy grabs.  Meanwhile, Taiwanese star Ya Ni Tseng took off where she left off last year, winning or coming darn close to doing so pretty much every time she teed it up.  She came into the Nabisco having won her two previous events, and it looked like another Major title would soon be in her hands.

Making things tougher for the Korean golfers is the fact that they have only won this particular Major once; they have at least three wins in every other Major.  Even Se Ri Pak, the greatest Seoul Sister of them all, has never won the Nabisco, although she has made it her number one goal for about a decade to do so.

Se Ri on day four. Another close call at the one Major she has yet to win

The first two days of the tournament went Tseng’s way, and by Friday evening she was not surprisingly in the lead.    There were a gaggle of Koreans on the leader board, though, something that is not usually the case at this event.  Top Sister was unheralded Haeji Kang, who was only a shot behind Tseng and would get the honor of going toe to toe with her on Saturday.  A shot behind her was Sun Young Yoo, while Pak and world’s #2 Na Yeon Choi were three shots back and three more Koreans were four back.

In round 3, the winds didn’t just blow, they howled, turning the course into an adventure even for the best players in the game.  Tseng was not able to mount any kind of big run, and Haeji Kang did herself proud by hanging with the game’s top player, even gaining three shots on her in a single hole when she made eagle on the par 5 11th.  At the end of the day, Tseng was still at the top at 9 under par, but tied with another obscure player, Karin Sjodin.  Sjodin’s main claim to fame is that she’s wicked long off the tee, and Mission Hills, where the Nabisco is played, is generally a great course for long hitters.  Kang was two back and still the top Korean.  But behind her were a who’s who of most of the top Korean golfers on the LPGA tour.  Three shots back were Hee Kyung Seo, the 2011 LPGA Rookie of the year;  3 time winner In Kyung Kim; 2009 US Women’s Open winner Eun Hee Ji; and Choi and Yoo.  Pak and Vicky Hurst were a shot behind them.  With all that Korean firepower, Tseng was going to have to get out to a strong start or risk being swamped.

Haeji Kang on day three

On Sunday, however, Tseng got out to an uncharacteristically weak start, bogeying her first hole and not making birdie on the par 5 second.  Within just a few holes, she found several golfers breathing down her neck.  Meanwhile, Sjodin, the co-leader, made eagle on 2 to seize the lead.  A few holes later, Sjodin’s lead stood at three strokes, and it looked like the virtually unknown Swede might pull off one of the biggest upsets of recent times.

But that pack of great Korean stars were hanging tough, and before long, one of them made a run up the leaderboard.  That player was Hee Kyung Seo, the glamorous star nicknamed the Fashion Model of the Fairways.  Seo had come achingly close to winning a Major last year, when she held the lead on Sunday evening at the US Women’s Open, only to see her arch rival So Yeon Ryu catch her and beat her in a playoff.  Ryu was having an off week, though, and Seo, who was playing with Ji and IK Kim on this day, was playing brilliant golf.  She birdied the second and fifth to move to 8 under, then, after missing a makeable birdie on the 7th, nailed a curving birdie putt on the par 5 9th to move to within a shot of Sjodin.  Meanwhile, Sjodin began to struggle, and Seo made back to back birdies on 11 and 12 to seize the lead by three shots.  After watching Ryu take the Open crown with caddie Dean Herden on her bag, Seo, who now employed Herden herself, was in the driver’s seat.  She had yet to make a bogey or any significant mistakes.

On day four, Hee Kyung Seo seized the lead at the Nabisco

The wheels started to come off for Seo on the crushingly hard 15th hole.  The par four was almost ridiculously narrow, and the accurate Seo hit a great looking drive that still somehow drifted right towards the trees.  She was sitting with a clear look at the flag, but her approach skipped over the green into the back bunker, where she was left with just about the hardest lie you could imagine.  Somehow she got it out of there, but could not save par.  Her first bogey of the day reduced her lead to one.

Hee Kyung on day four

While this was going on, Yoo had made her own birdie on 15, and quietly had climbed to 9 under, just a shot back.  Next, In Kyung Kim made a move on the 16th hole, claiming a birdie to also climb to 9 under.  Seo again struggled on that hole, making another bogey to also fall to 9 under.  When Sjodin climbed to 9 under, there were suddenly four golfers tied for the lead with just a few holes to go.

Unfortunately, Seo was never able to get back on track.  She continued to struggle, making bogies on her final two holes to fall to 7 under and an eventual tie for 4th.  Certainly a great result, but considering how close she was to getting the big prize, it was bound to feel like a crushing disappointment.

Meanwhile, In Kyung Kim hit a great tee shot on the par 3 17th, then drilled a beautiful 25 foot birdie putt to move to 10 under.  Sjodin and Seo fell back, and with one hole to play, Kim suddenly found herself in the lead for the first time all week, holding a one stroke lead over Yoo.  Normally, this would be great news.  But with the recent Korean propensity to cough up a sure win on the final hole, fans were keeping their fingers crossed that Kim would not do likewise.

Inky in round 4

Inky’s situation was hardly unexpected.  Year after year, she has been one of the strongest Koreans at Majors, and this week, she had surpassed even herself.  Her final round to that point had been flawless: 17 holes, 17 greens in regulation; 4 birdies, no bogies.  She was putting together one of the greatest final rounds in a Major in Korean golf history.  She was also coming off of two straight birdies.  Everything was pointing to glory.

Yoo made par on the last and finished at 9 under while Inky continued to charge.  She hit a great drive, laid up nicely, then put her third shot about 12 feet from the flag.  All she had to do was two putt and she almost certainly had the win.  The only person who could beat her if she made par was Tseng, who had just made birdie to move to 8 under.  But when Tseng landed her drive on 18 in a fairway bunker, she was no longer able to go for anything better than a birdie.  The entire tournament now came down to Kim and her putter.

She hit a great birdie try, narrowly missing the hole, and leaving herself a one footer for par.  And then disaster struck.  Even with all the bizarre ways the golf gods have snatched victory from the Koreans this year, the missed par save on 18 was far and away the most cruel.  It’s hard to comprehend how any pro golfer, let alone one who had been so strong all day, could have missed such a short putt.  But she hit it, and it horseshoed in and then out of the hole.  Kim was literally dumbstruck.  She tapped in the bogey and walked off the green in a daze.  Suddenly she was tied with Yoo, and Tseng could make birdie to join them in the playoff.  Tseng did have her chance, but narrowly missed the thirty foot birdie try, falling to the green in disbelief.

After the miss, Inky tried in vain to shut the world out

So Kim and Yoo wound up in a playoff, but to be honest, Inky was barely there.  She was lucky not to hit her drive into the water, and walked down the fairway, her face still painted with a look of utter shock.  Somehow she hit the green with her third, but Yoo got closer, and after Kim missed her birdie, Yoo drilled her own birdie putt to snatch the title out of Kim’s hands.

Yoo won the Major in a playoff

Yoo had played some great golf all day, but had never been in the lead until the second to last hole.  She also kept her head and performed brilliantly in the playoff.  Yoo has been underrated by most everyone for a long time, but she has quietly amassed a strong record since joining the LPGA tour in 2006 by snagging the last tour card from the previous year’s Futures Tour money list.  She proved her chops when she won the 2010 Sybase Match Play, beating some of the greatest golfers in the game in the process.  Among her victims that week were Tseng, then current number one player Jiyai Shin, and Cristie Kerr, who would also be #1 that season.  That is an impressive example of what Yoo is capable of when she gets going.

Yoo and her caddie taking the traditional victory jump in the lake

But as great as her week was, fair or not, she will always be looked at as ‘her Accidency’ whenever anyone recalls this year’s Nabisco.  Whoever said that history only remembers the winners was probably wrong in this instance.  Kim had simply played an immaculate four rounds of golf.  She has a far better record in Majors, has more career wins and has been a higher ranked player her entire career than Yoo.  And on that Sunday, she managed an amazing 19/19 greens in regulation, including one in the playoff.  But it all came down to one ridiculous, inexplicable missed putt, arguably the most painful missed opportunity not only for the Koreans, but perhaps in the history of women’s golf.

It’s a horrible way to make history, but Kim, as saddened as she was, was still happy that she had played so well, had scored her best ever finish in a Major, and seemed eager to get up off the matt and give it another go.  Here’s hoping this is the impetus for her to take her game to the next level, and that before long people will remember her not for the missed putt, but for the string of victories she achieved in its wake.

The most important putt didn't fall, but Inky is sure to be back!

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Responses

  1. […] It Had to Be Yoo? « SeoulSisters […]

  2. Both Hee Kyung Seo and IK Kim had really tough finishes at the KNC, but they and numerous other SeoulSisters played really well in the season’s first major, and, in the end, Sun Young Yoo, and not Yani Tseng as everyone had predicted, was making the champion’s leap into the pond.

    Hopefully, with the alleged jinx behind them, this will be just the beginning of a year of good results for Yoo and the other SeoulSisters.


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