Posted by: happyfan08 | July 9, 2013

A Tale of Two Opens

The past two weeks saw the playing of two of the most important women’s golf events of the year.  In Korea, the Korean Women’s Open was contested from June 20-23rd.  The following week, the US Women’s Open was played at Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island.  Both tournaments had fascinating stories, with the Korean Open title going to a newborn star, while the US Open title ended up with a woman in the process of making history.

The Kia Korean Women’s Open

The KLPGA tour has four Majors every year, but without question the most important of these is the Korean Women’s Open.  This event is usually contested in early summer and features the cream of the KLPGA crop and best amateurs in the country.  Among the great players who have recently won this event are Hee Kyung Seo, Soo Jin Yang, and the budding star Mirim Lee, who was the defending champion.

Coming into this event, the dominant player on tour in 2013 had been Ha Na Jang, who was in control of the money list and Player of the Year race.  Other top players who looked to contend included former champs Lee and Yang and Rookie superstar Hyo Joo Kim, who was trying to put a stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year race.  The top star of the past two years, Ha Neul Kim, has struggled in 2013, and was hoping to get on track again.

But by the end of the second round, it was another up-and-coming rookie who sat in the lead: In Gee Chun.  The 18-year-old had been a teammate of Kim’s on the Korean National team, but being a little older, she had turned pro last year and played on a developmental tour to hone her game.  Now a full-fledged KLPGA rookie, she told the press her top goal was to win the Rookie of the Year this year.  After shooting a 68-69 over the first two days, she sat at 7 under total and alone in the lead.  But Kim was among those just a couple of shots back, and the stage was set for a battle of teen stars.

In Gee Chun during round 2 of the Korean Women’s Open

The story got even more interesting after Saturday’s action was complete.  Yet another teenage former national team member, Kyu Jung Baek, vaulted over both Kim and Chun to take the third round lead.  Baek was not even a member of the KLPGA; she had only recently turned pro and was playing the Dream tour in 2013.  But she was in the field this week, and after a third round 67 held a one shot lead over Kim and Chun, who were tied for second.  The three teens would be paired in the final group on Sunday with the biggest event of the year on the line.  The future has arrived early!

Kyu Jung Baek took the third round lead at the Open

Hyo Joo Kim was enjoying herself during round 3

As it turned out, there was yet another rookie (not a teenager, a twenty year old.  How ancient!) who threw herself into the mix on Sunday.  So Yeon Park got out to a great start and took a several stroke lead by the turn.  Hyo Joo Kim, the most heralded rookie on tour since the days of Se Ri Pak, faltered on this day and faded to a tie for 6th.  That left Baek and Chun to try to catch Park.  But Baek parred out most of her final nine, not making birdie until the very last hole.  She finished third.

Kyu Jung Baek on the final day of the Open

Chun seemed similarly stalled most of her round.  By the 14th hole, she was still even for the day.  But then she kicked it into another gear, thrilling the crowd as she made birdie after birdie.  In fact, she made birdie on her final four holes, the last one giving her the one-shot win over Park.  Chun made a huge statement in front of her biggest rival for Rookie of the Year, on the biggest stage the Korean tour presents.  The Major winner broke down in tears at the trophy ceremony, thrilled she was able to capture the great victory.

In Gee Chun had a great finish to her first Major win

Chun was overcome with emotion during her trophy acceptance speech

Chun did not exactly come out of nowhere, however.  Besides her notable achievements as a member of the Korean national team, she had contended at a KLPGA Major before.  The tall teen (5’9”) entered the 2011 Hite Cup, the third Major of that season, and despite the presence of US Women’s Open champ So Yeon Ryu, took a big lead going into the final nine holes.  She was up by as much as four strokes and looked likely to become a Major champion, but suffered a major setback thanks to a triple bogey and a few other mistakes late.  Player of the Year Ha Neul Kim took advantage, grabbing the crown away at almost the last moment from the young star.

It didn’t take long for Chun to bounce back and get her Major trophy.  The win at the Korean Women’s Open came after a promising start to her season.  She notched her first great finish at the Woori Financial in May, a tie for 5th.  At the next event, the Doosan Match Play, she made it all the way to the final before losing to Ha Na Jang in a closely fought match.  Her next three finishes were all top 20s, preparing her for the win at the Open.

Will she be able to wrestle the Rookie of the Year award away from Hyo Joo Kim?  After the Open win, she was less than 100 points behind Kim.  At the least, Kim would have to work to get the award.  It ought to be interesting to see what these two talented teens do next!

In Gee Chun is a player to watch!

The US Women’s Open

The most important women’s golf event in the world without question is the US Women’s Open.  This year, it was contested at Sebonack on Long Island.  Amazingly, it was the first time a Women’s Open had ever been played on Long Island, and the first time any USGA event had occurred at this prestigious and beautiful new course.

The Koreans have done really well at this event in the past five years, collecting four titles and many other top ten finishes.  The defending champion, Na Yeon Choi, would be there trying to become the first Korean to repeat as champion.  But all eyes were on another Korean star, Inbee Park, who was riding an incredible wave of great golf.  Coming into the week, Park had won the two previous events on tour, and was looking to become the first Korean to ever win three straight LPGA events (not even Se Ri Pak has managed that feat).    More amazingly, she had also won the first two Majors on tour in 2013, and looked to become only the fourth woman ever to win three in a season.  In fact, only one woman had ever won the first three Majors of any season, and that was Babe Zaharias back in 1950, the first year the LPGA existed.  Needless to say, all eyes were on Park to see if she could pull off the historic feat.

Na Yeon Choi won the Open in 2012

Inbee took a circuitous route to this point in her career.  After winning the 2008 US Women’s Open at the age of 19 (the youngest ever), it would take her four years to return to the winner’s circle on the LPGA.  It was not like she was playing bad golf; she had several wins in Japan during that span, and still managed frequent top tens in Majors.  But her game did not really click until her fiancé took over as her swing coach.  At last year’s LPGA Championship, she notched her first top ten of the year, and proceeded to rip off ten in a row, including two wins, after that.

After her win at this year’s Kraft Nabisco, the first major of 2013, Park rose to the number one ranking for the first time.  Many thought it wouldn’t last; the previous longtime #1 women’s golfer, Ya Ni Tseng, had found the pressure of maintaining that spot too much to bear.  But Park quickly won just a few weeks later, then followed her win at the Kraft with a win at the year’s second Major, the Wegman’s LPGA Championship.  She seemed to enjoy being number one, and didn’t fret too much about losing that position should that happen.

Inbee’s second Major win of 2013, the Wegman’s LPGA Championship

Still, it was a new level of pressure she faced at Sebonack.  She was the prohibitive favorite coming in, and was paired with the #2 and #3 golfers in the world the first two days.  If there were a crack in her armor, it was bound to be exposed.  But Park played the exact same way those two days she had played all year.  On her very first hole of the week, she hit her approach to a foot for an easy birdie.  She produced a 5 under par 67 on Thursday, taking the lead for most of the day before KLPGA star Ha Neul Kim topped her with a 66 in the late afternoon.  #2 Stacy Lewis had shot 71, while #3 Suzann Pettersen was four over par.

On the second day, Park continued her relentless drive to the top.  While first round leader Ha Neul Kim struggled, Park’s calm, cool attitude propelled her to a 68, giving her a two shot lead over fellow Korean In-Kyung Kim.  Kim’s story was an interesting one: she had famously missed a one-foot putt on the final hole of last year’s Kraft Nabisco, costing herself that title.  Still in search of her first Major, she would play the entire weekend with Inbee, trying to find some way to top the indomitable star.  Interestingly, they had met in the USGA cauldron before.  Back in 2005, Kim’s first year in the States, she had topped Park at the US Girls Junior in the finals.

IK Kim in round 2 of the Open

Park continued her stellar play on Saturday, but started to run into trouble for the first time all week on the back nine.  She had a couple of bogies on the 11th and 12th holes that she considered respectable, but when she also bogied the par 5 13th, she started to get mad.  Things didn’t get easier on the 14th hole; she put her ball on a top shelf well above the flag, while her two playing partners, Kim and Britain’s Jodi Ewart-Shadoff, were both within birdie range.  They would both make birdie, but so did Park, who hit an absolutely perfectly judged putt that loped down the slope, picked up speed, then dropped perfectly in the cup for a birdie to end her bogey train.  She birdied the next hole as well, and by the end of the day, had carved out a four shot lead over Kim.  Her one-under-par 71 was the only under par round by anyone all day.

Inbee during round 3 of the Open

Through three rounds, Park’s tee-to-green game had been fantastic.  She had only missed four fairways to that point and had hit most of the greens.  But what separated her from the rest, as it always did, was her otherworldly putting.  She had putting rounds of 25, 28 and 28 putts, putting her on pace to be the first Open winner to average less than 30 putts/round since she herself had done it in 2008.

The pressure was ratcheted up on Inbee on Sunday, but she never wavered much.  It was by far her worst round of the week, a 2 over par 74, but she never made worse than a bogey, and had at least three lipouts during the day.  Even when she missed, she didn’t miss by much.  IK Kim tried her best, but her putter was not working, and she, too, shot a 74.  In the end, only three players finished under par for the week, all Korean.  2011 champ So Yeon Ryu was at -1 and solo third, Kim at 4 under and solo second.  But it was Inbee who was rightfully the star, finishing at 8 under for the four shot win and her third straight Major.  Despite all the attention, she held her composure and gotten the job done when it mattered most.  She was rewarded on the 18th green by a champagne bath courtesy of Ryu and Na Yeon Choi, the past two US Women’s Open champions.

Three US Women’s Open champs celebrate Inbee’s amazing win

Inbee set all sorts of Korean records with her win: the first Korean to ever win six events in a season, and the first to collect three straight Majors and win three straight LPGA events.  She was also the first to win the Open twice.  Her money total climbed above $2 million for the second straight year, more money than the next two players on the money list combined.

After her amazing accomplishment, the golf world sat up and took notice.  She became the first Korean golfer to appear on the Today show, and did interviews for several sports shows.  Almost immediately, the talk turned to the possibility that she could win four Majors in a row.  Next up is the Women’s British Open, which this year takes place at St. Andrews, the home of golf.  If she somehow manages to win that event at that location for four straight, it would be one of the most epic achievements in recent golf history.

Inbee holds her Open trophy near Rockefeller Center after appearing on the Today Show

There is some confusion as to what you would call winning four Majors on the LPGA tour.  In years past, the LPGA usually had only four Majors, so winning all four would be considered a Grand Slam, the most hallowed of all feats in golf.  But this year, darn the luck, the LPGA added a fifth Major to the rotation, the Evian Championship.  It certainly would be far more resonant if Park were going for the biggest achievement in golf at the most important locale in the game’s history than if she merely would get 4/5 of the Slam with a win there.  But whatever you call what she will be trying to do next month in Scotland, she has already had a historically great year, and we should not forget to celebrate that in the rush to look ahead.

At the end of the event, Park told the press, ‘it’s scary to think what I’m capable of doing’.  She wasn’t bragging, just saying that it was scary that she had this extremely rare chance to make history in the next month.  She had never even considered she could do what she had already achieved, and realized the next step would be pressure like she had never imagined.  But she alone had the chance to make that history, and she was excited to have the chance.  The whole golf world will be watching closely next month to see if she can actually do it!  Best of luck to her!!

Three Majors – a truly historic achievement

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