Posted by: happyfan08 | July 4, 2022

Dumbo Flies Again

In Gee Chun has been one of the most popular Korean golfers since she broke into the pro ranks as a teenage KLPGA rookie back in 2013.  And for a while, she was also one of the very best, peaking as high as #3 in the world early in her LPGA career.  But since 2018, her record has gradually become spottier, and she fell as low as the 60s in the rankings by early 2021.  Yet last week, Chun shocked the world by claiming her third career LPGA Major at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.  By grabbing this win, she became only the third Korean, after Hall-of-Famers Se Ri Pak and Inbee Park, to collect more than two career Majors.    How did In Gee slip so low?  How did she manage this win, her first in nearly four years?  What does this mean for her career going forward?

In Gee returns home a champion a few days ago, receiving gifts including a Dumbo stuffie.  Her nickname is Dumbo

When she was still young, In Gee was discovered to be a math prodigy with a genius level IQ.  It looked for all the world like this would be the focus of her life.  But unexpectedly, fate had a different path in store for her.  When she was 11, she accompanied her dad and one of his friends to a driving range.  Dad put a club in her hand and asked her to try hitting a shot.  Having little idea what to do, she naturally duffed it, which caused her dad’s friend to laugh uproariously.  In Gee did not take kindly to that, and she spent the next several hours working with her dad to learn how to hit a shot.  By the end of that day, she was already hitting the ball decently, and this experience lit a fire in her that led her to become one of the best young golfers in the country.

What’s interesting about In Gee’s origin story is that the main element that drove her to succeed was the dismissal she received from her father’s friend.  Even at this early time, she proved herself to be susceptible to the judgment of others.  This issue would reappear later and threaten her success and happiness.

Eventually she became a nationally ranked amateur and, in 2013, joined the KLPGA as a teenager.  It didn’t take her long to establish herself as a future star: her first win on tour came at the tour’s biggest event, the Korea Women’s Open, just a few months into her career.  This started a stretch of several years where she continued to improve into a world class star.  In 2015, she managed a feat no one in women’s golf had ever managed: she won Majors on three different tours in the same year.  She collected two KLPGA and two JLPGA Majors on top of the win at the US Women’s Open.  That last win qualified her for the LPGA, and she won the Rookie of the Year the following year, winning another Major and the Vare Trophy to boot.  Her world ranking rose as high as third in the world.

In Gee after winning the 2013 Korea Women’s Open

But after that In Gee began a slow decline.  The next two years, she won only once, although she had other highlights, like a number of near wins and a brilliant MVP performance at the UL International Crown (in front of her home country fans).  By 2019, her game was much weaker; she only managed two top tens in each of the next two seasons.  She recovered somewhat in 2021, with eight top tens, but even then, she still rarely contended for titles and did not win.

In Gee had an early highlight in 2022 when she contended and nearly won the HSBC Championship, but that was her only top ten of the year coming into the year’s third Major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.  Based on her record over the preceding four years, it seemed very unlikely that she would be a factor in the outcome of that event, let alone win.  But at the end of the week, In Gee was holding the trophy.  How was she able to turn around her season so dramatically?

In Gee at this year’s HSBC Championship, where she contended for the title but lost

Well, first of all, her great talent never really went away.  Her main problems seemed to be mental.  Although she occasionally talked about it, most fans were not aware the degree to which she had battled depression when her results were not as strong as she had hoped.  Folks on social media and media types in Korea criticized her when she did not perform at her best.  Much like when she was eleven at that driving range, she took this to heart, so when she was not able to continually match their expectations, she found herself in a deep funk.  It got so bad that she seriously considered retiring from golf; in a conversation the week before the KPMG, she poured her heart out to her older sister, who suggested she quit rather than keep making herself miserable.  Interestingly, as soon as In Gee heard those words, she instantly realized that that was not what she wanted.  It strengthened her resolve to fight on and try to return to her top level again.

The results were immediate and stunning.  Congressional’s blue course was set up tough, and with a large amount of rain just before the first round started, was playing very long.  Some players were not able to reach some of the par fours in two and were hitting hybrids as third shots into par 5s.  This would seem to have been a terrible break for In Gee; she is not a long hitter.  Yet amazingly, she hit the ground running, playing the course as though it were a pitch and putt.  She ran off four straight birdies to end her front nine (which was the back nine of the course), including a birdie on the nearly impossible 18th hole.  After a bogey on 1, she made three more straight birdies.  She hit all 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens, and made 25 putts with ten birdies.  Her 64 was the new course record.  Even more amazing, not a single other player was able to come close; the next best score was a 69 by fellow Korean Hye Jin Choi and Thai player Pornanong Phatlum.  She gained an astounding 11.38 strokes on the field, the best result in this event in the past ten years, and that was even though she played in the harder conditions in the morning.  It was one of the greatest performances in the history of the LPGA.

In Gee always had this talent; it had never gone away.  She just needed a way to free herself of her mental baggage to fully show what she could do.

In Gee during round 1 of the KPMG

Of course, now that she had a five shot lead going into round 2, the pressure was on in a way that it had not been before.  And she responded with another good round: a 69 to move to 11 under and increase her lead to six shots.  She was close to breaking the tournament wide open.  Interestingly, when the men had played the US Open at the same venue, Rory McIlroy had a similar great start, posting a 6-shot lead after two rounds.  McIlroy went on to win his year; would In Gee be able to do the same?

One of the decisions In Gee made really helped her at Congressional.  She played the course a month before the event and decided that she would need to put 7- and 9-woods in her bag to help her stop approach shots on the greens.  She had not used these clubs in a long time, but they proved pivotal, especially the 7-wood, which she used to stop the ball close to the hole several times in her first round.

Things got tougher for In Gee in the third round, although she still played solidly most of the day.  The conditions were drying up, and the course was made shorter, meaning that longer hitters were now able to take advantage in a way that they had not been able to earlier.  Lexi Thompson shot a great third round to put herself into the final group Sunday.  In Gee looked like her big lead would make that irrelevant, but she made a couple of key mistakes late and her score ballooned.  The most important of these was a bad layup on the par-5 16th.  The shot wound up in some tall weeds.  She probably should have taken a drop or punched it out, but she went for the green, with the ball flying far left under a tree and into an unplayable lie.  She was forced to drop back near the weeds and try again, this time flying the green.  Somehow, she got up and down from there, giving herself a double bogey.

With her challenges she shot a 75 and her lead dropped to 3.  She was still in the final group and would be paired against the long-hitting Thompson, on a course that would play to the American’s advantage.  Could In Gee hang on?  Would the demons that had haunted her game for years rear their ugly heads again?

In Gee tries to find her ball during round 3

Alas, it took only a few holes on Sunday for Thompson to catch and pass In Gee.  Chun struggled to keep pace but made four bogies on the front nine and dropped to a two-shot deficit.  She remained focused, though, and made a birdie on 11 to slightly mitigate the damage.  But she couldn’t seem to close the gap on Thompson.  On 15, In Gee rolled off the back of the green and wound up in a bad lie.  Thompson had missed a short putt on 14, but she managed a birdie on 15.  It was imperative that In Gee get up and down, and she did.  But she still trailed by 2.  And the next hole was a par 5, Thompson’s specialty.

If In Gee had memories of the double bogey on this hole from the previous day, she didn’t show it.  She hit a great lay up this time, and put her third right next to the hole, where it snapped back to about seven feet under the flag.  But Thompson’s second was right next to the green.  It looked grim for In Gee.

Then the nerves got to Thompson.  She hit a terrible chip, which rolled past the flag and off the other side of the green.  She putted from there, below the level of the green, and rolled it ten feet past.  Suddenly, she was looking at a bogey.  She indeed did miss the par, following which In Gee nailed the birdie.  The two-shot gap was gone.

In Gee kept smiling even during the tough round 4

In Gee hit a great approach on 17, as did Thompson.  Thompson blew her birdie try past, giving In Gee a golden chance to retake the lead.  But she just missed, tapping in for par.  But then Thompson missed another short par save, handing a one-shot lead to Chun with one hole to play.  In Gee had done well on 18, and if she made a birdie, she would win.  But her approach hit a down slope and rolled to the back of the green, forty feet from the flag.  Thompson put hers within fifteen feet.  Digging deep, In Gee rolled her birdie try to within three feet. 

Meanwhile, Minjee Lee, who had won the previous Major, had made a big run up the leaderboard and finished at 4 under, where Thompson now was.  If In Gee, who was at 5 under, missed the par, she would end up in a playoff with Lee and potentially Thompson.  Definitely not what she wanted; there was no golfer at that time playing better than Minjee.  But first, she had to see if Thompson would make the birdie.  She did not.  So, it all came down to that final par save.  And with supreme confidence, In Gee drilled the par and won her third Major.

It was a tale of two Majors.  For two days, In Gee was playing some of the best golf of the decade.  For the last two days, she fought every demon she ever had, but always with a smile and a positive attitude.  Her 75-75 weekend was the worst total score a Korean Major winner had had since the brutally difficult 1998 US Women’s Open Se Ri Pak had won at Blackwolf Run.  But all that mattered was that her total was one stroke better than anyone else.  In Gee showed that she could handle tough, long courses and faster, shorter courses.  She was brilliant tee-to-green and had a wicked putter.  But when things went south, she maintained her poise and handled herself like the champion she has always been. It was her clutch putting under pressure in the final few holes that made the difference.

Her win moved her back to 12th in the world, the highest she had been since the week after her most recent previous win in Korea in 2018.  Is this the start of something big for her, or will she return to her usual form again?  One thing we hope happens: she does not allow others to inflict negativity on her, regardless of her results.  She is now a three-time Major winner; among the Koreans, this is something only Se Ri Pak and Inbee Park, both Hall of Famers, have previously achieved.  The negative talkers will still be there; the doubts will come back again and again.  But perhaps she has figured out a way to handle these challenges? If she can use what she learned about herself at Congressional throughout the rest of her career, then the sky is truly the place where Dumbo will fly again.

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