As the 2013 golf season has started to gain steam, the big story of the year so far has been the amazing achievements of Asian teenagers in virtually every significant tournament played so far. The year started with 15-year-old Korean New Zealander Lydia Ko trying to defend her title at the Australian Women’s Amateur; she lost to 16-year-old Korean Australian Minjee Lee, who won that event for the first time in her career. Just a week later, Ko and Lee met again at the New South Wales Open, where Ko was again defending her title. In 2012, she had become the youngest girl to ever win a professional event when she triumphed there. In 2013, Ko finished second and Lee third.
The fireworks were far from done. The next week was the Australian Ladies Masters, and though Karrie Webb won for the 8th time, another 16-year-old Korean Australian amateur, Su Hyun Oh, finished second. The following week came the New Zealand Open, and Ko bagged her third professional title in front of her home fans, in the process becoming the first New Zealander to win that event. 18-year-old newly minted pro Seon Woo Bae shot a 64 in round 2 and wound up fourth, with Oh managing a top ten as well.
And it wasn’t just ethnic Koreans making their marks at these events. The Thai Jutanugarn sisters, Moriya and Ariya, managed to contend at several of these events as well, topped by a tie for second at the Masters for Ariya.
So by the time the LPGA season started at the ISPS Handa Australian Women’s Open on February 13th, a narrative was developing: how well would the very young girls in the field do, and would they be able to beat the LPGA superstars also playing? Both this event and the tour’s second event the following week, the Honda LPGA Thailand, would wind up featuring a battle between one of those young guns and an established Korean LPGA superstar for the big prize, and both would go down to the final few holes before a winner was determined.
The Australian Women’s Open featured the 15-year-old superstar Ko fresh off her New Zealand Open win. Looking to make it two in a row, the white-hot Ko did not take very long to make her presence felt in Canberra. In fact, on the first day, paired with world’s #1 golfer Yani Tseng and popular American star Michelle Wie, Ko produced one of the best rounds of golf anyone had seen in a very long time. Despite making three bogies, she still managed a 10 under par 63, a round which included 11 birdies and an eagle, to soar into the lead. Even Tseng, who shot a comparatively tame 68, was amazed, watching the youngster make one brilliant shot after another. Ko’s unbelievable round was a shot heard round the world, and if she had already been attracting the most attention at the tournament even before this, now she was the uncontested top draw.
While Ko was getting the attention, former world #1 Jiyai Shin quietly shot her own 8 under par 65 to take third place. Both Ko and Shin played fantastically on day two, and ended the day tied at 14 under par, just a shot out of the lead held by Colombia’s Mariajo Uribe. But in round three, Uribe faded, while the two Korean-born players rode their accuracy to 3 under par 70s and a tie atop the leaderboard at 17 under. At last, they would play in the same group together, with the tournament held in the balance. With the next nearest competitor six shots back, it seemed like a two-horse race.
The hype for the contest was such that the Golf Channel in the US made an unprecedented move: they showed the entire final round between the two LIVE in prime time Saturday night. Crowds showed up by the droves, most of them rooting Ko on to make history. Shin, meanwhile, wanted to make sure it was she who raised her third trophy in her past seven LPGA starts. She had last been paired with Ko in the final round Sunday at the Canadian Women’s Open. Ko would go on to win that event (Shin finished third), becoming the youngest girl to ever win on that tour. Shin was doubtless looking for a little payback.
Ko had a serious case of the jitters by the time she got to the first tee. She knocked her drive into the woods, and was not able to get out with her second shot. By the time the hole was done, she was walking off with a crushing double bogey. Shin, meanwhile, hit a laser approach shot to a foot for a birdie. After just one hole, the veteran had a three shot lead.
Things got worse for Ko on the second hole when she three putted to increase her deficit to four. But after that, she regrouped, making birdies on holes 4 and 5 while Shin bogied 5. By the time they reached the sixth hole, Ko had climbed back to within a shot. Ko bogied the 10th hole to increase her deficit to two, but a two shot swing in Ko’s favor on 12 resulted in a tie for the lead for the first time since the start of the round. With six holes to play, it was still anyone’s game.
The momentum was in the teenager’s direction, but Shin was still rock steady and not going to give up without a fight. She hit the fairway on 14 while Ko landed in a bunker. But Shin’s second shot was terrible, and wound up behind an advertising sign near the green; she was short sided as well. Amazingly, they did not remove the sign, and Shin would have to stand right next to it in order to hit her third shot. Even more incredibly, her graceful pitch from the nearly impossible lie turned out to be the best shot of the week: a high, lazy arcing shot that landed gently on the green and rolled right into the cup for a birdie. The stunned Ko missed her par save moments later, and Shin once again had a two shot advantage over the determined teen.
Shin made birdie on the next hole, the par 5 15th, and wound up with a two shot win over Yani Tseng, who rallied to finish second ahead of Ko. Ko wound up third after shooting a final round 76. In all, it was another fabulous performance by the teenage wunderkind, although it also showed that she still isn’t the unbeatable top player she might one day become. Thai teen Moriya Jutanugarn finished fourth.
The next week, the tour shifted to Thailand for the LPGA’s yearly visit to that country. Ko was once again in the field and had a good finish, tied for 14th, although she never really contended for the title. But the teenage mantle was taken up by the Thai Jutanugarn sisters, Moriya and Ariya. Those two had been among Ko’s biggest amateur rivals before they turned pro at the end of last year. Moriya attended LPGA Q-school, where she earned membership by finishing first (in a tie with Korean Canadian Rebecca Lee-Bentham). But Ariya, a year younger, was denied her request to be given a special exemption to the tour’s minimum age limit. Undaunted, she attended European tour Q-School, which she ended up winning. So, two sisters, two top finishes at two different Q-Schools. What a way to start their pro careers!
Ariya was given a sponsor’s exemption to play in her home country’s event, and she made the most of it. The first round leader was American Stacy Lewis, who shot a record-breaking 63. Lewis continued to lead after day 2, with Jutanugarn in second place three shots back. Following a run of birdies on the back nine on Saturday, Ariya overtook Lewis and claimed her own three shot lead. She was in a position to make a major statement to the LPGA powers-that-be who had deemed her unready for the league just a few months earlier.
As for the Koreans, the player who looked most likely to end Ariya’s fairy tale run was the Legend herself, Se Ri Pak. Pak, making her season premiere, gutted out three great rounds to forge a second place position at 8 under, giving her a spot in the final group Sunday with Ariya. Would the wily veteran be able to dash the hopes of the hard-hitting, go-for-broke teen?
Alas, Se Ri was not feeling 100%, having caught a cold, and never played well on Sunday from the opening tee shot. Jutanugarn, meanwhile, hung tight to her lead. With Pak effectively neutralized, it fell to a group of other Korean stars to challenge. Jiyai Shin, fresh off her win, never got it going and finished tied for 14th. IK Kim got started a bit too late and notched a top ten. Na Yeon Choi and So Yeon Ryu, playing in the same group together, both had good days, but still finished several shots behind the leaders: Ryu ended up tied for third, Choi solo 7th.
The one Korean young gun who did make a charge was 24-year-old Inbee Park. Park, also making her first appearance of 2013, shot a 32 on the front nine to move to 11 under, which put her just a shot behind Ariya. After birdies on 10 and 11, Park found herself in the lead, with Ariya’s nerves seemingly sending her in the wrong direction in a hurry.
But just when it looked like she was on the ropes, Ariya made a shot for the ages. On the 12th hole, a par 3, she nailed a hole-in-one to jump one shot ahead of Park. Riding her momentum from that, she surged to a three shot lead, dropped a shot soon after, but still had a two shot cushion with one hole left. Meanwhile, Park could not buy a break. She lipped out a birdie putt on 17, and after getting next to the green in two shots on the par 5 18th, she botched her approach pitch, hit a precise masterpiece of a chip downhill to a foot and saved par. She was in the house at 12 under, still two behind her teen rival. Ariya stood on the 18th tee with her wildly cheering country people eagerly awaiting the first ever win by a Thai woman on the LPGA tour. That it would happen in Thailand made it all the more special.
Then everything went south. She hit a perfect drive, but weirdly decided to go for the green in two instead of laying up (keep in mind she only needed a bogey to win). She hit her approach very thin into a fairway bunker, where it plugged into an unplayable lie. She then dropped in the bunker, and hit a crummy fourth shot over the green into the same treacherous area Park had chipped from moments earlier. She putted from there, but botched that, leaving it short of the green. She hit her 6th shot three feet past the hole, and now needed to make that putt to force a playoff. But she lipped it out, making a triple bogey 8 on the hole. Amazingly, she had gone from an almost certain win to a one shot loss in the space of a single hole, showing exactly the kind of youthful mistakes she had largely avoided the rest of the week.
Inbee could not believe her luck. She won her fourth LPGA tournament while sitting in the comfort of the clubhouse, the first time she had ever been given a gift like that. But she had earned it, too, for she was the only player who put any kind of pressure on Jutanugarn on the back nine. For the sobbing teenage star, it was another hard lesson learned: these pro women are good, and course management and emotional control is as important an element of the game as driving and putting.
Interestingly, Park’s win was her second straight victory that happened after an opponent hit an unplayable ball into a bunker late in the tournament. At the 2012 Sime Darby Malaysia, Na Yeon Choi had done the same thing on the 17th hole on Sunday, effectively ending her challenge of Park.
So two weeks on the LPGA, two epic battles between young Korean LPGA stars and even younger teenage stars of tomorrow. In both cases the elder players prevailed, but you can be sure we have not heard the last of these precocious youngsters!