Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 1, 2012

LPGA’s First Major Provides A Final Round Beyond Belief

As regular readers know, I never grow tired of reminding anyone who will listen that there is a reason why they actually play the games. While there is usually good cause for favorite players or teams to find themselves in that position, there are always days when the underdogs and the unknowns rise up to smite the mighty. Through three rounds at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major of the LPGA Tour’s season, Yani Tseng was tied for the lead with Karin Sjodin at 9-under par. On paper there was simply no reason to play the final round.

Tseng is the dominant player in professional golf; not women’s golf, but professional golf. She ascended to the top of the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings in February of last year, and is now so far ahead in the rankings she could probably take a year off and still be #1. She won seven LPGA Tour events last year, including two majors. Coming into this week there had been five tournaments on the LPGA’s 2012 schedule, and Tseng had won three of them. Since turning pro in 2007, she has 26 professional victories, including 15 on the LPGA Tour. When she won the Women’s British Open for the second time last July at age 22, she became the youngest golfer ever, male or female, to have won five major championships. In contrast Sjodin is a 28-year old Swede with zero victories and just four top-ten finishes in a LPGA career that began in 2005. Coming into the week she trailed Tseng by a mere 215 places in the Rolex rankings.

But statistics and logic went out the window when the two teed off on Sunday. Tseng’s approach at the par-4 1st hole came up short of the green, and she hit an indifferent chip shot that led to an opening bogey. She added two more bogeys at the 5th and 8th holes. When a makeable birdie putt at the 9th slid past the hole, the world #1 made the turn at 3-over par for the day. In contrast Sjodin eagled the par-5 2nd to move to 11-under for the tournament, seizing sole possession of the lead.

As every professional golfer knows, there are few things more difficult than staying in the moment and overcoming the pressure of a final round to win for the first time. After recording a total of just three bogeys through the first three rounds, Sjodin bogeyed the par-4 6th hole, and then added back-to-back bogeys on the 9th and 10th to fall back to 8-under. With the unlikely Sjodin faltering and the prohibitive favorite Tseng playing uncharacteristically poor golf, what was expected to be a final round coronation turned into a wide-open free-for-all.

Defending champion Stacy Lewis, who had been fighting back all week after shooting 40 on her opening nine holes in Thursday’s first round, fired a final round 66 to post 7-under and become the clubhouse leader. For a time it looked like Lewis might want to hang around on the outside chance of a playoff. But then the wind, which had been blowing strongly for most of the day died down, improving scoring opportunities for players still out on the course. By the time Tseng finally made her first birdie of the day at the par-4 12th to match Lewis at 7-under, she was four strokes behind the new leader.

That leader was 25-year old Hee Kyung Seo of South Korea. Seo was the Tour’s 2011 Rookie of the Year when she posted three top-ten finishes, including a runner-up performance at the U.S. Women’s Open where she lost in a playoff. Seo started the day at minus-6, three behind the leaders. She made a couple of early birdies at the 2nd and 5th, then added three birdies in a four-hole stretch from the 9th through the 12th as the wind died. But having reached 5-under for the day and 11-under for the championship, Seo found herself with an impossible lie in the back of a greenside bunker on the 15th and then deep in gnarly rough on the 16th. The result was back-to-back bogeys, and a four-way tie for the lead among Seo, Sjodin who had rallied with a birdie at the 13th, and two young Koreans, 25-year old Sun-Young Yoo and 23-year old I.K. Kim.

Sjodin was the first to falter, blading an approach over the green on the 16th and then failing to get up and down. Two minutes later Seo three-putted the par-3 17th to also fall back. In between those two misses, I.K. Kim, playing the 17th with Seo, rolled in a long birdie putt to move to minus-10, becoming the sole leader. When Kim found the fairway at the par-5 closing hole, all of the pressure appeared to move to her pursuers.

Playing in the group ahead of Kim, Yoo came up short on a long birdie putt, finishing at 9-under. Moments later Sjodin, after being bunkered at the 17th, missed her par putt to fall out of contention. Then from the 18th fairway Seo’s third ran through the green. When Kim’s approach found the putting surface, a dramatic back nine at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course seemed to be finally resolved. Until, in stunning fashion, it wasn’t. Kim rolled her birdie approach to a tap-in distance of no more than a foot; and then, shockingly, missed the tap-in, falling into a tie with You. Fifteen minutes later, playing against a still shell-shocked Kim, Sun-Young Yoo rolled in a fifteen foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole for one of the most improbable victories in LPGA Tour history.

Whether the name is Hogan or Nicklaus or Woods, Lopez or Sorenstam or Ochoa, or in this case Tseng, it’s always a bit stunning when on the final day of a big event a marquee player comes up short. But for Tseng it’s only one day, and there will likely be many more victories over the course of the 2012 LPGA Tour season. For Sjodin and Seo, Sunday proved once again just how hard it is to break through. As for I.K. Kim, only time will tell if a whiffed one-footer is but a bad ending to a good day, or a demon that will forever haunt her. For Sun-Young Yoo, a second LPGA Tour victory and a first major championship may have come like Christmas in March; but my guess is that she won’t turn down the unexpected gift. Meanwhile once again, even as late as the final green on the final day, there is still a reason why they actually play the games.

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