Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 8, 2012

Where Women’s Golf Changed, The Circle Is Completed

As an American I was naturally hoping that an American golfer would hoist the trophy as the winner of the U.S. Women’s Open this weekend. Perhaps it would be Stacy Lewis. The 27-year old has four LPGA victories in all, the first as an amateur back in 2007. As a pro Lewis won every season’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, last year. In addition to that win she has three other top-ten finishes in the five majors since, and has already won twice on the LPGA Tour this season; all good enough to take her all the way to second in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. If not Lewis, then perhaps 34-year old Christie Kerr or 25-year old Paula Creamer would claim the championship. Kerr won the Open in 2007, was briefly ranked number one in 2010, and always seems to be in contention at the preeminent event in women’s golf. Creamer won at Oakmont in 2010 with a heroic performance just months after hand surgery.

If the veterans weren’t up to the task, perhaps this would be the week when one of the LPGA’s budding young American stars would finally move to the fore. No woman golfer has turned pro with as much hype as that which accompanied Michelle Wie when she made the move from the amateur ranks in 2005 a week before her 16th birthday. She has largely failed to live up to expectations in the years since, posting just two victories on Tour. But having given up her quixotic quest to play against men and with her studies at Stanford complete, maybe the one-time prodigy could finally begin to focus on her golf game. If Wie’s indifferent 2012 season and missed cuts at the first two majors did not bode well for success at the Open, one of the Tour’s newest and certainly youngest stars came to the Blackwolf Run course in Kohler, Wisconsin on a different track. Lexi Thompson first qualified for the U.S. Open as a 12-year old amateur in 2007. She’s played every year since, making this her sixth Open despite the fact that she is still just 17. Last September she became the youngest ever winner of a LPGA Tour event, and three months later became the second youngest winner of a Ladies European Tour tournament. In 2012 the long-hitting Thompson has made the cut ten times in eleven starts and has shaved more than two strokes off her 2011 scoring average.

Hope is a fine thing to have, but even I knew as play got underway on Thursday that an American victory would fall into the realm of a fairytale ending. Kerr and Creamer are the only two Americans to win the Open since 2004. Surrounding their victories were the great Annika Sorenstam’s third Open title and tenth major championship in 2006, and wins by four different South Korean golfers in 2005, 2008, 2009, and last year. Despite that unfavorable track record, some of the American women managed to at least be part of the conversation for much of the tournament.

Stacy Lewis was not one of them. She opened with a five over par 77, leaving her eight shots behind a trio of co-leaders on a day when fourteen golfers broke par. She rallied a bit with a second round 69, though that still left her seven back of the 36-hole lead. Whatever slim chance Lewis had disappeared in a front-nine 42 in Saturday’s third round. Eventual scores of 80 and 75 on the weekend left her plus-13 for the tournament, tied for 46th.

After opening with a 2-over par 74, Michelle Wie had what was at that point the round of the tournament on Friday. Wie needed just 23 putts while making seven birdies against just one bogey, firing a 66 that moved her all the way up into a tie for second and a spot in Saturday’s final group with leader Suzann Pettersen of Sweden. But Wie’s weekend made Lewis’s look good. After all those birdies on Friday, which turned out to be the easiest day for scoring, Wie managed just one birdie in each of her final two rounds. She was much more proficient at making bogeys, recording eleven of them on Saturday and Sunday, along with a double and a triple as she shot 78-80 to fall from a tie for 2nd to a tie for 35th at plus-10.

Thompson, Kerr and Creamer all finished closer to the top of the leader board. Thompson started Sunday in the next to last group, as one of just five golfers under par at minus-1 through three rounds. Ultimately she was undone by a three hole stretch on the back nine, when she went bogey, triple-bogey, double-bogey on holes 12 through 14. With a birdie at the last, she finished plus-5 for the Open, tied for 14th. Kerr was one back through 36 holes, but never recovered from a 77 on Saturday, finishing tied for 9th at plus-4. Creamer, who hasn’t won since her 2010 victory at Oakmont, gave her fans some reason to hope, playing four steady rounds and finishing tied for 7th at plus-3.

In the end the final pairing on Sunday was made up of two young South Koreans, 22-year old Amy Yang and 24-year old Na Yeon Choi, with Choi holding a commanding six-stroke lead after blistering the course with a 65 on Saturday. Setting aside pre-tournament hopes and any nationalistic interest, one has to acknowledge that this particular week, at this U.S. Open, played at this specific venue, a final group of two young South Koreans was exactly what should have happened, a perfect ending to a fairytale that began fourteen years ago. For it was at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run that Se Ri Pak changed women’s professional golf forever.

Pak was a 20-year old rookie on the LPGA Tour in 1998. She had moved to the U.S. after two successful seasons on the Korean Ladies Tour, where she had won six times. She had already won a major, the LPGA Championship that May. At Blackwolf Run, she opened with a 69 and then hung on for dear life, eventually finishing in a tie with 20-year old amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, herself an American-born daughter of Thai immigrants. Playing several groups ahead of Pak, Chuasiriporn made an improbable 40-foot birdie putt on the final hole to post plus-6. When Pak later missed her 8-foot birdie try, the two were headed to an 18-hole Monday playoff. But 18 holes were not enough to decide a winner, as the two matched scores of 73. Finally, on the 20th hole of the playoff and now in sudden death, Pak holed an 18-footer for birdie, becoming the youngest woman to win two majors in the same year.

Pak went on to win twice more in 1998 and was named the LPGA Rookie of the Year. Still just 34, she matched Paula Creamer’s score of plus-4 this week while playing with an injured shoulder. In a career that is far from over, she has twenty-five LPGA Tour victories including five majors. But it was the 1998 U.S. Open victory that galvanized women’s golf in her homeland. She became an instant heroine to hundreds of little girls who sought to emulate her with a single-minded purpose and work ethic. Pak’s nickname in Korean translates simply as “Legend.” Every morning when Korean national TV signs on, the backdrop for the playing of the national anthem isn’t a picture of a flag or marching troops. It’s a picture of Se Ri Pak, having removed her shoes and socks, hitting out of the water to save a stroke at the 1998 Open.

Pak was the only Korean member of the LPGA Tour in 1998, and one of just three women from her country in the field for the U.S. Open. This week’s field included 26 Koreans, and 42 of the 128 fully exempt members of the LPGA Tour are from a country just slightly larger than the state of Indiana. Eighteen of the top fifty women in the Official Rankings are from Korea; eight more than are from Japan and twice as many as are from the U.S.

On Sunday at the U.S. Women’s Open, Na Yeon Choi bounced back from her only hiccup, a triple-bogey at the par-5 10th hole with a birdie at the 11th. After that, with a little luck and some plucky play she went on to a four shot victory over her playing partner and fellow Korean, Amy Yang. The two were the only golfers to finish under par. When the final putt was holed, several of their fellow Korean players rushed onto the 18th green to spray the winner with celebratory champagne. Among them was the woman they call Legend. Just before embracing Pak, Choi, who was a ten-year old watching on television in 1998, noticeably bowed to the woman who is the golfing mentor to a nation. Some people say Tiger Woods has done a lot to change golf. Maybe so; but at the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, the golfer who profoundly changed the LPGA Tour finally got the bow she deserved.

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