Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2013

Late Charge Lifts Lewis To Second Major

The obvious story after Day One of the Women’s British Open was Inbee Park’s pursuit of a historic fourth straight calendar year major and the enticing subplot was the surprising number of American women at or near the top of the crowded leader board. But by Sunday afternoon, as the wind whipped across the Old Course and propelled windsurfers across St. Andrews Bay, this women’s major had begun to look a lot like every such event since the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship. All ten majors since then were won by golfers from Asian countries, the longest period without an American woman winning a major championship ever. Even more remarkable, all ten winners were under the age of 25, a stunning rebuke to the notion that golf’s premier events can be mastered only by those with the sage wisdom of a veteran player.

So notwithstanding the leader board after Round One, it was no great surprise that as the final groups completed the figure-8 loop of holes seven through eleven at the furthest reaches of the Old Course and began the journey home the name at the top of the leader board was that of Korea’s Na Yeon Choi. The wafer-thin 25-year old won last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, and coming into this week had nine other top-ten finishes in majors since joining the LPGA Tour in 2008. Choi carded matching 67s in the first two rounds on Thursday and Friday to claim the 36-hole lead at 10-under par. The second of those scores was an astonishingly good round as it came on Friday afternoon, when the breeze became a gale and conditions turned brutal.

Park’s hopes for a fourth consecutive major and a page in golf’s history books were done in by those Friday conditions. Saddled with a late tee time and playing in the worst of it, she managed a 1-over score of 73. But that left her eight shots off the pace with just 36 holes to play. Making up a deficit that large required taking chances, and neither the ancient links layout nor the stiff wind would countenance high-risk shots. When the third round was suspended on Saturday Park had actually just birdied the 3rd hole to get to 3-under, then six off the lead. What could not be known then was that once play resumed early Sunday morning, by the time she made her next birdie at the 10th hole of her fourth round, Park would have dropped eight shots to par with six bogeys and a double. She eventually finished in a tie for 42nd place at 6-over, shooting 74 and 78 over her final two rounds.

Choi and the other leaders never struck a ball on Saturday, the suspension in play coming with seven groups still waiting to tee off. That made for a long day of golf on Sunday, with all of the pairings staying together for the third and fourth rounds rather than the customary resorting of players based on the third round leader board. Thus Choi and Japan’s Miki Saiki, first and second after 36 holes, remained as the final group even though they both slipped in the third round Sunday morning, allowing Americans Morgan Pressel at minus-9 and Stacy Lewis at minus-8 to claim the top two spots on the leader board with 18 to play. Choi and Saiki were at 7-under and tied for third with Norway’s Suzann Pettersen and Korea’s Hee Young Park.

Pressel fell out of the lead with a pair of front nine bogeys, and though she rallied with a birdie at the short par-4 9th, she was never able to generate any momentum on the inward half. Pettersen played with the American and matched her level of frustration, as several birdie putts died at the hole, denying the world #3 a chance at her second major title. Saiki stumbled right out of the gate with an opening double bogey and was never a factor, which left the season’s fourth major to the American Lewis and the Koreans Choi and Park.

Lewis recovered from a pair of early bogeys by making consecutive birdies on the 6th and 7th holes, and made the turn at 8-under. She was matched by playing partner Park at that number thanks to a birdie on the 9th. But the two ran into trouble on the inward nine. Three straight bogeys on the 12th through 14th holes derailed Park’s chances. Lewis hit her tee shot at the par-3 11th wide right, leading to a bogey four. That was followed by another dropped shot at the 12th. She rallied by reaching the par-5 14th hole in two, setting up a two-putt birdie. But she promptly gave that shot back when her approach from the middle of the fairway at the par-4 15th came up woefully short of the green.

Even as Lewis was walking off the 15th green at 6-under, five groups behind her Choi was making par on the 12th hole. Her scorecard showed birdies on the 3rd, 5th, and 10th holes, offset by a lone bogey at the 4th. Choi was 9-under par and suddenly three shots clear of the field. Her closest pursuer had but three holes left to try to make up ground.

But tournaments are not played over 66 holes, or 69. It is the tally after all 72 holes have been negotiated that matters in the end, and at St. Andrews the drama had only begun. Lewis needed some help, which Choi promptly provided. She three-putted the 13th hole for a bogey even as Lewis was making par on the 16th. The lead was cut to two. Then on the par-5 14th hole her hybrid second sailed wide right into the fescue. Her hack out of the hay skittered across the giant double green, ending closer to the flag for the 4th hole than to the one that was her target. From nearly 30 yards away, another three-putt was almost inevitable.

Up ahead Lewis split the fairway of the fiendishly difficult 17th hole with a perfect drive. From 175 yards she later said that she visualized a 5-iron landing just short of the green, bouncing up onto the putting surface of the famous Road Hole, and curling toward the cup. Then she hit exactly the shot she had pictured in her head. The perfectly struck 5-iron left her with a curling 2-footer for a rare birdie on the Old Course’s hardest hole. Even as Choi’s inevitable bogey was completed behind her, Lewis sank the putt to tie for the lead.

She made the short walk to the 18th tee and hammered another perfect drive up the broad expanse of lawn that is the joint fairway for the Old Course’s opening and closing holes. Her ball came to a stop just 20 yards short of the green, but between Lewis and the putting surface was the Valley of Sin, the deep swale that guards the 18th. Rather than attempt to fly the ball over it Lewis pulled out her putter in a classic bit of smart links play. Her second ran some 25 feet past the cup, likely as good as any chip. The putt coming back still had five feet to go when Lewis began to react, knowing that it was headed for the bottom of the cup. The birdie-birdie finish moved Lewis to 8-under par, and when Choi’s approach at the 17th ran just through the green and into gnarly rough to set up another bogey that would drop her to minus-6, the American drought at majors was over.

Just when it seemed like this women’s major would wind up looking like all of the recent ones, everything changed.  In the end five Americans were among the top ten names on the leader board, closing the unlikely circle that began on Thursday; and topping them all was Stacy Lewis.  Choi’s sudden struggles opened the door, but someone still had to walk through it. Lewis, who overcame scoliosis and potentially career-ending back surgery as a teenager knows something about the importance of seizing every opportunity. She did so by continuing her historic play at the Home of Golf. In her final competition as an amateur, Lewis was a member of the 2008 U.S. Curtis Cup team that defeated their counterparts from Great Britain and Ireland 13-7 at the Old Course. In those matches she became the first player in Curtis Cup history to post a perfect 5-0 record, and scored the winning point for the U.S. team. On Sunday, thanks to a 5-iron that she called the best shot of her life, Stacy Lewis remained perfect at St. Andrews.

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