Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 12, 2015

One Story To Remember, Many They’d Like To Forget

Except for those rare occasions when a golfer runs away with a major, like Rory McIlroy at the 2011 U.S. Open or Annika Sorenstam at the 2005 Kraft Nabisco (now the ANA Inspiration), there are two kinds of stories that emerge from the four men’s and five women’s majors that are played each year. One is the story of the winner, a tale of a player who perseveres on Sunday afternoon, withstanding the enormous pressure of the moment and claiming a career-defining victory. But most majors also spawn a handful or more of the other kind of tale; the sad accounting of what might have been. Such was the case this weekend at the U.S. Women’s Open.

The USGA brought the national championship for women golfers to the Old Course at Lancaster Country Club this year. The 95-year old layout in southeastern Pennsylvania features tree-lined fairways, expansive bunkering around sloping greens, and plenty of elevation changes. In the end the name on the trophy was that of In Gee Chun, so hers is the happy and remarkable tale that will be remembered the longest. Happy for the obvious reason, and remarkable because Chun is just 20 years old and was playing in her first Women’s Open. She’s just two years removed from her rookie season on her native South Korea’s KLPGA, and has no official status on the American tour. While she has won seven times in her home country, her maiden appearance at the U.S. Open was also just her fifth start on this season’s LPGA schedule, where her best previous finishes were a pair of ties for 37th place.

The third youngest winner of the U.S. Women’s Open and also the third golfer to win the championship in her first try, Chun started the day in 3rd place, four shots behind 54-hole leader Amy Yang. Chun was neither the longest hitter in the field nor the best putter, ranking in the middle of the pack in both of those statistics. But as is often the case at a U.S. Open, she was rewarded for her accurate iron play, leading the field in greens in regulation; a fact that meant she had both the most chances at birdie and the fewest side trips into potential disaster from tee to green.

Her final round of 4-under par 66 was the best score of the day, matched only by 17-year old Canadian Brooke Henderson and 20-year old LPGA Tour rookie Alison Lee, reinforcing the notion that young players don’t know when they are supposed to be feeling pressure. Despite three birdies in her first seven holes, Chun was just 1-under for the day after bogeys at the 8th and 10th. But she got back on track with a birdie at the par-3 12th, and came to the par-4 15th hole, the hardest hole on the golf course all week, in a three-way tie for the lead at 6-under par.

That was the point in the tournament at which the commentators on Fox were setting up a more predictable ending. For one of the golfers in that three-way tie was American Stacy Lewis the third ranked player in the world, and lurking just one shot behind was Inbee Park, the top-ranked woman golfer and winner last month of the KPMG Women’s LPGA, the most recent major. Surely this was the moment, with holes running out and the sun starting to wester, that one of these established stars would seize control of the championship.

But at this major both Park and Lewis wound up as just two of many who could only rue what might have been. Park was undone by poor putting, and as soon as she climbed to within a shot of the leaders by birdieing the par-4 16th she pushed a short par putt on the 17th. With what by then was happening behind her the bogey ended her chances. Park took 60 putts on the weekend, three more than Chun or Lewis, and fewer only than Yang among those at the top of the final leader board. Three putts in the course of two days might seem like a small thing, but at this U.S. Women’s Open they were three too many for the world number one.

For Lewis the sad tale was not of poor putting; indeed the flat stick saved her repeatedly during the final round. Rather the unhappy result for the top American golfer was the result of just two poor swings. On the 5th hole her approach to the green was short and right, landing on a bank and rolling back down into a creek fronting the putting surface. The result was a double-bogey 6. More than two hours later, after climbing back into that three-way tie, Lewis came to the 15th hole and flared her drive deep into the right rough. Her approach to the green blocked by trees, Lewis had no choice but to lay up. When that shot caught the slope of the fairway and rolled into heavy rough on the other side, she was on her way to a back nine double bogey that would end her chances. The two-time major champion seemed to sense her doom as soon as the errant drive was struck. Standing on the tee, waiting for playing partner Yang to hit, Lewis’s face was a picture of bitter disappointment, reflecting her knowledge of the high price exacted by just two bad swings.

But by day’s end the two most accomplished golfers in the field were not the only ones harboring regrets. For 54-hole leader Yang, this was the third time in four years that she played in the final pairing on Sunday at the U.S. Women’s Open. In 2012 she was 2nd to Na Yeon Choi and never mounted a challenge against the leader. Last year she was tied with Michelle Wie, but faded in the final round. With a three stroke lead at the start of play on Sunday, this year Yang controlled her own fate. For the first half of the round it looked like she would hold off her pursuers with steady play. But then in the middle holes she staggered, recording four bogeys from the 9th through the 15th, even as Chun caught and passed her.

For that is just what Chun did by playing the 15th hole perfectly, undaunted by its difficulty. A drive in the fairway, an iron to the green, and a curling 18 foot putt into the cup for birdie gave her the outright lead. She added two more birdies on the next two holes, surging into the lead. Only at the last did it look like she suddenly became aware of the moment. A hooked drive and wobbly play led to a final bogey and an 8-under total.

That gave Yang one final chance at glory. For an eagle two at the 16th and a birdie two at the par-3 17th had undone much of her earlier self-inflicted damage. But she too sent her final drive into the left rough, just as Chun had done. Finally needing to get up and down from 60 yards to force a playoff, Yang was unable to do so. So for a 20-year old making her first appearance on the biggest stage in women’s golf, the story couldn’t get any better. The tale of In Gee Chun at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open is now part of the game’s history. For Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis, and perhaps especially for Amy Yang, the unhappy memories will be more private, but will likely last just as long.

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