Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 10, 2016

A Women’s Open With Many Stories To Tell

For the first half of their coverage of the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open, the commentators on Fox spent much of the time talking about the latest bit of history Lydia Ko would make with a victory. In fairness to the network that has a limited track record at covering golf but is learning on the fly in the second season of a 12-year contract to broadcast the various national championships sponsored by the United States Golf Association, it was all but impossible to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments of the 19-year old from New Zealand who seized the tournament’s 54-hole lead with a birdie at the 18th hole to finish her round on Saturday.

At the age of 15 in 2012 and while still an amateur, Ko became the youngest woman to win a LPGA event. She won a second the following year, also before turning pro. Early last year she climbed to the top of the Rolex Rankings, making her the youngest player of either sex to be the number one golfer in the world. Last September she captured her first major at the Evian Championship, replacing Morgan Pressel as the youngest winner of a women’s major. She did so on the strength of a closing 63, the lowest final round ever in a women’s major championship. She won her second major this spring at the ANA Inspiration, which of course made her the youngest woman with two majors. With a victory Sunday at the Women’s Open she would supplant Inbee Park as the youngest player to hoist that trophy, and become the youngest golfer, male or female, to have three major wins.

On a tour increasingly dominated by youth, teenagers have now won thirty-seven LPGA events. Ko has thirteen of those victories. Next on the list is American Lexi Thompson, who had four before she turned twenty. So when the number one woman golfer in the world rolled in a long birdie putt on the par-4 6th hole to open a two shot lead, perhaps it’s understandable the Fox coverage began to make it sound like the rest of this year’s Women’s Open was going to be a Sunday stroll for Ko.

But with the USGA in charge of setting up the CordeValle Golf Club and a stiff breeze blowing through the hills of northern California’s Santa Clara Valley, the national championship was always going to be a challenging test of golf. In addition, what the television analysts forgot is that for all of her precocious achievements, Ko has an indifferent record as a closer. Ten times she has held the 54-hole lead at a LPGA event, but she sports only a fifty percent winning record in those tournaments.

On the 8th hole she gave back the stroke she had gained on the 6th when she missed an 8-footer for par. Then on the difficult par-5 9th she hooked her drive into the left rough. From there her hybrid failed to clear the hazard that cuts across the fairway. By the time Ko left the green she had recorded a double bogey and the championship was wide open.

What that allowed fans to discover was that Lydia Ko was not the only golfer on the first page of the leader board with a remarkable story behind her. There was 26-year old Amy Yang, with a remarkable history of near misses and heartbreak at the Women’s Open. Last summer she held the 54-hole lead at Lancaster Country Club, but was overtaken on Sunday by Ingee Chun and wound up second. The runner-up finish was Yang’s fifth top-ten in the last six U.S. Opens, including another second place finish in 2012. There was also 22-year old Sung Hyun Park, playing in her first U.S. Open and just her fifth LPGA event. A leader on the women’s tour in Korea, Park doesn’t speak English. At CordeValle she teamed with veteran caddie Jeff King, who speaks only English. While it would seem like the language barrier would prove an insurmountable obstacle in the essential communication between player and caddie, the two developed a system of hand signals supplemented by King drawing in the yardage book to guide Park around the course. They also relied on a chart translating yards into meters, since the caddie measured distances in the former while his charge used the latter.

For Yang this Sunday proved to be another near miss. Needing to make up ground on the leaders, she ran off eight consecutive pars between a bogey on the 8th hole and another on the 17th. By the time she birdied the last to bookend a sub-par opening hole, she could do no better than third place. Park dropped two shots in three holes after the final threesome was put on the clock on the back nine, but she birdied the 15th and came to the last needing another birdie to join a playoff for the title. Instead she hooked her hybrid second shot on the par-5 into the pond fronting the green, drowning her chances.

That playoff was between two golfers with stories of their own. Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist started the day just 1-under for the tournament before firing the best round of the day, a 5-under par 67. Had she emerged the victor she would have set a record for the largest final round charge, coming from six shots behind after 54 holes. But Nordqvist came up short in the three hole aggregate playoff to American Brittany Lang, who won her first major and just her second professional victory. On the one day of the entire year that women golfers face the most intense pressure, Lang won despite the fact that she has readily acknowledged her greatest weakness is dealing with pressure when she has a chance to win.

The final moments of the playoff became anticlimactic when USGA officials informed the players that Nordqvist was going to be penalized two shots for an incident on the 17th hole. A slow motion super-enlarged video replay showed that as she prepared to hit her second shot from a fairway bunker, her club caused a couple of grains of sand to move. Instead of the two players being even after each made a pair of pars, Lang was suddenly two shots ahead.

Just as at the men’s Open last month, the USGA mishandled the situation. Officials informed Nordqvist after she had hit her approach to the 18th green, but then told Lang before she took her shot. While it may not have altered the outcome the winner readily admitted that she changed clubs and hit a safer approach shot, knowing that she had the unexpected margin. While the video and the ruling were clear, the incident will also renew debate about whether championships should turn on the wonders of modern technology.

The penalty made for a subdued atmosphere during the trophy presentation. That was unfortunate, because the last and best story of this U.S. Women’s Open is that for golfers of a certain age the results should be cause for wild celebration. In the ever more youthful women’s game, where the top two golfers in the world rankings have yet to turn twenty, it was no surprise that at this Open there were more teenagers in the field than players in their thirties. Had 29-year old Anna Nordqvist won, she would have been the oldest winner so far this year on the LPGA Tour. Instead the result was even more shocking; for the trophy went to the positively ancient Brittany Lang, just six weeks shy of her 31st birthday.

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