Irony of ironies, Birdie Kim lived up to her name in winning the 60th U.S. Women’s Open Sunday on the 72nd hole.
In an epic moment that will live in the annals of golf history, the 23-year-old Kim in her first Women’s Open holed out of a bunker on the 72nd hole to erase a deadlock at the top of the leaderboard.
Kim shot 1-over 72 Sunday, 3-over-par 287 for the championship, and in the process, deflated the hopes of 17-year-old amateur Morgan Pressel who had been on the 18th fairway tied with Kim when the ball disappeared in the hole to a raucous applause. Needing to match the birdie on a hole that surrendered just four all championship, Pressel’s chip for the equalizer ran 15 feet by the flagstick. She took bogey and tied another amateur, Brittany Lang, for runner-up honors at 5-over 289, while Natalie Gulbis and Lori Kane shot 6-over 290.
The runner-up finish was no consolation for the charismatic 17-year-old Pressel, teary-eyed as she dropped her final putt on No. 18. As she made her way to the scoring trailer scores of people, including Annika Sorenstam and her grandfather Herb Krickstein, embraced her.
"I feel OK, I feel OK," said the red-eyed Pressel. "She hit a great shot; I had to hole it. You can’t miss it when the crowd erupts."
Of the modern era, the hole-out was reminiscent of Bob Tway’s dandy offering from a bunker on the 72nd hole to win the1986 PGA Championship. Or Larry Mize’s chip-in from the right greenside rough on the 11th playoff hole to beat Greg Norman at the 1987 Masters.
"I still can’t believe it. I’m very happy," said the Korean-born Kim, who changed her first name from Ju-Yun to Birdie last year because she felt there were too many Kims on the LPGA Tour.
Kim added that it never even dawned on her that she might win, saying that she set her sights on placing in the top 10.
"I never think about win," said Kim through broken English. "I just try to do my best."
The last player to win the Women’s Open on the 72nd hole was Lauri Merten in 1993 at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., nosing Donna Andrews and Helen Alfredsson by a stroke.
Kim began the day trailing third-round leaders Pressel, Karen Stupples and 15-year-old Michelle Wie by a shot. When the pundits were lavishing attention on Pressel, Sorenstam and Wie this week, the former Korean University student quietly went about her business in stringing together rounds of 74-72-69 on the 6,749-yard, par-71, layout to put herself in contention.
As Stupples (7-over 78) and Wie (11-over 82) dropped off the board early, Pressel and Kim hung tough. Kim, who struck nine fairways and just eight greens, scrambled when she needed to.
Kim grabbed a share of the lead after a birdie on No. 5 and took sole possession two holes later with another birdie. Neither said they were nervous. In fact, the strong-willed Pressel sang songs during most of her round according to her caddie, Sam Hinshaw.
By the time both made the turn, little did either of them know what was happening with Lorena Ochoa. The 23-year-old Mexican moved to the 18th teeing ground at 3 over for the event. Ochoa made her way from the 17th green studying the scoreboard.
At that point she was thinking "that I was going to win the tournament."
In hindsight a birdie on the final hole would have conceivably won the Open, a par forcing a playoff. Ochoa went with a 3-wood as she gazed over the water that abuts the teeing ground.
She got too quick with her hands hitting the drive fat. The ball hooked into the water. Ochoa took an eight on the hole, falling to 7 over.
"It is hard to realize right now," said Ochoa. "I just gave it away, the tournament."
Oblivious to this, Kim pushed her 5-footer for par 2 feet past the hole on No. 10. Moments later, Pressel deftly knocked in an 8-footer from the back fringe to save par and retain a share of the lead.
Kim opted to not look at the leaderboard until the 12th hole.
Kim opened a two-stroke lead after 13 holes when Pressel couldn’t get up and down from a left greenside bunker. It didn’t last long. Kim’s drive on the 14th wet far right, her ball settling near a chain-link fence. Her caddie, Miles Nixon, advised to take a drop after it was ruled she wasn’t entitled to relief. Kim instead had a masterful chip-out to the left part of the fairway, leading to a two-putt for bogey and one-stroke advantage.
"She has unbelievable imagination," said the 25-year-old Nixon, citing that the drop would have probably amounted to double bogey.
A bogey on the 16th when Kim two-putted from 35 feet created another tie with Pressel, who steered in a 12-footer from the fringe on 15 for another animated par save.
Lang, part of this spring’s national championship Duke squad, entered the mix with a birdie on the 17th before bogeying the finisher to card even-par 71 for the round and 5 over.
It set the stage for Kim, who was in the immediate group ahead of Pressel. After brief discussion with Nixon, Kim blocked her 7-wood approach shot and the ball bounded into the right front bunker some 45 feet from the hole. The bunker restricted her sight-line to the flagstick. She bounced up and down to get a view twice then gripped her two-week old sandwedge.
Kim released through her swing. The ball rose above a mound, dropping softly on her target area 12 feet away. It started rolling. Fans in the grandstands rose, the murmuring evident that something special could happen. The ball spun toward the hole, fate as its guide. It disappeared. Kim raised her arms in shock, peering out from the bunker.
Nixon knew it was pure gold when "about five feet from the hole when it came out and it released. I thought, ‘Uh, uh, uh,’" he said. "I screamed. I almost cried. I got teary-eyed."
Said Kim, 141st in sand saves on the LPGA Tour this season: "Really, I didn’t think I’d make it. I tried to do best. I just tried to par, get close to hole."
Meanwhile, Pressel witnessed the feat from the fairway while waiting to hit. She put both hands on top of her hat in disbelief.
Asked what went through her mind, she said: "Oh, my God, you’ve got to be kidding me. That did not just happen.
"She hit a great shot. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’"
Hinshaw and Pressel talked about strategy. They agreed that she had to run the ball up because landing it on the green meant instant back fringe stuff. With 179 yards to the hole, Hinshaw handed Pressel a 4-iron.
"I just knew what I had to do," said Pressel. "I turned to my caddie and said, ‘You think she might have hit it in the water then holed the bunker shot?’ Maybe I still have some life left."
To no avail, it wasn’t the case.
The ball came off the blade clean. Pressel wished for the best. The ball skipped right instead of left, dying in the rough and killing odds that another miracle would happen. She stroked at the ball, which was sitting up high, afraid to come under it too much. She knew she just couldn’t leave it short. It rolled 15 feet by the hole.
Pressel walked dejectedly to her bag after holing out trying to keep her emotions in check. Her eyes welled up with tears.
Seemingly a surreal moment, a dazed Pressel made her way toward the scoring trailer to gobs of well-wishers. Fifty feet from her final destination, out popped Sorenstam from the clubhouse with a sympathetic smile. The most dominating female golfer embraced Pressel like a rag doll.
"She just said, ‘Great job. You played real well and you are going to have many more times, so keep your head up,’" said Pressel almost breaking down again.
The words stung, but the words from the superstar of today resonated loud and clear with the future of tomorrow.