Lately, the U.S. Women’s Open has had a habit of producing unheralded champions.
Hilary Lunke’s playoff triumph in 2003 at Pumpkin Ridge remains her only professional victory. Two years later, Birdie Kim holed out from a greenside bunker at the 72nd hole at Cherry Hills Country Club to beat two amateurs. The Korean has yet to win since.
And last year at Interlachen Country Club, outside of Minneapolis, Korea’s Inbee Park rallied on the final day to become the youngest champion in Women’s Open history, surpassing countrywoman Se Ri Pak. The 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, now 20, also is seeking a second professional win.
On a glorious sun-splashed Sunday at Saucon Valley Country Club, 23-year-old Korean Eun-Hee Ji became the latest surprise champion, producing a stunning come-from-behind victory by holing a 20-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole to beat Candie Kung by a stroke. She took home the trophy and $585,000. Finishing two shots back were In-Kyung Kim and Cristie Kerr. Ji’s even-par 71 in the final round gave her a level-par total of 284.
Ji, whose only previous U.S. victory came last year at the Wegmans LPGA in Rochester, N.Y., became the fourth Korean since Se Ri Pak’s triumph in 1998 to win the Women’s Open. Not since Lauri Merten in 1993, at Crooked Stick, had anyone birdied the 72nd hole to win by one stroke.
“I think this is going to be one of the most memorable moments in my life,” said Ji through a translator. “I didn’t even dream about winning this tournament.”
While Ji was the championship’s most consistent player – she posted rounds of 71-72-70-71 – virtually everyone on the grounds of the Old Course Sunday believed 36- and 54-hole leader Kerr would take the title. The 31-year-old American carried a two-shot lead over Ji into the final round, but more important, she was the only player among the top seven entering Sunday with a major title on her résumé.
Major winners Suzann Pettersen and Brittany Lincicome lurked, but were six shots back.
But Kerr’s bogey on the par-5 opening hole was a bad harbinger. The 2007 U.S. Women’s Open champion turned in 2-over 38 and when she bogeyed the par-4 13th hole, Kerr had fallen out of the lead for the first time since Friday morning. A three-putt bogey at 16 sealed her fate.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” said Kerr, who took 35 putts in the final round. “I don’t think [this defeat] will bother me too much because I don’t feel like it was mental. I felt like it was more physical today than mental. I hit it out of the rough all day. You’re not going to hit it close to the hole like that.”
After making clutch par saves at 15 and 16, Kung seemed poised to take the title. The 27 year old from Chinese Taipei who won the 2001 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title, holed a 6-footer at No. 15 and an 8-footer at 16, only to come up just short on a 12-foot par putt at 17 after hitting her tee shot into a greenside bunker at the par-3 hole. Her long birdie attempt at 18 barely missed.
Kung opened the championship with 22 consecutive pars and did not make a birdie until her 42nd hole. With a 68 on Saturday and 69 Sunday, Kung joined Paula Creamer as the only players in the field to post multiple rounds in the 60s (Creamer shot 68 on Friday, 69 Sunday).
“That was very costly on 17, hitting a wedge into a bunker and making bogey,” said Kung. “But again, there’s nothing I can do. It’s over.”
When Ji walked off the 10th green with a double-bogey 6, it appeared her championship hopes were over. But unlike Creamer on Saturday, whose triple bogey at 10 led to a 79, Ji didn’t let the setback affect the way she performed over the final eight holes.
In fact, Ji said it calmed her down. Birdies at 13 and 14 moved her to within a stroke of the lead, and when Kung bogeyed 17 the stage was set for the dramatic putt at 18.
Admitting to nerves as she made the stroke, she sent her 29th putt of the day into the center of the hole.
“I knew the worst possible scenario was a [three-hole] playoff,” said Ji, whose putting progressively improved from 33 in round one to 31, 30 and 29. “So I cleared my mind and thought, ‘Let’s give it a try’ and then it just sunk in.”
After playing the Asian and Korean LPGA tours, Ji decided to join the LPGA Tour in 2008, where she registered eight top-10 finishes, including the Wegmans triumph, and finished 15th on the money list. Interestingly, her first victory in Korea came without dad caddieing and this week, only Ji’s mom was in attendance.
“It’s kind of funny how these things happen when my father is away,” said Ji. “He was with me until the McDonald’s LPGA Championship [last month].”
Dad will certainly see his daughter’s name plastered all over Korean newspapers in the coming days.
“I’m going to have to go for a lot of interviews when I get back,” she said. “I think there will be a lot more people recognizing me now.”