Lydia Ko insisted she wasn’t thinking about being the low amateur at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open as she walked up the 18th fairway on Sunday.
Not after pull-hooking her third shot on No. 16, which led to a double-bogey 7. Or making another bogey at the par-3 17th, which dropped her to even par for the day. Or after pulling her drive on 18 into the water hazard.
Other thoughts were swirling in her head.
"My head was pretty full already," said Ko, the No. 1 female amateur according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking and recipient of the 2011 Mark H. McCormack Medal, an honor that earned the 15-year-old from New Zealand a spot in this week’s field at Blackwolf Run. "It was kind of disappointing the last three holes."
The double bogey-bogey-triple bogey finish – she made a 7 on 18 – fortunately didn’t cost Ko low-amateur honors of the three who made the 36-hole cut. She edged 18-year-old Emma Talley, of Princeton, Ky., by one stroke after shooting a 3-over 75 to finish at 12-over 300. Talley carded a final-round 72 (301), while 17-year-old Alison Lee, of Valencia, Calif., finished at 306 following a 76.
Being low amateur was Ko’s primary goal when she arrived in the U.S. last week from Auckland. Her performance this week also justified the lofty ranking.
"Definitely," said Ko, who was the fourth-youngest player in the field this week. "There were a few points where I could have improved, but … I got good experience out there, and I was able to play with [world No. 2] Stacy Lewis and [2011 Women’s Open runner-up] Hee Kyung Seo [this weekend] so it was really good, and I just enjoyed being out here. Being able to play the tournament itself was really good."
Ko was joined this week by her mother and longtime swing coach Guy Wilson. A good student, Ko attends the Institute of Golf in New Zealand, which is currently on a two-week holiday break.
Earlier this spring, Ko, who came to the U.S. last summer and earned co-medalist honors at the U.S. Women’s Amateur before being eliminated in the second round of match play, was called at the last-minute by Kraft Nabisco officials to play the year’s first women’s major, but the timing didn’t work financially. Wilson said it would have cost $10,000 to play, although her current summer trip has been partially funded by the New Zealand Golf Federation.
Ko isn’t sure where she’ll play between now and next month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Country Club in suburban Cleveland. By completing 72 holes at the Women’s Open, she’s now exempt into the U.S. Girls’ Junior (July 16-21) at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif. Wilson said she also is under consideration for a sponsor’s exemption into the Evian Masters in France the same week.
"She’ll be playing somewhere," he said.
In September, Ko will fly to England for the Women’s British Open at Royal Liverpool, and she’s likely to represent New Zealand again at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Turkey this fall.
"There’s more competition here in the states," said Ko, who won the New South Wales Open earlier this year to become the youngest winner of a professional event, and the 2012 Australian Amateur. "There are great players in New Zealand, but there are many more here. It’s always fun to play here, but it’s quite hard because it’s the winter season back in New Zealand and we’re coming straight here where it’s dry, hot and humid, so it’s the exact opposite. I guess I have to cope with that."
Two Different Opens
In 1998, Nicole Castrale was an amateur and playing in her first U.S. Open, which was incidentally at Blackwolf Run.
"Funny, in '98 I was 19, my first Open, and I called my golf coach at the time on Monday, and I was like, ‘Oh, it's not that bad. Rough's not that high. Golf course isn't that tough.’ Yeah, it got handed to me, you know, come Thursday or Friday. I was just young," said Castrale, who shot 78-84 in two rounds at the Open and missed the cut, playing as Nicole Dalkas.
This time around, the former University of Southern California standout played into the weekend as a sectional qualifier, carding an overall 4-over 292 for a share of ninth place.
Castrale came off a lingering shoulder injury, which required surgery in 2002, to post her best finish since 2008. She had been shut down again with a shoulder injury in 2010.
"It's just good for me to get back into it and hit golf shots," said Castrale, whose best Women’s Open finish was in 2008 when she tied for sixth. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous coming down the stretch the last few holes. I haven't been there in a major since '09."
Castrale and Giulia Sergas were the two sectional qualifiers who finished in the top 10 to earn an exemption into the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club.
Good 9, Bad 9
Yani Tseng never got untracked this week in the one major championship missing from her impressive resume.
The No. 1 player in the Rolex Women's World Rankings, Tseng closed with a second straight 6-over-par 78 and ended up at 14-over 302, tied for 50th place. The final nine was particularly painful for the 23-year-old from Chinese Taipei. Tseng turned in 33, but suffered three bogeys and three double bogeys for an inward 45.
"It was like some amateur was playing on the back nine," Tseng said with a tight smile. "But I mean these four days I played nine holes good, played good nine holes every day. It was like switch on and off. It was like perfect front 9 and back 9 was just way off. It was like a totally different person playing golf."
Tseng hasn't been quite herself for a while now. She didn't break par in any of her four rounds, extending that streak to her last 10 rounds, and after eight top-10 finishes to begin the season – including two wins – she hasn't posted another in her last four tournaments.
"It's about a mental game," Tseng said. "When you get everything going and it's very easy to make a putt, hit shots, but when you have a couple bad holes, couple bad shots, it's really hard to continue playing well. ... Everything just kind of goes pretty bad."
American-born Brittany Lincicome wrapped up what turned out to be a frustrating week. A second-round 80 killed any chance of her winning. With Korean-born players dominating in the U.S. Women’s Open as of late, Lincicome was asked what it meant, if anything.
"I have no idea," said Lincicome. "Maybe I should spend a week with one of them and kind of figure out what they do. Obviously they practice unbelievably hard. They're not fishing on their weeks off like I am.
"[It’s] probably just work ethic. They practice a little bit harder than we do, I guess. Their short games are so good. I'm not sure why their short games are different than ours. But maybe they practice it more, maybe that's just why they're better. She's getting it up‑and‑down from everywhere, I guess."
But for a second-round 80, the 67th U.S. Women's Open would have ended drastically better for Lincicome.
The first-round tri-leader could only lament her ugly Friday effort for her eventual tie for 19th place at 6-over 294, especially after carding one of the few sub-par rounds of the day Sunday, a 1-under 71, which came despite a bogey at 18.
"Today if you look at my card it was so up and down," Lincicome, 26, said. "I started really well, got up to two under and bogeyed two holes back to back, and to finish the last hole with a bogey just kind of puts a sour taste in your mouth. I had done so many wonderful things out there. I was putting so well, doing so many great things, and then to finish with a bogey is kind of disappointing, but it was a great round. Better than Friday."
Friday's round wiped out all of her hard work from the first round when she opened with a 69. And amid Saturday's gusting winds, Lincicome hung tough with a respectable 74. "Yeah. You get that round out of there, even 1 or 2 over, it would have been a good championship. But, obviously, that's ... oh, well, always next year."
While Se Ri Pak was putting out on No. 18, Na Yeon Choi was about to do the same on No. 9, which acts as a double green with the final hole, which. Could it have been the passing of the torch from one Korean to another?
Pak noticed as she finished that Choi was playing No. 9 and tried to get Choi’s attention. Well, I know she's focused, and I'm trying to give her a little look back, but I don't want her to lose her focus, said Pak, who shot a final-round 71 to finish at four-over-par 292, in a tie for ninth place.
Pak is something of a celebrity in Korea. Since winning the U.S. Women’s Open 14 years ago at Blackwolf Run, she’s paid attention to fellow Koreans lauding her as a hero. One of those happened to be Choi, this year’s champion, who was 9 years old when Pak won.
"It's nice to hear from all those young players in my country," said Pak. "I really am proud to be a part of it,. … I was in Korea. I was a kid watching men's tour and the LPGA events and exactly as Na Yeon said, I dreamed about it. I want to go over there and be the best in the world. And I am here and I guess I am the leader and they follow me."
David Shefter is a senior writer for the USGA. Ken Klavon is the USGA’s online editor. Stuart Hall and Dave Shedloski are freelance writers whose work has appeared on USGA websites.