USGA CHAMPIONS
Champs Update: Ji Tops Stellar Field in LPGA Season Opener January 21, 2019 | Liberty Corner, N.J. By David Shefter, USGA

Eun-Hee Ji overcame challenging weather conditions to win the season-opening event on the LPGA Tour. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

When Eun-Hee Ji captured the U.S. Women’s Open title 10 years ago, she was yet another up-and-comer from the talent-rich Republic of Korea. Ji rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., for a one-stroke victory over Candie Kung.

But after that triumph, Ji, who was 23 at the time, disappeared from the winner’s circle on the LPGA Tour. It would be eight-plus years before Ji hoisted another trophy, capturing the 2017 Swinging Skirts LPGA Taiwan Championship title by six shots over Lydia Ko.

That victory seemed to rejuvenate Ji’s career. She collected LPGA win No. 4 last March at the Kia Classic, and then in challenging weather conditions on Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., outdueled a stellar field in the season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at Tranquilo Golf Club at Four Seasons.

Battling gusty winds and temperatures in the 50s, Ji posted a 1-under-par 70 to edge countrywoman Mirim Lee by two strokes.

It took Ji a few holes to warm up to the chilly conditions. After opening with consecutive bogeys, the now 32-year-old quickly settled down with birdies on Nos. 3 and 4. She went out in 1-over 35, but shot 2-under 35 on the way home, making birdies on two of the three second-nine par 5s.

“My body was a little bit tight on first tee, so I just pulled a little bit, and I made a bogey,” said Ji. “I made a bogey again second hole. I was like: `OK, wait a minute. I need to play this.’ But I have like 16 more holes, and I just trust my swing after that.”

The competition was open to winners only from the last two seasons, and also featured a celebrity component with athletes and entertainers playing alongside the LPGA’s finest in a 72-hole Stableford format. Major League Baseball Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who qualified for last year’s U.S. Senior Open, edged fellow pitcher Mark Mulder by three points.

Mickelson Starts Year With Runner-Up Showing

Phil Mickelson will turn 49 during this year’s U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links, but if his 2019 debut is any indication, he just might be a factor in June.

The 1990 U.S. Amateur champion, who owns a record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open, carded a 12-under 60 at La Quinta (Calif.) Country Club in the first round of the Desert Classic, only to come up one stroke short of victory. Mickelson watched unheralded rookie Adam Long convert a 13-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the Stadium Course at PGA West to claim the title.

La Quinta, the Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West and the Stadium Course were used for the first three rounds, with the Stadium Course serving as the final-round venue.

Long, Mickelson and Adam Hadwin were all tied at 25 under par entering the final hole, but it was the 31-year-old Long who delivered, denying Mickelson from winning his 44th PGA Tour title.

Mickelson will break from tradition and not play the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, site of the 2021 U.S. Open. The native of San Diego, Calif., will not play his hometown event for the first time since turning professional in 1992. He has won the event three times, the first coming in 1993. Given his age, Mickelson said he wants to be more selective in 2019 to get himself in the best competitive shape for the major championships, including the U.S. Open, the one major that has eluded him.

“I’m going to have to start limiting the number of tournaments that I play so that I can play those at a higher level, because I’m getting a little bit more mental fatigue and not able to focus and see the shot as clearly as I’d like for so many weeks in a row,” said Mickelson.

The Farmers field will, however, include three-time U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods, world No. 1 and 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and reigning U.S. Amateur champion Viktor Hovland.

Toms Second in Hawaii

David Toms looked in full control to get his first PGA Tour Champions victory since his triumph last June in the U.S. Senior Open Championship at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.

A pair of 7-under 65s gave the 52-year-old from Shreveport, La., a four-stroke cushion going into Saturday’s final round of the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. But a three-putt on the 54th hole prevented Toms from forcing a playoff with Tom Lehman, who closed with a 65.

Toms, who carded a final-round 70, missed a 7-foot par putt on the par-4 18th hole. He had made seven consecutive pars heading to the last hole.

“Hate to end up that way on the last hole,” said Toms, who will defend his Senior Open title this June at the Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame. “Trying to make it (the first putt) because I figured if I made it, I had a chance to win right there. Never even entered my mind that I was going to three-putt.”

Bernhard Langer, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion, shared third with defending champion Jerry Kelly.

GWAA Honors Woods, Miller and Ogilvy

Coming back from spinal fusion surgery in 2017 – his fourth procedure on his back – and then winning the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Ga., helped three-time U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods win the Golf Writers of Association of America’s Ben Hogan Award. The annual honor is given to a player who has overcome a physical handicap or serious injury to remain active in the game.

 “I’m grateful to receive an award named after Mr. Hogan and to join a group of truly inspirational individuals,” said Woods, who also owns three U.S. Junior Amateur and three U.S. Amateur titles.

 “I feel very fortunate that I was able to return to a normal life with my kids, and I understand what a privilege it is to play competitive golf again.”

Former Hogan Award winners include U.S. Open champions Lee Trevino, Hubert Green and Ken Venturi as well as 2016 U.S. Senior Open champion Gene Sauers, 1984 U.S. Amateur champion Scott Verplank and current Fox lead golf analyst Paul Azinger.

Miller, the 1973 U.S. Open champion as well as the winner of the 1964 U.S. Junior Amateur, will receive the 2018 William D. Richardson Award, given to an individual who has made a significant contribution to golf. Miller is retiring from the broadcast booth after next week’s Waste Management Open in Scottsdale, Ariz. He has been the lead analyst for NBC since 1990.

Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, received the 2018 ASAP Sports/Jim Murray Award that is given to a player for his or her working relationship with the media.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.