U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Weekend Charge Propels Park to First Major Triumph
July 16, 2017 | BEDMINSTER, N.J.
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
When Sung Hyun Park found herself behind the green on the 18th hole on Sunday, with a testing chip shot and an opportunity to win the 72nd U.S. Women’s Open in the balance, she admitted that her mind went blank.
The 23-year-old from the Republic of Korea had led this championship a year ago through 36 holes at CordeValle, but this time around at Trump National Golf Club in her second attempt, Park was the pursuer. She had improved her score every day, and finally took the solo lead from Shanshan Feng and amateur Hye-Jin Choi on the 16th hole of the final day.
Now, leading by two on the grandest stage in women’s golf, Park had flown the green of the par-5 finishing hole with her third shot and left herself the delicate matter of negotiating a pitch shot that sloped downhill toward the lake that fronts the green.
“My mind basically went blank, but at that moment, I was telling myself I should just stick to how I usually practice,” said Park. “I think the repetition and practice that I carried out probably paid off. To be honest with you, I was actually surprised myself.”
She executed the bump-and-run to perfection, as it trickled to within 2 feet of the hole, virtually locking up her first major championship. Park would go on to win by two over amateur Hye-Jin Choi with an 11-under-par total of 277, while the solo leader through the first three days, Shanshan Feng, displayed just how difficult Park’s task on No. 18 had been. Feng also flew the green and, from a similar position to where Park had been, chunked the shot and ended with a closing triple bogey, dropping her into a tie for fifth place, five strokes back with a final-round 75.
Park completed 72 holes with rounds of 73-70-67-67, having trailed Feng by seven strokes at the midway point, in a tie for 21st place. She made up four of those strokes on Saturday, and by the eighth hole on Sunday, she had passed Feng. Surprisingly, so had the amateur Choi, and both Park and Choi birdied the par-5 15th hole to get to 10 under par, one stroke ahead of Feng.
The tipping point of the stretch duel came on the 139-yard, par-3 16th hole, where Park hit safely over the pond, 28 feet to the left of the hole, and made a comfortable two-putt par. Playing with Feng in the final group, Choi hit into the water to the right of the green, and failed to save bogey from 16 feet after hitting from the drop zone, putting Park up by two strokes.
“When I had a birdie at the 15th hole, I thought that I may have a chance,” said Choi, who hit a 7-iron from the 16th tee that never had a chance of hitting the green. “At the time I felt that all this hard work I put together was going to disappear, so I was bit disappointed, but I had to refocus back to the remaining two holes.”
Choi birdied her final hole to record the lowest 72-hole score by an amateur in championship history (279, four better than Grace Park in 1999), and she became the first amateur to post a runner-up finish since Brittany Lang and Morgan Pressel were co-runners-up in 2005.
Having seized the advantage, Park showed why she was the dominant player on the Korean LPGA Tour in 2016, with seven victories, earning the nickname “Dak Gong,” loosely translated as “shut up and attack.” Park birdied the par-4 17th – one of just four birdies on the hole that played second-toughest for the day – leaving herself a cushion as she took on the potential pitfalls of the watery 18th.
Having hit into the water on the 72nd hole to miss the playoff by two strokes in 2016 at CordeValle (when Lang defeated Anna Nordqvist), Park relied on her caddie, David Jones, to keep her mind focused.
“One of the most difficult things is to keep that concentration level up because I know firsthand that once you lose it, your play is going to just go sideways,” said Park, who joined the LPGA Tour full-time this year and has four top-10 finishes. “Particularly today, I think my caddie had a great role of helping me stay focused. Whenever I was slightly shaken, he would put me back by saying small jokes or assuring me or pep talk.”
Feng hung on gamely through much of the day, but the solo leader through the first three rounds made only two birdies on the weekend – just one of the 62 players who made the 36-hole cut made fewer – while being outdriven by a wide margin by her younger adversaries.
“Well, actually I think I should be happy about my result because coming into this week I had no expectations at all,” said Feng, of the People’s Republic of China. “My last three U.S. Opens, I think I missed two cuts and last year I just made the cut [T-38] so actually this year is such an improvement.”
Eight of the top 10 finishers were Koreans, including 2011 champion So Yeon Ryu (closing 70) and Mi Jung Hur (69), who tied for third place, four strokes behind Park at 7-under 281. Amy Yang, who was tied for second starting the day and has been a fixture on the U.S. Women’s Open leader board with five top fives in the past seven years, faded to a tie for eighth place after a closing 3-over 75. Feng was joined by Carlota Ciganda, of Spain, and Jeongeun6 Lee, of Korea, in the tie for fifth at 282.
Park becomes the 11th champion in the last 12 (all except Inbee Park in 2013) to make the U.S. Women’s Open her first major-championship win. Afterward, she tried to make sense of it.
“I almost feel like I’m floating on a cloud in the sky,” said Park. “Of course, I did have many winnings in other tournaments, but winning here at the U.S. Open means so much more and for that I am grateful and extremely happy.”
It took an embrace with her mother, Keum Ja Lee, to make it real.
“Up until the moment that I saw my mother, I couldn’t feel that it was really happening,” said Park. “She stood right in front of me and said, I am so proud of you, Sung Hyun. At that moment it dawned onto me, I guess I really won the championship.”
She really did.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.