By Vince Robitaille
As I started writing this, right around the 16th hole on Sunday, Jack Nicklaus’ old mindset of lying low, letting others beat themselves and hand him the championship came to my mind. That being said, when those words sprung forth in my brain, I.K. Kim was the beneficiary of the present given up by Karin Sjodin and Hee Kyung Seo, not the generous soul … but then, there was the 18th green.
Career-defining moments are just that, career-defining. Whenever a name is brought up in the conversation, there’s that sudden flash, that vivid image of the highlight, whether grandiose or not, of one’s work. Tiger’s merry-go-round chip in at the 16th in the 2005 Masters, Nicklaus’ putt on the subsequent hole 19 years before, and Watson’s wedge from the rough on the 17th at Pebble Beach that led to his first U.S. Open victory, are, but a few of those glorious moments. Distressingly, I.K. Kim’s missed 1-footer on the 18th green seems to be more appropriately placed in the as exclusive, yet immensely undesirable group of those whose missed opportunity forever hunted them and forged their legacy. While she negotiated the par-5 final hole in perfect fashion up until then, thus distancing herself from Jean Van de Velde’s Carnage in Carnoustie, she couldn’t avoid pulling a Doug Saunders. Obviously heartbroken and shaken from the event, Kim went on to succumb, in a 1-hole playoff, to the hands of Sun Young Yoo; the latter draining a 15-foot birdie en route to her second LPGA Tour win and first triumph in a major. Hopefully for I.K. Kim, who hit all 18 greens in regulation on Sunday, her sixth top 5-finish in a major will only spark a Roryesquerun that will see her bouncing back in July on the grounds of Blackwolf Run.
I don’t know what’s more surprising, that missed putt or the fact that 314 words into this recapitulation of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the name Yani Tseng had yet to be mentioned. In fact, while the World No.1 seemed poised to make it four-straight, this weekend, with opening rounds that had her comfortably sitting in first place at 8-under, a stroke ahead of Haeji Kang. That being said, one couldn’t help but to pick up on the exacerbation of her short-distance putting woes; Tseng, much like her past few weeks, missed several putts under 10 feet, on Thursday and Friday, on her way to 31 and 30 putts respectively, while recording 28 and 29 through the weekend. Putts per round, however, as we’ll show soon enough, can be misleading if taken independently. Her flatstick issues, this time around, yielded more consequences as her showcase of ball striking, while still stellar in comparison to the field, wasn’t up to the level that she accustomed us to, namely near-perfection. As an example, going back to her putts per round, this statistic, which would seem to indicate an improvement through the tournament, was offset by the fact that Tseng hit 16 greens in regulation during each of the first two rounds in opposition to solely 12 and 11 on Saturday and Sunday. It goes to show how dominating a figure Tseng is, when a sub-par performance still had her in the last threesome on the first major Sunday of the season with her sight -not her hands – set on the Dinah Shore Trophy. The lone golfer in front of her, at that point, was one longing to get back in the winner’s circle, a luxurious spot she hadn’t visited since her days in Stillwater, Okla.
After six winless years on the LPGA Tour and an uneventful start to the championship, the ever-smiling Karin Sjodin had two days that would have anyone grinning. On Friday, after a quick start with a birdie on the par-5 2nd hole, the Swede shaved four additional strokes around the turn at Nos. 7, 9, 10 and 11, before exchanging birdies and bogeys on the last two holes of the day to hand in a 5-under 67. Moving day was more of the same for the former All-American who carded a 4-under 68 — the lone blemish coming by way of a bogey on the par-4 12th – highlighted by a bombing 287.5 yards driving average that enabled her splendid iron work to takeover and net her 17 greens in regulation. Then, for yet another one of our characters, there was Sunday.
The merry Swede took a running start, on the faithful day, by sinking an eagle putt on the par-5 2nd, a hole on which she totaled 5-under through the Championship. Although not even Tom “Durrr” Dwan could have read the slightest of worries on Sjodin’s face after dropping back the aforementioned two shots before the turn, one could feel the wind shifting, both literally and figuratively. As a matter of fact, gusting winds proved themselves to be, as predicted, a major player on Sunday as World No.1 Yani Tseng suffered, much like other high ball hitters amongst the last pairings, through the first two thirds of her final round, while earlier threesomes, revered wind-players and players with low ballflights shone. Whereas our pre-tournament favorites to put an end to the “Tseng Streak”, Stacey Lewis and Angela Stanford, were of those making a late surge — both of them finishing on the first two pages of the leaderboard with cumulative scores of 7-under and 5-under – it was 2011 Rolex Rookie of the Year, Hee Kyung Seo, that managed to ride the prevailing breeze. The South Korean nestled herself in first place, by way of 5 birdies over her first 12 holes, before crumbling rapidly to an aggregate result of 7-under through four consecutive bogeys, starting on 15th. Just like this, the one golfer who seemed to be on the receiving end of a nicely wrapped Nicklaus-type present, relinquished it, leaving the prize unattended on the kitchen table and us, bewildered onlookers, ever puzzled.
And so, we’ve come full circle. Four were, at one point, in a tie for first place at 9-under, I.K. Kim, then, distancing herself from the pack and looking like the obvious champion, was ultimately left there shell-shocked, a mere foot away from victory. Having gone unnoticed throughout the final day and posting a 3-under 69 to establish the benchmark score of 9-under a few groups before Kim, Sun Young Yoo quite amazingly sneaked in and came out on top. To be quite honest, had I not seen it with my own eyes and had I simply read a recap of April 1st events, I would have dismissed it as a good April Fool’s prank. After all, one laughed hysterically as she got out of Poppy’s Pond, one smiled throughout the day no matter what was thrown her way, and one simply couldn’t believe that she had been caught.