By Vince Robitaille
The thing with putting yourself in the line of fire is that you might get shot. Repeatedly. I think that’s what happened, but I can’t quite grasp all of it yet. What I can most certainly decipher though is that my brackets prediction for this weekend’s Sybase Match Play Championship came crashing down early. Very early. With both my picks to reach the finals, namely Ai Miyazato and 2011 champion Suzann Pettersen, gone in the proverbial 60 seconds as well as a whole lot of early shake-ups ruffling my tree and making sure that I wouldn’t reap any fruits for climbing up, I knew that the week would prove to be a) quite harsh on Yours Truly and b) overly eventful, thus entertaining. That being said, in order to go over said entertaining events – and possibly figure out how I managed to get stomped so forcefully – let’s track back to Thursday morning. After all, rarely do we get to witness such baffling – and significant – opening days.
One has to take a brief moment to collect themselves and thank the almighty match format for giving teeth to whichever round of golf it reaches to, from the 2 o’clock green fee starting time at the local municipal course to the Walker, Solheim and Ryder cups, via the various national amateur championships. Is it the fact that we are fundamentally programmed to interpret events in a somewhat Manichean manner that prompts us to enjoy a good ole mano a mano rumble? Maybe it’s simply the inevitable short-term finality of it that brings us to the edge of our seat (maybe a word on mortality)? Either way, the exacerbated variance that match play brings to the table makes for numerous upsets that leave us shaking our heads…and asking for more.
Those words accurately describe the first round of the Sybase Championship as no fewer than 15 pre-tournament favorites, according to their seedings, were eliminated, amongst the 32 matches being played. Of that number, two were their respective groups’ top seeds, i.e. the aforementioned Norwegian and Japanese golfers. Foregoing the details of what proved to be yet another chapter in the fastidious demise of Michelle Wie – I don’t quite know for whose sake at this point, but I’m leaning towards hers – let’s go over the highlights of the day, starting with Uribe and Ewart’s 2-up and 3&1 victories, respectively.
The Pettersen (3)-Ewart(62) clash started out, as one would expect, with a quick dash from the defending champion who found herself 2-up after the first two opening holes, but things were bound to take a dreaded turn for the Olso-native. Through poor iron play, in her own admittance, and a inversely proportionate performance by her adversary, the latter found herself 2 UP after back-to-back birdies on the par-3 12th and par-4 13th. The Norwegian did manage to cut into the lead on 14th, but Ewart, came back and over the top, with a stunning tee shot on the 152-yard-long par-3 16th that set up a clutch 5-footer for birdie. On the 17th and last hole of the match, Pettersen found herself faced with a slight left-to-right 20-foot birdie attempt that would enable her to extend the match; an attempt which she overread, in both break and pace, and left her with no other option, but to surrender, both the hole and 3&1 triumph, to the 2009 and 2010 NCAA All-American, Jodi Ewart.
As the action in the Pettersen-Ewart bout came to an end, the table was only being setup, around the turn, in the Kathy Whitworth bracket for what would be two striking upsets; one from a seeding perspective, as Miyazato (4) was still leading Uribe (61) by a hole on 9th, and the other from a momentum perspective, as Sjodin (52*) was 3 UP on Ryu (13) at the beginning of their inward nine. While Miyazato widened the gap and found herself sitting on a 2-hole cushion at the 11th, the Swede had given up her two subsequent holes to the South Korean. On the 14th and 15th tees, respectively, Miyazato’s lead had shrunk to a mere hole and Sjodin found herself leveled with her opponent in a slight state of shock. Both golfers then succumbed to similar fates; Ryu draining a 15-footer for birdie on the 16th putting surface to take the lead, before repeating her feat and closing the match on 17th, and Uribe sinking a long slider to square up the match on 15th and, subsequently, running away with the “W”.
In other close calls, the one instance in which we picked a player and somewhat hoped to be wrong materialized as Ryann O’Toole showed the form that enabled her to become one of the premier surprises of the Solheim Cup – until the last 3 holes of her adventure – on her way to a 2&1 victory over fellow American, Britanny Lincicome. Both players exchanged holes, four to be precise, on the front nine, before Lincicome relinquished the lead on 9th. O’Toole then broadened the distance separating Lincicome and herself, by sinking the short uphill birdie putt that was left after her skillfully executed sawed off 8-iron from the 14th fairway. Said distance proved enough as subsequent holes were halved and the match was sealed on the 17th green.
Sadly for O’Toole, Friday would see her tournament end rather abruptly to the hands of Julieta Granada (41) in a lopsided 6&5 victory. The round of 32 would, however, provided more nail biters than cruising rides into the sunset like the Granada-O’Toole match or Stacey Lewis’ 4&3 triumph over Sandra Gal, two that spring to mind are the Pressel-Park and Kerr-Hurst matchups. In both bouts, the eventual conquerors, namely Morgan Pressel (15) and Vicky Hurst (37), found themselves down by one after 9 and X holes respectively. The 15th seeded American was the first one to rally with a birdie on the 329-yard-long par-4 10th, after placing her fairly aggressive approach both low and left of an already low and left pin placement. The heralded Solheim cupper, despite her opponent proving unable to walk through the wide open door that was her short birdie opportunity on 11th, couldn’t keep herself from sliding back to 1 DOWN on the par-3 12th. Resilient as always, however, Pressel quickly came back and both players found themselves in a bind on their way to the 14th tee, at which point the American put her foot to the floor and made her move. The determining shot was a hybrid from the 14th fairway to within 6 feet of the cup; a putt which she would go on to make, thus giving her a lead that she would never hand back. Hurst, on her end, would have to wait until the 14th to make up the ground that had been keeping Kerr out of reach since the turn. Missed chances to get ahead late on both 17th and 18th – where she missed a short putt and couldn’t take advantage of Kerr’s third shot that found the greenside bunker, respectively – could have proved fatal to Hurst, but the young one didn’t let Kerr back in on the 19th hole. An honorable mention should also be awarded to Mariajo Uribe for coming back from 3 down mid-round to give herself a shot at, not only extra holes, but a win on 18th – one could argue that Hull’s golden, to employ soccer terms, putt would have felt twice as long, had Uribe converted her birdie attempt.
Moving on to Saturday, the Sweet Sixteen’s last duel saw the last two Kraft Nabisco champions square off and much like it could be foreseen, it would go down to the wire. Stacey Lewis and Sun Young Yoo (11) were stuck in a deadlock up until the 16th green, at which point the American negotiated a tricky downhill, down-grain birdie putt to take the lead. Despite an impending loss lurking, Yoo, in incredibly clutch fashion, extended the match with about as true of a roll as I’ve ever witnessed. On the subsequent hole, the young South Korean left most onlookers awe-struck as she maneuvered her way out of an horrendous side hill lie from an abruptly lipped fairway bunker, and onto the green to a mere 4 feet. Lewis though, not to be outdone, would sneak her approach inside the 4-foot radius established by her adversary, to halve the hole and move on. In other confrontations, two of Yours Truly’s five favorites to lift the trophy come Sunday, faced off in a match that saw Morgan Pressel defeat Na Yeon Choi (2) in 19 holes, while the fast decision came in So Yeon Ryu’s 5&4 victory over Katherine Hull (36). Candie Kung (49), however, was responsible for the round’s paramount surprise as she defeated World no.1, Yani Tseng, with a final tally of 3&2.
The afternoon’s four contests were evenly matched, from a macroscopic scale, as two were rather pedestrian victories that were marked by fulgurant starts– Azhara Munoz (19) and Morgan Presell’s 5&4 wins over Lewis and Nordqvist (26), respectively – and the other side of the table’s duels ended in much tighter fashion. In the first of those bouts, So Yeon Ryu came out of the gates quickly to grab the first lead of the day early, only to witness the reluctant Vicky Hurst leveling things up with a birdie on the par-4 6th. Minutes later on the same putting surface, Julieta Granada accomplished the same feat to find herself neck and neck with Candie Kung. The 176-yard-long par-3 8th also saw some action as the US Women’s Open champion used her pin-point accuracy to net herself a birdie from a short distance, a feat left unequaled as Hurst’s distance control off the tee left her wanting – much like her putt on the subsequent hole. Ergo, while the American found herself one back at the beginning of her outward nine, Kung’s gritty putt to halve the 9th hole enabled her to head into the second stretch of the round, all square.
Both of our pairings of interest, after exchanging holes, found themselves in a standstill after the 14th hole. However, a So Yeon Ryu bogey on the 15th and a determined Hurst recording a birdie on the succeeding par-3, gave the American the 2-hole gap by which she’d, ultimately, prevail. In the Kung-Granada matchup, the 48th-seeded Kang would deliver the knockout punch via a 30-foot birdie that nullified the superb fairway bunker escape that Granada performed mere minutes earlier. With our four semifinalists punching their tickets to the semifinals, all we’re ready for an action-packed final day at Hamilton Farm Golf Club, and none were disappointed.
The matchups were intriguing to say the least. On one side, we had a match play specialist five years removed from her last LPGA Tour championship, crossing swords with her great friend, a fiery Spaniard still in search of her first win, whose recent weeks would make most golfers blush. On the other, a four-time LPGA champion who has been somewhat under the radar the past few years despite repeated top 15’s in majors, was lined up against a young, ivy cap-wearing grinder who has yet to reach her full potential. Sadly for the latter, her tournament ended on the 17th hole as Hurst couldn’t convert her par attempt that would have effectively extended the match. The other semifinal was gruesome, not so much in regards to the caliber of golf, but due to a twist of faith that could easily cause a stir between both friends. In two different instances, controversial rulings, highlighted by Pressel’s claim that Munoz had touched her line while going through the paces of her usual putting routine, halted the action and raised an utterly cold wind on an otherwise warm morning in New Jersey. When the hostility – the term is here of upmost accuracy – picked up again on the 15th green, it’s Munoz that used her fangs. The Spaniard proceeded to drain the long birdie putt that had been facing her for some quite long minutes now, after the officials ruled in her favor, squared the match up and closed the match with back-to-back pars; Pressel only managing to record bogeys on her last two holes of the Championship. Rarely, however, have victories looked so sour. It’s, in fact, a crying Munoz that walked off the course and went over how a 3-hole deficit turned to one in a fraction of a second following the awkwardly imposed slow play penalty that her friend Pressel was charged with.
Picking up the action on the outward nine of the Championship match, both the Annika Sorenstam and Patty Berg divisional flag-bearers, Azhara Munoz and Candie Kung, were caught in an impasse that lasted until the par-5 11th hole. After seeing her opponent overshoot her target by a good 12 yards, the Spaniard turned to her duly patented three-fingered shot to negotiate the 58 yards that separated her from the pin and, much like it has been the case of late, it was a thing of beauty that left her in, quite literally, gimme range. On the subsequent par-3 12th, Munoz, who airmailed her mid-iron in the greenside bunker, got an unexpected gift as Kung’s apparently quasi-flawless tee shot unexpectedly bounced and rolled off the putting surface. With the USC alumni unable to save par from behind the green, the Spaniard channeled the late Ballesteros, getting up-and-down for par and the hole. Both players exchanged birdies on 13th, the 48th-seeded Kang cut her adversary’s lead in half as the latter struggled around the green after pulling her second shot wide left. Continuing Munoz’s streak of unexpected breaks, on the par-3 16th hole, Candie Kung’s tee show was left short and left of the green. Well, that’s what would have happened were it not for a sprinkler head that send her ball soaring through the air and into nearby rubbish. The result? A double-bogey and an insurmountable 2 hole lead with 2 holes to go.
Just like this, we had our champion and, most fittingly, a 3rd place finisher that enabled two friends to bond again after what is oh so common in golf, harsh moments; Munoz coping with the recent passing of her grandmother as well as the controversy that surrounded her semifinal match with Pressel, the latter seeing her first victory in 5 years slipping away over a mere technicality. And, for Yours Truly? Well, I can always say that I knew Pressel was onto something. Other than that, I’ve had some great golf to witness and, for better or worse, that’s fine by me.