By Vince Robitaille
GolfWRX Staff Writer
As the U.S. Women’s Open returned to Blackwolf Run where The Shot That Changed Women’s Golf was orchestrated by Se Ri Pak already 14 years ago, premier golfers from around the world were set to face what was expected by many to, perhaps, turn into the steepest challenge of their entire career. Despite the composite Championship Course climbing from the par-71 that it was in 1998 to a par-72, the course was significantly lengthened to play to a total yardage of 6,984. The real story, however, felt more like that of grand homecomings; that of a grand champion and the one she inspired.
14 years separate Sunday’s – or should we say Saturday’s as the U.S. Women’s Open had been set in stone around the turn on moving day – victory by, once more, World No.2, Na Yeon Choi, from Se Ri Pak’s. Describing these events as such, however, seems rather underwhelming; both South Korean triumphs on the same hallowed grounds not being merely fortuitous occurrences, but, rather, being inextricably linked in the greater scheme of things: a striking case of One Does Not Go Without the Other.
Na Yeon Choi wasn’t a golfer 14 years ago. To be quite precise, 14 years ago, c had never picked up a club. She was, nonetheless, riveted to her television set as her country’s sporting pride fiercely battled her way through a grueling 20-hole playoff en route to her first major. The triumph cemented two things: Pak’s forerunner status – she’d go on to claim the McDonald’s LPGA Championship that year as well – and South Korea’s impending takeover launched by the message that resonated through most young girls, back in Korea. Evidently, one of these responsive youths was the now major-winning Choi.
Choi’s seemingly overdue major run begun as a walk. Her initial burst out of the gates – she found herself sitting on 3-under after 5 holes – was impeded by a combination of sub-par distance-to-the-hole average and frightful putting; the South Korean leaving numerous putts woefully short throughout the day. To be quite frank, the eventual trophy-hoister lurked in the oh so proverbial shadows – the sweltering heat wave that has plagued the Midwest of late annihilating any hopes of shade – on opening day. Thus, the door was, initially, wide-opened for others to establish the Championship’s pace. Doing so were three Americans, albeit in drastically different fashions. Kerr, on her part, recorded what felt like the least spectacular U.S. Open-leading 3-under round Yours Truly has ever witnessed. The former World No.1 mixing together impeccable driving, solid yet unglamorous iron play and putting, with a few lip-outs to make up her once-trademarked sneaky and surgical round. The second of our co-leaders, Brittany Lincicome, did what she does best: overpowering the course, shaving strokes on 75 percent of Blackwolf Run’s par-5’s in the process. The surprise and round of the day, however, was undeniably LPGA rookie, Lizette Salas. The two-time All-American at the University of South California’s day was best summarized by her textbook birdie on 18th and her 40-footer on 15th.
Amongst other Thursday notables, Suzann Pettersen turned in 2-under tally that would have satisfied many; the opening round’s scoring average consisting of a whopping 76. The Norwegian, though, had a slightly bitter taste in her mouth when the action wrapped up in Wisconsin, as a handful of missed opportunities kept her from a spot atop the leaderboard. On a somewhat surprising note, Michelle Wie, on her end, looked sharp for the first time in a few moons. Her ball striking display, despite a few dead pulls, was reminiscent of what she once had us used to, and her putting stroke appeared remarkably steadier. Her flat stick did falter on several occasions – Wie’s three-putts on 12th and 14th spring to mind – but, in regards to her appalling standards of late, a clear, yet difficultly displayed by stats – her 35 putts are still miles away from being impressive – amelioration could be discerned. Lastly, Yani Tseng’s cold streak seemed poised to continue as her efforts to gain momentum kept running into disastrous holes; the World No.1’s triple bogey on the par-4 11th occasioned by two traumatically pulled shots, serves as prime example.
Friday’s play was punctuated by a few sprints and many stalls; leaders, apart from Pettersen, slowing down – much like our eventual champion who found herself stuck at 1-under at the end of the day – and a minority of chasers coming from behind. Cristie Kerr’s round resembled her previous one in many ways, growing more frustrated by the second proportionately with her numerous lip-outs. The American, thus, couldn’t take advantage of a Blackwolf Run that played almost three strokes easier than it previously did. Much like the first round’s co-leader, teenage sensation Lexi Thompson ultimately stood still. Despite a roaring start highlighted by a birdie on 12th – she began the day on the back nine – the 17-year-old pushed her tee shot into the water right of the 13th putting surface. The rather harsh double bogey that ensued effectively stopped the young Thompson in her tracks, at 1-under.
The day’s well-defined victors were Suzann Pettersen and Michelle Wie. The former’s four outward nine birdies enabling her to grasp the solo lead heading into the weekend, while the latter’s 25 putts and 7 seven birdies helped her jump into a tie for second place. Manifestly, our observations regarding her improved putting stroke materialized into rather short-term results.
Discussing Friday’s action without mentioning what might go down as one of the strangest mishaps in golf’s history, would quite simply be a felony. As it has been previously discussed in this column, see Slipped Through The Net, blunders of shocking proportions have a tendency to vividly print themselves in our memory. With that in mind, Cindy Lacrosse’s Na-esque moment on the 11th green lacked the dramatic tension of I.K. Kim’s missed putt on the Kraft Nabisco Championship’s 72nd hole, but made up for it in the mind-bobbling department. Facing a 2-inch-long par putt, the American aligned herself by the ball – on one leg – and proceeded to freeze and, not only miss the tap-in conversion, but the ball altogether. Amazingly, the former Louisville Cardinal came back with birdies on 12th and 16th, ultimately being rewarded for her resilience with a top-15 finish come Sunday.
As previously stated, Na Yeon Choi put the Championship in her back pocket on moving day. With players left and right tumbling down the leaderboard – Pettersen, Wie and Kerr’s rounds of 78, 78 and 76 efficiently depict the situation – and solely five of them posting scores in the red figures, the 24-year-old saw an opportunity and seized it; an attempt undeniably facilitated by the seven birdies she recorded on the opening 12 holes.
Fittingly, as her primary follower captured her first major victory in the very settings that saw her do the same many years ago, the trailblazing Se Ri Pak made sure not to be outdone on her own turf. The original South Korean U.S. Women’s Open champion capped off her week with a 71 on Sunday, netting her an ever so respectable top-10. Some say that history has a way of repeating itself. This time, however, History simply ran its course. An intricate and well-laced course.