Two years ago, A Lim Kim registered her first LPGA Tour of Korea victory at the Se Ri Pak Invitational. It came 20 years after that tournament’s namesake produced a seminal moment in women’s golf for the Republic of Korea, a victory in the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open. Now the 25-year-old will have her name etched on the same iconic trophy.
Kim closed out the weather-delayed final round of the 75th U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club on a chilly Monday in southeast Texas with three consecutive birdies to edge countrywoman and world No. 1 Jin Young Ko and Amy Olson by one stroke. Her 4-under-par 67 matched the lowest round of the championship and gave her a 3-under total of 281. Hinako Shibuno, the 54-hole leader, finished two strokes back.
The No. 94 player in the Rolex Rankings became the 10th different Korean to claim the Harton S. Semple Trophy since Pak’s breakthrough moment 22 years ago at Blackwolf Run. That win also came on a Monday, in what became a 20-hole playoff victory over amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn.
Kim also became the third Korean in the last 15 years to win the oldest major championship in women’s golf in her first start, joining Birdie Kim (2005) and In Gee Chun (2015). Only two others – Patty Berg in the inaugural event in 1946 and Kathy Cornelius 10 years later – had managed to win this title in their first start. In fact, this was Kim’s first-ever competition in the United States and her first women’s major.
When the result became official, defending champion Jeongeun Lee6 and another Korean competitor gave the new winner a celebratory shower in the Player Hospitality tent.
“Can’t really describe it in words,” said Kim through a translator. “I never expected that I was going to appear in the U.S. Women’s Open. I still can’t feel what it’s like right now, but I’ll probably feel it when the ceremony and everything wraps up today.”
The championship had to be completed on Monday due to nearly three-quarters of an inch of rain that saturated the Cypress Creek Course on Sunday. Only twice before had a non-playoff round of the U.S. Women’s Open been completed on a Monday: 1987 at Plainfield Country Club, where a Tuesday 18-hole playoff was required, and 2011 at The Broadmoor, where fellow Korean, So Yeon Ryu, prevailed in a three-hole aggregate playoff over compatriot Hee Kyung Seo.
With temperatures hovering in the 40s and a wind chill that felt like the mid-30s, players arrived at Champions Golf Club dressed more for a day on the ski slopes. Many competitors donned wool caps, wore earmuffs and used gloves to keep their hands warm. Some even put on parkas in between shots.
Kim covered her face with a mask all week to protect herself and others from COVID-19, the virus that forced the U.S. Women’s Open to be moved from June to December and kept fans from enjoying the competition in person.
Starting the round five strokes behind Shibuno in a tie for ninth, Kim played most of the final round in relative anonymity. The television broadcast mostly focused on the trio of Shibuno, the affable 22-year-old from Japan nicknamed the “Smiling Cinderella” after shocking the golf world 16 months ago with her AIG Women’s British Open victory at Woburn Golf Club in England; 2009 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Olson, who was looking for her first professional win; and Moriya Jutanugarn, the 26-year-old from Thailand who was seeking to join younger sister Ariya as a U.S. Women’s Open champion.
Shibuno was the first to blink, relinquishing her lead to Olson when she bogeyed the par-4 10th hole.
Olson appeared ready to take the title. Playing with a heavy heart, the Fargo, N.D., native found out late Saturday night that her father-in-law, Lee Olson, had suddenly passed away. Her husband, Grant, an assistant football coach at her alma mater, North Dakota State, was en route to Texas to watch Amy when the couple received the news. Olson played through the wrenching circumstances, keeping calm throughout the round.
But she couldn’t convert birdie opportunities to build on what was at one point a two-stroke lead. A bogey caused by overshooting the green with her hybrid tee shot on the par-3 16th effectively ended her title holes. Olson and Shibuno both converted birdie putts on the 72nd hole, the former to get within one of Kim and the latter to finish two back.
“Obviously super mixed emotions,” said Olson, who was vying to become the seventh player in history to add the U.S. Women’s Open to her U.S. Girls’ Junior title. “It was a long day yesterday not being able to play, but I did get some good rest. Coming out this morning I had no idea what to expect. It was just one of those things I felt very weak and helpless the last couple days, and probably same way today on the golf course. I really believe the Lord just carried me through. It just makes you realize how much bigger life is than golf.”
Jutanugarn struggled most of the day, shooting a 3-over 74 to share sixth.
Kim stood at even par for the championship when she arrived at the 178-yard 16th hole. She proceeded to execute three of the most beautiful iron shots that this championship has witnessed in a closing stretch. Her 5-iron tee shot on 16 stopped 4 feet from the hole. On the 393-yard, par-4 17th, her 8-iron approach stopped 18 inches from the flagstick and on the 381-yard closing hole, she knocked her 48-degree wedge from the fairway to 7 feet.
When the final birdie putt dropped, an emotional Kim pumped her fist, almost assured that her closing stretch sealed the victory. She is the last player to birdie the final hole to win the U.S. Women’s Open since Eun-Hee Ji of Korea in 2009 at Saucon Valley Country Club.
“It took some time for me to get used to the bermudagrass, especially hitting the irons off the grass,” said Kim through a translator. “You really need some kind of skill, different style of swing in order to hit the ball out of [this grass]. But love this golf course, love this environment. I even said earlier I want to actually put a tent up here and stay a few more days.”
Now she will return to golf-crazy Korea with the beautiful silver trophy, a larger bank account and the latest golf celebrity, mask or no mask.
What the Champion Receives
- Custody of the Harton S. Semple Trophy until the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open in June (winner receives a permanent replica)
- The gold Mickey Wright Medal
- Exemption from qualifying for the next 10 U.S. Women’s Opens
- Exemptions into the other four women’s major championships for the next five years: ANA Inspiration; KPMG Women’s PGA Championship; AIG Women’s British Open; The Evian Championship
- A two-year exemption on the LPGA Tour as a non-member
- $1 million first-place check
- The top 10 scorers and ties earned an exemption into the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif., June 3-6.
- Kim’s strokes gained of 7.43 was the second-best in a final round by a U.S. Women’s Open champion. Meg Mallon, who shot a 65 to win the 2004 title, owns the best mark of 7.88.
- Kim is the third Korean to win a women’s major championship in 2020, joining Mirim Lee (Ana Inspiration) and Sei Young Kim (KPMG Women’s PGA Championship). All four major champions – The Evian Championship was not conducted – in 2020 were first-time winners. Sophia Popov, of Germany, kicked off the year by taking the Women’s British Open as the No. 304-ranked player in the world.
- Jeongeun Lee6 concluded her title defense on Monday with an even-par 71 to finish tied for sixth. It’s the best result by a defending champion since Juli Inkster finished eighth in 2003 at Pumpkin Ridge.
- A closing birdie gave University of Texas All-American Kaitlyn Papp low-amateur honors by two strokes over 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Gabriela Ruffels and Maja Stark, of Sweden. Papp started the day tied for fifth, four strokes off the lead. She closed with a 3-over 74 to finish tied for ninth and an exemption into the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club next June.
- Two-time champion Inbee Park (2008, 2013) recorded her 24th sub-par round in a U.S. Women’s Open with a 3-under 68, matching the all-time record held by Beth Daniel and Betsy King. Park achieved it in just 14 starts. It took King 26 (she played in 31) and Daniel 28 (29 starts overall) to post those numbers. Park went from a share of 33rd to a tie for sixth.
- Eri Okayama’s outward nine included five birdies, three bogeys and a par. The five birdies were the most recorded on any nine on the Cypress Creek Course the entire championship.