July 17, 2017: A scintillating Sunday shootout that showcased the seemingly bottomless pool of youthful talent in women’s golf produced a winner who just might be the game’s next big thing. Sung Hyun Park, who last year let the U.S. Women’s Open slip away from her, outdueled Shanshan Feng and 17-year-old amateur Hye-Jin Choi in a goose bump filled final round at Trump National.
Is it too early to start talking about Nancy Lopez? She’s the only woman to be the Rolex Player of the Year and Rolex Rookie of the Year in the same season and that was way back in 1978. But with her victory, Park virtually locked up the rookie award and threw herself into the mix for top player honors, moving into third place. Not bad for someone who made her first LPGA victory the U.S. Women’s Open.
The 23-year-old South Korean displayed an all-around complete game in a closing round 67 that left her at 11-under-par 277, two strokes ahead of Choi. Mi Jung Hur and So Yeon Ryu tied for third at 281 while Feng fell to fifth along with Carlota Ciganda and Jeongeun Lee at 282 when she made a triple bogey on the final hole.
A year ago, at CordeValle, Park had the 36-hole lead but closed with a pair of 74s to finish two strokes out of the playoff between Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist. This time she had a pair of 67s on the weekend. And now, in her only two appearances in the U.S. Women’s Open, Park has finished third and first. She was seven-strokes back after 36 holes then closed with a rush, making 12 birdies in her last 27 holes.
“I did not have the best first and second rounds,” Park said through a translator. “I wanted to believe in myself again for the final two rounds and I did.” And then she thanked her caddie, David Jones, for helping her stay focused and positive.
If you are looking for a weakness in Park’s game, you’ll have trouble finding one. With a powerfully fluid swing, she is fifth on tour in driving distance, slamming it out there more than 274 yards a pop. She is also No. 16 in hitting greens in regulation and No. 14 in putts per GIR.
As for Choi, how cool was it to see the caddie for one of the players in the final twosome at the U.S. Women’s Open hauling around a stand bag, just like the ones used by most other teenagers? She showed maturity beyond her years and hung tough until fanning a weak fade into the water short and right of the 16th green, making a double bogey that ended her chances.
Up ahead, Park stiffed an 8-iron from 146 yards to five feet and made only the fourth birdie of the day on No. 17 to pretty much wrap up the tournament, although she put some icing on the came with a delicious up-and-down par save on the final hole.
Choi was trying to become only the second amateur to win the U.S. Women’s Open, matching the feat by Catherine Lacoste of France in 1967. She was also trying to break Lydia Ko’s record as the youngest LPGA major winner.
Feng, the oldest member in a three-way duel at 27 and by far the most successful with seven LPGA titles, a major championship at the 2012 KPMG Women’s PGA and an Olympic bronze medal, simply did not make enough birdie putts. She was brilliant from tee to green but made 33 pars over the last 36 holes and only a pair of birdies.
“I did pretty well until the last hole,” Feng said. “Overall, I think I had a great week. Coming into this week I had no expectation at all.”
In the race to make the U.S. Solheim Cup team, the top six on the points list are pretty safe – Lexi Thompson, Stacy Lewis, Gerina Piller, Cristie Kerr, Jessica Korda and Danielle Kang. Michelle Wie and Brittany Lang were tied for the last two automatic spots and earned no points at the U.S. Women’s Open. But Wie and Lang are also fairly safe because if they fall off the points list they’d likely be the two who qualify off the Rolex Ranking.
On Sunday, Marina Alex finished T-11 to pick up 33 points and jumped over Mo Martin to No. 13 on the points list. Lizette Salas was T-15 for 21 points to leapfrog Angela Stanford into tenth place. Martin and Brittany Lincicome would qualify as of now off the Rolex Ranking.
In the rapidly changing world of women’s golf we got a glimpse of the future on a steamy Sunday in New Jersey. Choi will be seen again, that seems certain. And Park has inserted herself into the conversation about the best players on the planet. It all just makes you crave the next major – the Ricoh Women’s British Open in two weeks.