Sunday, September 20, 2009

Samsung World Championship Sunday: Na Yeon Choi Loses 7-Shot Lead, Beats Ai Miyazato with Walkoff Birdie

The final round of the Samsung World Championship turned into a duel between 2 players: Na Yeon Choi and Ai Miyazato. But it sure didn't look that way for the 1st hour or so of play today. Choi picked up where she left off yesterday, making birdies on the 2nd and 4th and eagle on the par-5 6th to get to -19 overall. Meanwhile, Miyazato parred her 1st 6 holes and Ji-Yai Shin started par-bogey-birdie-bogey to join Miyazato at -12. But almost immediately, Miyazato started chipping away at Choi's lead. Birdies at 7 and 8 brought her to -14, while Choi bogeyed 9, 10, and 11 (narrowly avoiding a double) to fall to -16. 5 holes, 5 shots.

I was watching the NBC coverage with the same friends who saw M.J. Hur beat Suzann Pettersen and Michele Redman in a playoff a few weeks ago, and both husband and wife had almost the same reaction when they 1st saw Choi's face, about half an hour apart: "How old is she--17?" "She looks like she's 15!" And, yeah, Choi did look pretty young while her game was deserting her, but she held on and fought back with 3 straight pars, forcing Miyazato to come and get her. Miyazato responded with clutch approach shot after clutch approach shot. She birdied 12 with a fairway wood in her hands and 16 (for the 3rd day in a row) with a 3-hybrid that she stuck to 4 feet. When Choi missed a knee-knocker on 15 a hole behind her, all of a sudden it was Miyazato at -16 and the former leader at -15. When Miyazato's drive on 17 hit a ridge and bounded forward an extra 20 yards and she stuck yet another approach shot, it looked like the tournament was hers for the taking. But she couldn't handle the curving 10-footer, missing on the low side. And then she had to watch Lorena Ochoa butcher the final hole ahead of her, just as Choi had to watch her playing partner Shin butchering the 17th. Choi managed to make par, but by then Miyazato had decided to go for the par-5 green in 2, despite having made bogey on Friday, when she dumped it in the greenside pond. And she did it again on Sunday.

It's easy to 2nd-guess her decision in retrospect, but look at it this way: she was playing awesome golf; she trusted her fairway woods, having hit 57 of 71 greens in regulation for the tournament and 14 of 17 that day, many with the exact club in her hands; she was looking to force Choi to make an eagle to tie her (thereby increasing the pressure on her 2nd shot into the green); plus, with her wedge game and putting so strong, odds were she could save par even if disaster did strike. Well, Miyazato certainly gave herself a chance to do just that, putting her recovery shot about 12 feet above the hole. But she completely babied the putt and could only wait to see if Choi would win with a birdie, lose with a bogey, or head back to the 18th tee for a playoff with a par.

And Choi certainly made it interesting. A perfect drive gave her a great angle to the green, but after she hit her approach shot, she hung her head as if it was the worst shot of her life. Turns out she was either relieved or couldn't bear to watch the ball in the air (she later said it was because she knew she hadn't hit it solidly), but either way, it stayed dry, ending up just short of the green in a narrow neck of fairway. Choi elected to putt from a couple of yards off the fringe, and like so many putts on the back, she left this one short, in knee-knocker range. But this time the 4-footer was dead center and Na Yeon Choi had followed Ai Miyazato as the 2nd player to get off my list of the best players on the LPGA without a win.

Of course I was down for Ai-sama and couldn't stop going over her decision on the 18th fairway with my friend as our kids played in the playground afterwards. Taking the water out of play would still have given her a good birdie chance--as playing partner Paula Creamer could attest--while taking bogey out of the equation. But hindsight is 20-20 and I certainly was happy for the visibly nervous Choi, whom I had followed for several holes at the Wegmans. And hey, if the Bills could come back so strong from last week's baka baka baka baka baka baka loss to the Patriots (sorry, a little Ponyo reference there) like they did this week, I expect Ai-sama to come back even stronger from this loss. She's now 2nd on the money list behind Ji-Yai Shin, tied with Shin for 2nd in scoring average (only .13 behind Kerr), 2nd to Shin in rounds in the 60s (by 1), 2nd behind Angela Stanford in rounds under par percentage, tied with Shin for 4th in birdie rate (3.97 per round), 1st in top 10 rate (.632), tied for 1st in putts per green in regulation (although Shin and Song-Hee Kim are actually a few thousands below her 1.752 average), and 3rd in the Player of the Year race. And you know what? I still don't believe she's truly put it all together in a single round in any of her last 7 top 10 or better finishes.

I leave you with the Golf Channel highlights, just in case you were watching football instead!

[Update 1 (10:48 pm): Catherine Forsythe focuses on Paula Creamer's latest injury (her back) and Choi's comeback win, while Stephanie Wei wonders how people will react to more Asian dominance on the LPGA.]

[Update 2 (11:30 pm): Ryan Ballengee does the quick take on Choi's win.]

[Update 3 (11:40 pm): Just thought I'd check the field list for this coming week's CVS event to make sure Ai-sama's name was still on it--and guess what? It's not. She's headed to Japan a week early to get ready for the Japan Women's Open. Shinobu, Sakura, Momoko and the gang had better watch out for her! The field list for this coming week's JLPGA event is incomplete, so there's still a chance she'll decide to tune up at the Miyagi TV Cup Dunlop Ladies Open, where Momo-chan is the defending champion, but my guess is she'll take the week off to celebrate, rest, and prep for the JWO.]

[Update 4 (9/21/09, 9:50 am): Jamie RS is really finding his voice, don't you agree?]

[Update 5 (2:05 pm): Great game story by Marc Figueroa--he clarifies Miyazato's intent nicely on her 2nd shot on 18 and moves between description and quotation and context adroitly.]

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