Ya Ni Tseng successfully defended her title at the Honda LPGA Thailand this past weekend in one of the most dramatic battles between current and former world #1s that I can remember seeing.
Tseng roared back into contention on moving day with her 2nd-straight 65 to enter the final round 1 shot behind 2010 champion Ai Miyazato, 1 shot ahead of Ji-Yai Shin and Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, 2 shots ahead of blossoming star Amy Yang, and 3 shots ahead of 2007 champion Suzann Pettersen. And she made a statement on the very 1st hole with a chip-in eagle that pulled her into a tie with Miyazato at -15. By the time they hit the 8th tee, however, much had changed, as Tseng went -5 over her 1st 7 holes to get to -18 for the week, Miyazato was looking to make her 2nd birdie in a row to offset her 2 consecutive bogeys just earlier and try to get back to -15, Shin had passed her with her 3rd birdie in her 1st 8 holes to actually get to -15, Webb was flabbergasted by a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 7th and was out of contention, Yang had also birdied the 8th to get to -13, and Pettersen was done, having opened with 2 straight bogeys and followed it up a few holes later with a double. When the leaders hit the turn, Tseng had a commanding lead on everyone except Shin.
1st/-18 Tseng (having gone -14 over a 28-hole stretch of bogey-free golf going back to Saturday morning when she finished her 2nd round with a walkoff eagle after the rain delay that had stopped play on Friday)
2nd/-16 Shin (having just gotten her 3rd birdie in the previous 4 holes on the par-5 10th)
3rd/-14 Miyazato (having offset her birdie on the 8th with a bogey on the 9th)
4th/-13 Yang (in the middle of a run of 4 pars in a row as she made the turn)
At that point, I was wondering by how many strokes Tseng would break the Pettersen/Miyazato tournament record of -21. But then she ran into some unexpected trouble, missing the fairway off the tee, leaving her lay-up in a divot, leaving her wedge barely on the front of the green, running her 15-foot birdie attempt 20 feet by the hole, making a bogey, and enduring a 2-shot swing when Miyazato canned her 8-foot birdie attempt. The world #1 dodged another 2-shot swing on the very next hole, the par-4 11th, when she hit her approach shot long and left but made a brilliant chip to tap-in range to save par and watched Miyazato just miss her 10-footer for birdie. Even though she bounced back on the par-3 12th by getting her approach shot within tap-in range right on top of Miyazato's great approach to 10 feet (which she again missed), Tseng's struggles weren't over, as she made an ugly bogey on the par-4 13th and just barely missed on great birdie chances on the next 3 holes after that. Because from the 13th hole on Miyazato refused to miss another putt, making amazing par saves and great birdies, Yang came alive with back-to-back birdies on 13 and 14, and Shin kept giving herself easy pars and good birdie chances. So when the leaders left the 15th green, the leaderboard looked like this:
T2/-16 Shin, Miyazato
And that's when the world #1s showed what they're made of. Yang, looking for her 1st win on the LPGA, bogeyed the par-4 17th and failed to birdie the par-5 18th to end the day at -14, alone in 4th. In the group behind her, Shin hit an amazing hybrid from the 17th fairway that landed on the middle left of the green and followed a ridge straight toward the front-right pin, then followed that up with a clutch 12-footer to catch Tseng at -17. Miyazato then proceeded to better Shin's approach with a hybrid of her own that she thought she had pulled but which instead rolled to within 9 feet of the flag. And Tseng outdid them all with a short iron that hit the ridge and spub straight toward the hole, stopping about 4 feet away. Although Miyazato sank her putt to put the pressure squarely on Tseng's shoulders, she responded with a dead-solid-perfect putt to get to -18 and take a 1-shot lead on the former #1s into the final hole, where theoretically she could take advantage of her length to reach the par-5 in 2 while Shin and Miyazato would need to play it as a three-shot hole.
However, while Shin was leaving her approach shot outside easy birdie range--maybe 15 feet above and to the right of the back-left pin, both Miyazato and Tseng were pulling their drives way left. Miyazato ended up semi-blocked by what looked like the same tree from which Tseng's ball had caromed back toward the fairway, but both players were able to lay up to around 100 yards out and get a front-row seat on Shin's just-missed birdie attempt. Miyazato continued to put pressure on Tseng by sticking her wedge about 7 feet left of the pin, in a spot I hadn't seen any of the leaders attempt to hit (most were bailing out long right and hoping that their wedges wouldn't spin off the narrow back ledge the pin was tucked away on). Given the disasters the undulating 18th green had caused over the previous few days--a 10 by 2011 Rookie of the Year Hee Kyung Seo midway through her 3rd round, an 8 by Stacy Lewis back on Thursday, a 7 by Na Yeon Choi on Saturday that sent her into a tailspin from which she would never recover, and, just a few minutes earlier, a 7 by amateur superstar Ariya Jutanugarn--and given the amount of spin Tseng usually puts on her wedges, I was holding my breath, wanting Ai-sama to get into a playoff with Tseng but not wanting Tseng to have to endure a final-hole disaster. Well, all the world #1 did was hit the shot of the year, softly landing her wedge 6 feet above the hole and gently spinning it back and almost in to end up about 3 inches left of the cup. Amazingly, Miyazato was able to make what I believe was her 6th 1-putt in a row to take solo 2nd, and Tseng was able to finally breathe a huge sigh of relief after making her tap-in to finish 1 shot ahead of her at -19. Wow!
Tseng's 13th career LPGA victory somehow managed to out-drama the 6-way playoff that Jessica Korda played her way into and prevailed in last week in Australia. I can't wait to see what happens this week at the Showdown in Singapore. Not only does defending champion Webb have something to prove next week (not to mention Pettersen and Choi), but so do 2009 champion Shin and 2010 champion Miyazato. On top of that, Tseng shot a final-round 67 there to just miss her 5th win in her 5th start of 2011! Plus, there have been some encouraging signs early this year from the likes of Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall, Lexi Thompson made 7 birdies in her last 13 holes yesterday to match Tseng's 66 for low round of the day, Cristie Kerr broke 70 for the 2nd time this young season to snag her 1st top 20 of the year, and Mika Miyazato broke 70 (with 7 birdies that offset a double and 2 bogeys) for the 1st time this season, so it's looking like the games of some of the best golfers in the world are starting to come alive. And let's not forget the fantastic 67 by Jimin Kang, sweet 68 by Shanshan Feng, and solid 69 by Amanda Blumenherst yesterday that garnered them their 1st top 5s of the year, much less Jenny Shin's 2nd-straight top 10 to kick off 2012. Can't wait to see who can keep it going at the Garden Course at Tanah Merah Country Club. Only wish more of the top JLPGA players than Ji-Hee Lee had to decided to tee it up there the week before their season opener in Okinawa.
[Update 1 (11:27 am): Here's bangkokbobby on Tseng's dramatic win. Where's everyone else?]