Monday, February 13, 2012

ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open Saturday and Sunday: Jessica Korda Wins 6-Way Playoff

Picking up where Tony Jesselli left off, let me add my congratulations to 18-year-old Jessica Korda, who showed incredible grit and composure all week at Royal Melbourne in the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open, but particularly over the last 10 holes of regulation and the 2 holes of a 6-way playoff, as she secured her 1st career win on the LPGA in only her 16th start as a member of the greatest women's tour on the planet against an all-star cast.

Even if you watched the Golf Channel coverage, you may not have picked up on how wild Korda's final round--and really her entire weekend--really was.  Due to time constraints (no preempting a Phil-Tiger showdown, ladies!), the tv coverage picked up late on the back 9.  So we missed seeing Korda birdie 3 of her 1st 8 holes on Sunday to get to -7 for the week, bouncing back in a big way from her 2 bogeys over her final 5 holes Saturday that had cut her 3rd-round lead to 1 over Hee Kyung Seo (who also started hot Sunday with 2 birdies in her 1st 6 holes), So Yeon Ryu, and Nikki Campbell.  But if Korda had trouble maintaining her lead on moving day, the pressures of the final round--and the difficulties of Royal Melbourne--made the previous day's struggles seem like a walk in the park.  Even as the JLPGA's Campbell was imploding with her 2nd double on the front, world #1 Ya Ni Tseng was reeling from her 2nd huge number of the week--a triple on the 4th to go with her snowman on the 7th back on Friday--and Ryu was struggling to get her game into gear exactly one Sunday after she had opened the door for Christel Boeljon to take the LET season-opener, disaster struck the American teenager, as she followed up a double bogey on 9 with a bogey on the 10th.  All of a sudden, Korda was trailing Seo by 1.  Yet she turned around and birdied the 11th right after Seo bogeyed it, retaking the lead for the moment.

But the rest of the field responded to Korda's troubles at the turn like sharks sensing blood in the water.  Earlier in the day, Caroline Hedwall (69) and Anna Nordqvist (68) had shown the way, turning in 2 of the most impressive rounds of the week to move from T25 after 54 holes to T12 and T10, respectively.  It was too little, too late for them, but not for players like Ryu, who birdied the 12th and 13th to draw even with her playing partner Seo at -4; Tseng, who birdied 3 in a row midway through the back to claw her way back to -2; Stacy Lewis, who had made 3 birdies between the 7th and 12th to get to -3 and was looking for more from 5 groups ahead of Korda and Campbell; Brittany Lincicome, who like Korda had birdied 3 of her 1st 8 holes, like Korda had cooled off midway through her round, and like Korda had bounced back with a birdie (this one to get to -3 with only the 18th left to play from 3 groups ahead of Korda); and Julieta Granada, who made her 4th birdie of the day on the 15th to get back to -3 from 4 groups ahead of Korda's. 

At first, Korda responded to this onslaught with equanimity, parring the 12th and 13th to maintain her 1-shot lead on Seo and Ryu.  But then she bogeyed her next 3 holes in a row to drop all the way back to -2.  Fortunately for her, others ran into trouble, too, on the back.  Jenny Shin, whose bogey-free 33 on the front had lifted her to -2 for the week, could only manage 1 more birdie on the back that was offset by her bogey on the par-5 12th.  Katie Futcher, who had fought her way to -3 by the turn, doubled the 12th and bogeyed the 14th to drop out of contention.  Tseng's run--and hopes for her 3rd-straight Women's Australian Open title--ended with consecutive bogeys on 15 and 16.  And 1st Lewis, then Granada, and then Lincicome failed to find another birdie and ended their weeks at -3.  Even Seo and Ryu, reprising their duel at the 2011 U.S. Women's Open, were trading pars back and forth as the tv coverage Americans were allowed to see finally kicked in.  Even when Korda took advantage of her length, almost hitting the par-5 17th in 2 and making a gutsy up-and-down to fight back to -3, it seemed like a nice consolation prize at the time, like a mental toughness award for a teenager who needed more experience in contention to really learn how to win.

But all of a sudden 1st Seo and then Ryu missed tricky little par saves on the 18th, 3-putting to fall back to -3.  And Korda found herself with a medium-length putt to win the tournament outright.  When she missed it, the LPGA had its 1st 6-way playoff since--well, since the final round of Q-School!  In the playoff, Seo, Ryu, and Lincicome drew lots to put them in the 1st threesome, while Lewis, Granada, and Korda ended up in the 2nd.  Everyone else in the playoff had at least one LPGA win under their belts and several were major winners.  Down the stretch in regulation, the tournament had had a major-like feel, as not only the Ryu-Seo duel but also the Lewis-Tseng duel from last season kept coming to my mind.  And on the 1st playoff hole, Lincicome reminded us all of her dramatic win at the 2009 Kraft Nabisco Championship--although sticking a wedge as she did on the 18th at Royal Melbourne was a little less impressive than what she did on the 18th at Mission Hills.  But the golf gods were not on Lincicome's side yesterday, as her well-struck 5-footer did what looked like a 330 and ended up coming right back at her.  A few minutes later it was Lewis's turn to putt for the win, after her approach skidded right past the flag and ended up about 10 feet past the hole, but she couldn't convert it, either.  Lincicome had another great chance the 2nd time around, but this time she couldn't even hit the hole. It was starting to look like a battle of attrition when Ryu became the 1st to leave the playoff with a bogey her 2nd go-around (and 3rd in her last 4 tries on the 18th, going back to Saturday) and nobody in the final threesome could get their approaches within 20 feet.  But that's when lightning struck.  As Korda put it afterwards,
I was thinking really clearly. I had one concept in my head...I was really calm. I knew what the putt did because I'd had it before and it did not move. I was a little higher up and more to the right. I knew the line and I knew the speed. All I had to do was just hit it. It started breaking. I thought, "Oh my goodness no, don't lip out, don't break too early." I don't even know what side of the hole it hit. I was overwhelmed by everything.

In the end, only Granada had a chance to extend the playoff, but she couldn't do it.  So Korda becomes the 3rd-youngest player to win a full-length LPGA event, the LPGA's rookie class of 2011 takes its 2nd victory in a row in 2012, and only Phil's stirring victory at Pebble Beach could possibly have overshadowed this finish.  But it can't hide how much some of the LPGA's best struggled at Royal Melbourne:  Ji-Yai Shin was +2, Suzann Pettersen +5, Morgan Pressel and Angela Stanford +7, Brittany Lang +9, Cristie Kerr +12, and Karrie Webb +13, while the likes of Inbee Park, Sun Young Yoo, and Sophie Gustafson missed the cut

Looks like a lot of players will welcome the much-friendlier confines at Siam Country Club, where Pettersen and Ai Miyazato both have won with tournament-record scores of -21 in recent years.  This week's Honda LPGA Thailand is the season opener for Na Yeon Choi, Paula Creamer, Shanshan Feng, Natalie Gulbis, Maria Hjorth, In-Kyung Kim, Catriona Matthew, Ai-sama, Mika Miyazato, Se Ri Pak, Momoko Ueda, Michelle Wie, and Amy Yang--plus we'll get to see how Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn, the top 2 amateurs in the world not named Lydia Ko, stack up against the best of the LPGA.  Here's hoping Tseng recovers from her stomach bug soon.  I have a feeling it's going to be a very competitive season!

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