Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ricoh Women's British Open Recap: Ji-Yai Shin Rocks Royal Liverpool

Neither howling wind nor driving rain nor lengthy weather delays at the 2012 Ricoh Women's British Open could delay Ji-Yai Shin from her appointment with history.  As is well-known by now, she beat Paula Creamer by the largest margin in the history of the WBO to capture her 10th career LPGA victory and her 2nd major (both WBOs), joining Se Ri Pak as the only South Koreans (and Asians) to have won more than 1 major on the world's best professional tour for women.

What seems to be less well-known, at least going by the many excellent posts and articles I have read on Shin, is how hot many of Shin's closest chasers were coming into this event, which makes her dominating win even more impressive.  Looking at those who fell by the wayside and how they did it really puts the Final Round Queen's Sunday play in perspective.  It's not just that she was solid and steady and unflappable while the hope of those around were being blown away by those two huge squalls that blew in as the leaders started each side.  It's that Shin kept attacking Royal Liverpool while others were just trying to survive.

Take Ai Miyazato, who I still believe is the best player in the world without an LPGA major to her name.  She took a 9 on the 4th hole of the final round mere minutes after Shin's only big mistake of the week, a triple on the 1st, seemed to open the door to those like Ai-sama who had been hanging around E all week.  Just like Karrie Webb, a Hall of Famer with 7 majors to her name whose game and experience seemed perfect for last week--and whose 3rd-round 68 gave her loads of momentum and only a 3-shot deficit heading into the final round--Ai-sama failed to break 80 after starting so disastrously.  That's 2 rivals down.

How about Paula Creamer, who had taken Shin to the 9th playoff hole just 6 days earlier?  Well, she would have been a factor if her Achilles heel from Kingsmill hadn't joined her on the transatlantic voyage.  She simply missed too many short putts to take advantage of her excellent ball-striking and fantastic mid-length putting during WBO week.  That final burst where she went birdie-eagle-par-birdie to battle back to +1 for the week showed that she had the firepower to again make this a photo finish with Shin.  She just couldn't sustain those kinds of runs or avoid the mistakes that end them.  (Plus she was +4 with no birdies over her 1st 14 holes in that final round.)

What about So Yeon Ryu, who was coming off a big win in Korea, where she beat Na Yeon Choi by 4 shots?  Well, she fought back from a disastrous stretch on Saturday where she went bogey-par-triple-bogey as she made the turn from the back to the front to salvage a 74 and stay at E after 2 rounds, but she just couldn't bounce back enough from a double on the 8th in her 3rd round and a triple bogey-bogey start to her final round.  So the presumptive Rookie of the Year ended up 12 shots behind Shin.

Now let's turn to the 2 hottest golfers in the world of women's golf, Mika Miyazato and Inbee Park, who played their last 36 holes with Shin and could have put a lot of pressure on her. 

Park was coming off an amazing Sunday charge on the JLPGA the previous week, where she birdied her last 5 holes in a row to miss a playoff with Chie Arimura by a single shot.  WBO Sunday, though, was another story.  After getting to 6-under through 52 holes, she faltered big-time, making 4 bogeys, 2 doubles, and no birdies over her next 17 holes.  In a nutshell, she couldn't handle the squalls as well as Shin did.  Yes, she birdied 2 of her last 3 holes to end up E for the week, but this normally great accomplishment was only good enough to prevent Shin from winning by double digits.  Still, her silver medal was her her 4th in her last 8 starts (to go with a gold and a bronze and a 4th!).  Even more impressively, she has 9 top 10s in a row and hasn't finished outside the top 26 since her 1st LPGA event of the year in Thailand.  In her 17 starts this year, she has 14 top 25s, 13 top 20s (and 12 in a row and counting!), 9 top 10s, and 7 top 5s.  That's why she leads the LPGA money list by $266K (more than most players make in a year!).  But she lost ground to Shin when it counted most last Sunday.

Mikan also had a great chance to win last week.  She was -6 through 51 holes, thanks to a stretch from the 7th through 15th holes where she made 5 birdies.  But, she, too, faltered at the end of her third round, like Park doubling the tough 17th and failing to birdie the par-5 18th (but topped her by bogeying the 16th, too).  And even though she survived the 1st squall, limiting her damage to a single bogey on the 1st hole and hanging tough with 8 straight pars, she was totally blown away by the 2nd, going bogey-bogey-double when she needed to be bearing down and putting pressure on Shin.  She played great from then on and can be forgiven for missing 2 short putts on the last 2 holes, but she still shot a 41 on the back 9 on Sunday despite playing fantastic golf the previous 63 holes and despite extending her streak on the LPGA to 9 top-16 finishes in a row, during which she has earned 1 win, 2 silvers, a bronze, and a 4th at the WBO.  Yes, she reached the $1M mark last week for the 1st time in her short professional career and remains the most accurate off the tee on tour.  But she lost to Shin by 11 shots.

So forget that Ya Ni Tseng couldn't 3-peat or that Stacy Lewis and Na Yeon Choi had bad tournaments by their world-class standards.  Shin faced down the hottest players in the world of women's golf and made them wonder what course she was playing.  You think her front-row seat to Lydia Ko's history-making win at the Canadian Open didn't light a fire under her?  She only beat the 15-year-old by 18 shots last week!  How tough is she?  She made 5 birdies after opening with that shocking triple, bouncing back from 2 bogeys midway through her round with her last 3 the second the winds slowed even slightly.  Shin attacked Royal Liverpool while everyone else was trying to keep from being blown away by the conditions.  And in the end she was the one who blew them away.

So now Shin has moved up to #5 on the money list with $1.17M and #2 in the Player of the Year race, as well as extended her lead in the race for the Vare Trophy to over a third of a stroke (although she needs 19 more rounds to meet the minimum eligibility requirement).  She's heading into the Asian swing with all kinds of momentum and has all kinds of motivation to take the title of top Korean golfer in the world away from Na Yeon Choi, Sun-Ju Ahn, Inbee Park, Mi-Jeong Jeon, and her other rivals who she'll be facing in both the Japan Women's Open and the LPGA's Korea event (I'm hoping Ahn and Jeon show up for it, that is!).  A return to #1 in the Rolex Rankings is probably too much to ask in 2012, but the way she won her last 2 events in a row is certainly reminding me of the phenom who dominated the KLPGA and burst onto the LPGA with a Hall of Fame-type pace.  She beat Paula Creamer and Ai Miyazato to 10 LPGA victories and is now only 5 behind Tseng.

Talk about the Return of the (Final Round) Queen!  My apologies to those starting the Navistar in a few hours, but I'm still looking backwards, not ahead!

No comments: