Monday, September 1, 2014

Portland Classic Sunday: Austin Ernst Beats In-Kyung Kim on 1st Playoff Hole

Standing over a 40-foot downhill birdie putt on the 18th green and 73rd hole of the Portland Classic with the cup just 10 feet past the tier, knowing she had a great chance to win the playoff over In-Kyung Kim with a great lag, Austin Ernst flashed the eye of the tiger as she took one last look down the line.  Her putt ended up within tap-in range, and after the LSU grad and 2011 NCAA individual champion putted out, Kim had a 12-foot par save to extend the playoff.  When it missed on the high side for her 1st bogey in her last 20 holes, Inky had gone 0-5 in LPGA playoffs and Ernst had her 1st-ever LPGA victory.

And what a victory it was!  For awhile, it looked like the 2nd-year pro was going to match her 3rd-round 62 at Columbia Edgewater last year.  She birdied the 4th, chipped in for eagle on the par-5 5th, and then rattled off 4 birdies between the 7th and 14th holes to get to -7 on her day and -16 for the week.  In so doing, she kept the pressure on the host of players behind her--and very few of them could handle it.  Plenty of golfers had fine final rounds, but started the day so far off the pace that they needed absolutely great ones to be a factor, so let's focus 1st on those who had a real chance to win.  Xi Yu Lin birdied 3 holes in a row late on the front to get to -13, but made a bogey to finish the front and a double to close out the tournament, so had to settle for a T9 finish.  Suzann Pettersen won here 2 of the last 3 years, started the day at T1, and bounced back from an early double to fight back to -12, but 3 bogeys and no birdies in her last 8 holes torpedoed her chances.  Carlota Ciganda had birdied 3 holes in a row on the front to get to -13, but the 3rd-round tri-leader made 3 bogeys and a double (along with a consolation-prize walkoff birdie) to also drop out of the top 10.  The last golfer in the trio, playing with Pettersen in the final group of the day, fared no better.  Mi Jung Hur had canned 5 birdies in her 1st 10 holes and twice gotten to -14 (after birdies on the par-5 7th and par-5 10th), but she made 5 bogeys in her last 8 holes, including 3 in a row to close out her round and her chances just after she had birdied the par-4 15th to fight back to -13.

So down the stretch it all really came down to a handful of players.  Chella Choi made 6 birdies in her 1st 15 holes to get to -14, but finished bogey-bogey to settle for a 68 that left her at -12 for the week.  But when Ernst also bogeyed the 17th and 18th to finish at -14 (despite going +6 for the week with no birdies on 16, 17, and 18), she gave new life to both Inky and So Yeon Ryu.  Ryu had birdied 5 holes between the 2nd and 13th holes to get to -14 and made several clutch par putts after that to stay there.  Inky, who had made the last of her 4 birdies of the day on the 15th, was the next to finish, and she did it in style with 3 pressure pars on the 3 toughest holes on the course, capped off by a fantastic up-and-down from over the 18th green.  Ryu needed to birdie 18 to win for the 2nd week in a row and par it to join Ernst and Kim in a playoff, but after she lost her drive right and ended up in a fairway bunker, from where she caught it heavy and pulled it into the water, she wasn't able to do either.

At the end of regulation, then, only 2 golfers were left standing.  Ernst won the draw and split the 18th fairway to kick off the playoff.  Kim hit almost as good a drive and ended up a little right of and about 10 yards behind Ernst.  You'd think advantage Kim, right?  She had less than 160 yards to the flag, had parred the 18th every time she played it this week, had recent match play experience at the International Crown, and had 3 LPGA victories to her name.  But she fanned her 6-iron just off the right fringe about 50 feet from the flag, which allowed Ernst to hit a conservative approach to the back of the green.  And then her chip broke less than she expected and ran out further than she hoped, once again letting Ernst a little bit off the hook.  From there, it was history.  An unexpected American broke the Korean winning streak on the LPGA.

Further down the leaderboard, Karine Icher had the low round of the day, an 8-birdie 66 that moved her all the way up to -11, tied for 5th with Na Yeon Choi (68), Eun-Hee Ji (70), and Line Vedel (70).  Moriya Jutanugarn birdied 4 holes in a row as she made the turn and finished with a 7-birdie 67 that earned her a top 20.  Ya Ni Tseng birdied 5 holes in a row on the front to get to -7 for the week and added another on the par-5 12th to get to -6 on her day, but a walkoff bogey forced her to accept a 67.  Kim Kaufman (-7) and Felicity Johnson (-5) also put together fine 67s, but bogeys on 17 and 16, respectively, also kept them from matching Icher's feat.

In a nutshell, then, Sunday was the toughest day for scoring and the last 3 holes determined many players' fates this week.  Fitting then, that Austin Ernst broke through by shaking off a bogey-bogey finish and parring the 18th on the 1st playoff hole!

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