Kyu Jung Baek turned 19 on October 15th but could celebrate her birthday only with an opening 74 at the LPGA KEB-HanaBank Championship. Yet with maturity beyond her years she figured out how to handle the winds and the Sky 72 Ocean course and her own balky back as she bounced back with rounds of 69, 68, and 67. Her final-round back-9 31 included 5 birdies in a row and was so good that she even gave herself a chance to sink a curling downhill 6-footer on the par-5 18th for the win. Even though she missed that putt, Baek succeeded in forcing her way into a playoff at -10 with Brittany Lincicome and 20-year-old In Gee Chun, who themselves closed with fantastic 66s to outdistance world #2 Inbee Park (68-67, -9), Michelle Wie (67-67, -8), Catriona Matthew (70-67, -8), Hyo Joo Kim (71-66, -7) and the rest of the 31 players within 5 shots of the lead with 18 holes left to play. What's more, she learned from that miss and from Lincicome's birdie miss from a similar angle and distance on the 1st playoff hole. Baek calmly sunk the downhill 5-footer to secure her 1st-ever LPGA victory and 4th KLPGA title of 2014.
I was able to cap off a great birthday by watching Baek catch fire on the back in the middle of the night. In a week when heralded (and higher-ranked) under-22s struggled--Sei Young Kim hovered between 71 and 74 and finished T42 at +2, Ha Na Jang opened with an 80 and even 30-straight under-par rounds after it only got her back to T35 at +1, Lydia Ko could never get it going and finished T29 at -1, Minjee Lee was either awesome or awful (she sandwiched a 78 and a 74 between an opening 69 and a closing 64 to finish T24 at -3), and Kim needed that Sunday charge to finally get it out of neutral--Baek found her tempo and found the hole, making great chips, pitches, and sand saves when she needed to and taking advantage of almost every birdie opportunity she gave herself. For the week, she took 15 putts fewer than Inbee Park, who has probably been the best putter in the world for at least the last 4 years. Yes, Baek hit the fewest greens in regulation of anyone in the top 20 except Yoon Kyung Heo and Julieta Granada, but Heo had 120 putts and Granada 107 to Baek's 102. It's that kind of putting that wins you tournaments on any tour.
Speaking of which, it'll be interesting to see if Baek decides to take up LPGA membership next year. Will she make like Teresa Lu and decide to stay on her home tour for at least another year? For that matter, which KLPGA stars will decide by November 18th to sign up for the final stage of LPGA Q-School? Ha Na Jang has already expressed an interest in doing this....
Looking ahead to the inaugural Blue Bay LPGA event on Hainan Island, I'm hoping Michelle Wie will be able to play as planned. As well as she scored on the weekend, I saw her shaking her right hand after many shots down the home stretch today. Here's hoping she's healthy enough to keep teeing it up. As excited as I am to watch LET winner this week Lee-Anne Pace tee it up against a bunch of Chinese up-and-comers (Xi Yu Lin, Jiayun Li, Yu Yang Zhang, Yuting Shi, Liqing Chen, star amateurs Jing Yan and Haruka Morita/Wanyao Lu, and new pros Simin Feng and Yu Liu) and veterans (Li-Ying Ye, Hongmei Yang, Hong Tian, and Panpan Yan) and LPGA stars (Lydia Ko, Shanshan Feng, Lexi Thompson, Cristie Kerr, Anna Nordqvist, Azahara Munoz, Brittany Lincicome, Caroline Hedwall, Mirim Lee, Amy Yang, Morgan Pressel, and Ya Ni Tseng, among others), a tournament without Wie just doesn't have as much buzz in the U.S. and world media. Especially because Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen, and Na Yeon Choi are taking the week off to prepare for the Fubon LPGA Taiwan Championship (where Ai Miyazato got a sponsor invite!), the Blue Bay needs all the help it can get.