Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mizuno Classic Weekend: Mi Hyang Lee Prevails in Classic Barnburner

21-year-old Mi Hyang Lee won the 2nd tournament of 2014 among major women's professional tours by firing a final-round 63 in New Zealand and blowing past Lydia Ko, among others.  And she's just won the Mizuno Classic, the 2nd of November--and her 1st on the LPGA--by blowing past 51-year-old Laura Davies, among others, catching Ilhee Lee and Kotomo Kozuma at -11, and beating them with a birdie on the 5th playoff hole.  With 9 players finishing at -10 and 5 at -9, it's amazing that Lee could prevail, but somebody had to do it.  Here's how it happened.

Lee had sprung into contention with a 2nd-round 67, but it wasn't nearly the best round on moving day.  The JLPGA's young star Ai Suzuki birdied her last 4 holes in a row (and 5 of her last 6) for a 64 that got her a share of the lead with Davies (67) and Ilhee Lee (66) at -9.  Na-Ri Lee birdied 6 of her last 11 holes to post a 65 that got her into solo 7th, 2 shots off the lead and 1 behind Mi Hyang Lee, Kozuma (67), and Chella Choi (68).  With Jessica KordaMisuzu Narita, and Teresa Lu firing 67s of their own to move to -6, -5, and -4, respectively, and with big names Karrie Webb (68), Sakura Yokomine (69), and Bo-Mee Lee (69) lurking, Sunday dawned with 21 players within 5 shots of the lead.  The only disappointment was that the 2 biggest names in the field, LPGA money-list leader Stacy Lewis and JLPGA money-list leader Sun-Ju Ahn, were not in that group.

Even without them in the hunt, what a Sunday it turned out to be!  Hall of Famer and 2006 champion Webb kicked off the festivities with a bogey-free 31 on the front from the 3rd-to-last group to move to -11 at the turn.  Playing in the next-to-last group, Choi and Mi Hyang Lee birdied 4 of her 1st 7 holes and 3 of her 1st 7, respectively, to join her.  Meanwhile Korda, sandwiched between those 2 groups, got it to -10 with a birdie-free 32 on the front.  But all of them were chasing Choi's and Lee's playing partner Kozuma, who birdied 4 holes in a row after parring the 1st and got it to -13 with a birdie on the par-5 7th.  As the 2nd-round co-leaders stumbled out of the gates--Suzuki bogeyed her 1st 2 holes and scrambled her way to a 37 that left her at -8, Davies offset her 2 birdies with 2 bogeys to stay at -9, and Ilhee Lee made 11-straight pars dating back to the end of moving day before making her lone birdie on the front that got her to -10--Kozuma suddenly gave everyone hope with bogeys on 9 and 11 that dropped her back to -11.

Even as the 22-year-old looking for her 1st JLPGA victory looked like she was starting to fumble it, other players entered the fray.  LPGA newbie Ayako Uehara, a 3-time winner on the JLPGA who was a fixture in the top 26 of their money list from 2006 to 2012, ended her 8-hole par train that closed out yesterday's round with a birdie on her 1st hole today and followed it up with 4 more in her next 12 holes of bogey-free golf to climb to -11 and into a tie for the lead with her playing partner Korda (who birdied the 12th to get there), Choi (who would follow up her birdie barrage on the 1st 7 holes with a par train over her next 7), Kozuma, and Ilhee Lee (who birdied the 7th and 11th to get there and had gone without a bogey for 33 holes and counting at that point).  But what of Webb, Davies, and the eventual winner?  Well, Webb went bogey-birdie-bogey to fall back to -10 with only 4 holes left to play, Mi Hyang Lee had bogeyed the 10th to join her there but fought back into a tie for the lead with a birdie on the 14th, and Davies birdied the par-5 13th to get to -10.

A bunch of late charges complicated matters yet further.  1st-round leader Morgan Pressel, who had stalled Saturday after an opening 67 due to an unexpectedly balky putter, followed up her bogey-free 33 on the front today with 3 birdies in her last 6 holes, including 2 in her last 3, to post her 2nd 67 of the week and become the leader in the clubhouse at -10.  She was joined a few minutes later by playing partners Sakura Yokomine and Saiki Fujita.  Yokomine had birdied 2 of her 1st 3 holes but stalled midway through her round, yet finished strong with 4 birdies in her last 8 holes, including 3 of her last 6.  Fujita, meanwhile, followed up her 4 birdies in her 1st 6 holes with a lone eagle on the 13th in a sea of pars.  Their final playing partner, Harukyo Nomura, had a great chance to become the 4th co-leader in the clubhouse, but despite making 5 birdies between the 7th and 15th holes, could not make another on the 540-yard par-5 16th, 180-yard par-3 17th, or 405-yard par-4 18th.

So the big question as the leaders entered the home stretch was who would join Pressel, Yokomine, and Fujita at -10--and who would surpass them?

The 1st to try was Webb.  She made a heroic birdie on 17 to get to -11, but had to settle for becoming the 4th co-leader in the clubhouse when she suffered a walkoff bogey.

Next up were Korda, Uehara, and Na-Ri Lee.  Korda had fallen back to -10 with a bogey on the par-4 14th and couldn't make a birdie coming home.  Lee did birdie 2 of her last 4 holes, but it was too little, too late.  So all Uehara needed to do to pass the 6 co-leaders was to stay at -11.  She did it with pars on 14, 15, 16, and 17, but she couldn't do it on 18.  Now there were 7 players at -10 and only 6 left on the course.  Would anyone break the logjam?

The next threesome featured up-and-coming golfers looking for their 1st win ever (Choi and Kozuma) or 1st win on the LPGA (Mi Hyang Lee).  Kozuma had righted the ship after her mid-round stumbles and had made 6-straight pars as she headed into the 18th at -11.  Lee had followed up her birdie on 14 with 3-straight pars to keep pace with the JLPGA's last hope for a homegrown winner.  But Choi had bogeyed the par-4 15th and needed a birdie on 18 or walkoff bogeys by her playing partners to have a hope of winning.  In the end, all 3 parred out, making it 8 golfers at -10--and 2 at -11.

Would anyone in the final group be able to beat Lee and Kozuma?  Davies couldn't do it, as she finished with 5-straight pars to become the 9th player to end the week at -10.  After her rough start, Suzuki had fought back to -9 with 2 holes to play, but parred out.  Ilhee Lee got it to -12 with a birdie on the long par-5 16th, but she ended her 38-hole bogey-free run with a bogey on 17.  Could she birdie 18 for the win?  Would she join Webb and Uehara in the walkoff bogey club?  Nope, she parred it to join the playoff with Kozuma and Mi Hyang Lee.

And what a playoff it was!  They played the tough 18th over and over...and over.  All pars the 1st go-round...and the 2nd.  All birdies the 3rd.  All pars the 4th.  Finally Mi Hyang Lee prevailed with her 2nd birdie of the playoff on the 5th go-round!

If you had told me at the start of the week that Stacy Lewis, Na Yeon Choi, and Sun-Ju Ahn would finish outside the top 30 and Bo-Mee Lee, Ji-Yai Shin, Misuza Narita, Teresa Lu, and Mirim Lee would struggle to make the top 20, I would have told you that anyone could walk away with the victory (and that I'd be in contention for the wooden spoon, the cellar-dweller's prize in's PakPicker, this week!).  In the midst of Morgan Pressel, Chella Choi, and Na-Ri Lee putting on a ball-striking exhibition, Ai Suzuki and Ayako Uehara putting on a putting exhibition, and Laura Davies and Karrie Webb showing the kids a thing or two, Mi Hyang Lee, Ilhee Lee, and Kotono Kozuma showed us all that you don't need to have a big name or a huge resume to create a lot of drama.  Mi Hyang Lee's 2nd win of 2014 will move her up my ranking of the top 22 under 22 on major women's professional tours.  Congratulations to Lee and condolences to everyone she surpassed!

[Update 1 (5:39 am):  Sunday was a day of playoffs, as Min Sun Kim broke through for her 1st career KLPGA victory and Lee-Anne Pace made it 3 Ws in her last 3 starts!]

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