Na Yeon Choi now knows the feeling.
Fourteen years ago, a 10-year-old Choi watched on television at home as fellow Korean Se Ri Pak won the epic 1998 U.S. Women’s Open in a playoff here at Blackwolf Run.
On Sunday, Choi fulfilled a Pak-inspired dream by winning this year’s 67th version of the U.S. Women’s Open. Choi shot a final-round, 1-over par 73 to finish at 7-under 281, four strokes ahead of compatriot Amy Yang.
"When I was watching TV, my dream was like I just want to be there," said Choi, 24. "And 14 years later I'm here right now, and I made it. My dreams come true. It's an amazing day today, and like I really appreciate what Se Ri did and all the Korean players, what they did. It's really no way like I can be here without them."
|THE SUPER SIX|
|Koreans To Have Won U.S. Women's Open|
|Se Ri Pak (1998, Blackwolf Run)
Birdie Kim (2005, Cherry Hills C.C.)
Inbee Park (2008, Interlachen C.C.)
Eun-Hee Ji (2009, Saucon Valley C.C.)
So Yeon Ryu (2011, The Broadmoor)
Na Yeon Choi (2012, Blackwolf Run)
In winning, Choi became the fourth Korean in the past five years to win this championship and fifth since Pak in 1998.
Yang finished 69-71 on the weekend for a 3-under total of 285, and was Choi’s closest pursuer since early on Saturday afternoon.
"Well, I learned a lot. It gives me a lot of confidence that I came in second this week," said Yang, who has five top-five finishes in her last nine major starts. "My game is feeling pretty good and I'm going to keep trying hard."
Germany’s Sandra Gal shot a second consecutive 74 to finish alone in third at 1-over 289. Il Hee Lee (2-under 70), of Korea; Shanshan Feng (71), of China, who won last month’s LPGA Championship; and qualifier Giulia Sergas (72) of Italy, tied for fourth at 2-over 290.
No. 1-ranked Yani Tseng, of Chinese Taipei, never contended in her second attempt to complete the career grand slam. Tseng shot a second successive 78 to finish at 14-over 302.
The Americans also faded.
Paula Creamer, the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open winner at Oakmont Country Club, shot a final-round 74 to tie for seventh at 3-over 291, while 2007 Open winner Cristie Kerr shot a 75 to tie for ninth at 4-over 292.
"My No. 1 goal is always to be the top American," Creamer said. "To me I think that's just such a realistic goal right now. Yani is so far ahead in the Rolex Rankings and for me to be the No. 1 American just in general is always a goal of mine. Hopefully I can continue it on, there’s one more major this year and we'll see what happens."
Choi, who moved to No. 2 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings behind Tseng, now becomes another obstacle for the Americans after the weekend’s performance.
Choi built a nearly insurmountable six-stroke lead in the third round, shooting a course-record 7-under 65 to reach 8-under 208. The lowest third-round score in championship history was nearly 12 strokes better than the field’s scoring average of 76.893.
Yang was at two under, followed another stroke back by Gal, American teen Lexi Thompson and Japan’s Mika Miyazato. None mounted a serious final-round threat.
In addition to Yang and Gal, Miyazato went out in 3-over 39, shot 76 and finished at 3-over 291. Thompson bogeyed the opening hole, shot a 6-over 78 and finished at 5-over 293.
That cleared the way for Choi.
Whatever drama Choi sucked from this championship on Saturday, she brought back on Sunday’s inward nine. Leading by five strokes over Yang, Choi made a mess of the 568-yard, par-5 10th.
Choi got quick with her tee shot and hooked it into the Sheboygan River, which forced her to go back to the teeing ground. She eventually reached the green in six strokes before two-putting for an 8.
"That moment maybe I thought I might screw up today, but I thought I needed to fix that," she said. "I can do it. So I tried to think what I have to do. I decided I have to talk with my caddie. So I started to talk with my caddie [Shane Joel] about just like what airplane [I will fly home in] tomorrow or about the car or about vacation."
Choi’s once ironclad lead was now just two shots.
Choi recovered quickly with a birdie on the 368-yard, par-4 11th, but found trouble again with her approach shot on the 452-yard, par-4 12th. Assessing her lie in the long and inconsistent fescue on the sloped hill left of the green, Choi considered a drop, but eventually hacked out to roughly 20 feet behind the hole and made the slight double-break par putt.
On the 189-yard, par-3 13th, Choi’s tee shot bounced twice off the rock wall fortifying the green and came to rest just 6 feet behind the green. She executed a nice up-and-down par save.
"So when I had that happen, I look at my caddie, and all the winners have won the tournament, they had a little bit of luck," said Choi of the double bouncer off the wall. "So I thought maybe today I had luck from that tee shot, and then that's why I can win today."
Choi became a bit more confident about her chances after back-to-back birdies at the 350-yard, par-4 15th and the 567-yard, par-5 16th.
"Actually, when I had birdie on 15 I thought I might be a winner this week," said Choi, who had five previous LPGA Tour wins. "But on 17, after tee shot, my caddie said to me ‘You can watch the leaderboard right now.’ And before that I didn't watch leaderboard at all today."
By the 18th, Choi’s walk was practically ceremonial. After making a bogey on the 72nd hole and giving Joel a hug, Choi was showered in champagne by a group led by Pak. Choi then gave a slight bow before hugging Pak.
For Pak, Choi’s win validated what she long thought after playing with Choi when she was a young amateur.
"I thought she have a great solid swing and she have great tempo, and she's a really calm player," said Pak, who shot 71 on Sunday and finished tied for ninth at 4-over 292. "She's not really up and down. She always was a consistent player. So I know she was going to be really, really good. After a couple years later she turn pro and I see her here. My theory is yes, I'm right. She's really good."
What’s next for Choi?
"Fourteen years ago Se Ri won and I watched it," she said. "And then I called her legend. And she inspired all the Korean players. I want to be like that. I want to be like Se Ri Pak."
Choi now has a better feeling of what that is like.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.