Choi's Performance Has Lacoste Reminiscing July 16, 2017 | BEDMINSTER, N.J. By Lisa D. Mickey

Hye-Jin Choi fell short Sunday in her quest to become the second amateur to win the U.S. Women's Open, but treasured the experience. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

U.S. Women's Open Home

Late Sunday evening in Madrid, Spain, Catherine Lacoste was at home, keeping track of the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open.

Lacoste had more than a passing interest in the 72nd playing of the championship. As the only amateur to have won the championship, in 1967, Lacoste watched as amateur Hye-Jin Choi, of the Republic of Korea, made her move to the top of the leader board with an outward-nine 34 on Sunday afternoon.

Choi, 17, charged into the lead, while 54-hole leader Shanshan Feng, of China, began losing steam in the final round.

The top of the leader board featured three players – Choi, Feng and Sung Hyun Park – fighting for the championship title with only a few holes left to play.

Park ultimately prevailed, but not without a valiant effort from Choi. She tied for the lead with a birdie on No. 15, but her chances to win plummeted when her tee shot on No. 16 drifted right and found the water hazard surrounding the green, leading to a double bogey. Choi sealed runner-up honors with a birdie from just under 10 feet on the final hole, while Feng’s triple-bogey at No. 18 dropped her into a tie for fifth.

“Just to come and play, that alone would be an honor, but on top of that, it was an excellent [championship] and [to finish] as runner-up is an unbelievably joyous thing for me,” said Choi, who got into the field by earning the lone spot available in the sectional qualifier in Korea on June 12.

Speaking through a translator, she added, “This is a tournament that [the] world’s greatest players come and compete. Actually how well I finished, it’s a bit of a surprise.”

With her 9-under-par total of 279, Choi set a record for the lowest 72-hole score by an amateur in U.S. Women’s Open history by four strokes. Choi also became the fourth amateur in history to finish solo second in the championship since Jenny Chuasiriporn lost to Se Ri Pak in a 20-hole playoff in 1998.

In addition, she became the first amateur to finish runner-up since 2005, when Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang tied for second.

Ranked No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, Choi’s performance in the U.S. Women’s Open will likely open new doors for the Korean teen who still has braces on her teeth.

“I’ve watched the scores every day,” said Lacoste, when reached by telephone at her home Sunday evening. “It’s very exciting, but I wish we had it on television here.”

Even an ocean away and watching only a parade of changing numerals, perhaps Lacoste was the only person in the world who could completely grasp what was happening in the pounding heart of the contending amateur on this potentially historic day in Bedminster, N.J.

The week began with a field of 156 players from 28 countries, all but 21 of them professionals. Five amateurs made the 36-hole cut, and by late Sunday afternoon, only one – Choi – was fighting for a chance to add her name to the Harton S. Semple Trophy.

At that point, Lacoste simply could not look away.

Nor could she forget that day 50 years ago at Virginia Hot Springs Golf and Tennis Club in Hot Springs, Va., when she won by two strokes over Susie Maxwell and Beth Stone with a score of 10-over 294.

It was a day when Lacoste, then 22, not only beat the professionals, but emerged into the spotlight. 

Her mother, Simone Thione de la Chaume, was an accomplished golfer who became the first French woman to win the British Ladies Open Amateur.

Her father, Rene Lacoste, was a two-time Wimbledon champion and the 1927 US Open singles tennis champion, who also created the Lacoste line of sportswear out of necessity for more comfortable tennis apparel.

“I was always the daughter of my parents, but when I won the U.S. Women’s Open, I had done something for myself,” she said on Sunday.

Because Lacoste was considered the best amateur in Europe at a time when there were few women golf professionals, she was often invited to represent Europe in tournaments.

“Being the U.S. Women’s Open champion opened a lot of doors for me and it allowed me to be invited to compete in many other events,” said Lacoste, a lifelong amateur who also won the 1969 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

Lacoste knows the same will be true for Choi, who was one of eight players from the Republic of Korea to finish in the top 10.

This year’s winning prize for U.S. Women’s Open champion Sung Hyun Park is $900,000, while the top prize in 1967 was $5,000. The pros behind Lacoste divided the cash prize, while she accepted the USGA’s gold medal.

Choi may have passed up the $540,000 runner-up check, but said next year, she hopes to return to the U.S. Women’s Open as a professional, a transition she plans to make in September.

“It would be nice if I could get the money, but I think my primary goal was to come here and compete, so to me, getting this second place actually means more to me,” said Choi. “It’s a greater honor for me, so I am not really focusing on the prize money for now.”

Prize money was extremely limited when Lacoste was in her prime. The LPGA was still stabilizing at that time and to turn professional would have meant Lacoste would have had to leave France to play in the United States. Instead, she opted to marry and start a family.

“For me, to play as an amateur meant I could travel, have fun, play for my country and have a life,” said Lacoste, 72, who lives in Spain and France and is married to classical guitarist Angel Pinero. She is a mother of four and the grandmother of eight girls.

Choi came within three holes of potentially rewriting history for the first time in five decades, but once again, Lacoste’s claim as the only amateur to win the U.S. Women’s Open remains intact.

 “Winning the Women’s Open certainly changed my life,” added Lacoste. “It gave me a lot of confidence and a wonderful experience.”

“If somebody can win this championship, they can win anywhere else,” she added.

And with Choi coming so close this year, there’s a good chance some player somewhere in the world was watching and believes it can still happen.

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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