Out Of The Crowd

Golf U.s. Women's Open

South Korea's Ji Birdies 3 Of Last 6 Holes, Beats Kung By 1, More Than Doubles Year's Earnings

July 13, 2009|By Mark Wogenrich | Mark Wogenrich,Tribune Newspapers

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Mickey Mouse was listening to Eminem on her iPod as she warmed up on the practice putting green Sunday morning. Candie Kung walked by and made note of the familiar scene.

"Did you sleep here last night?" Kung asked.

Eun Hee Ji (known to fellow South Korean players as Mickey Mouse) said, no, she didn't spend that much time on the green, but seemed to always run into Kung for some reason. Kung was at the practice green again later, waiting as Ji made the definitive putt of the women's golf season.

Ji sank a 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole Sunday to win the U.S. Women's Open by one shot over Kung at Saucon Valley Country Club. The 23-year-old South Korean finished the championship at even par and avoided a playoff with Kung, who led before making bogey at the 17th. Ji's putt also punctuated a back nine in which three players led at one point, and four were tied for the lead at another.

From that pack emerged Ji, who had seemed to play herself out of the championship with a double-bogey six at the 10th hole. But she birdied three of her last six holes, including an unlikely 45-footer at the 14th, for her second win in the United States. The $585,000 winner's check more than doubled her earnings ($247,911) for the 2009 LPGA Tour season.

"I didn't even dream about winning this tournament, but I did it, and I think this is going to be one of the most memorable moments in life," she said, using a translator.

Ji played in the final group with third-round leader Cristie Kerr, who extended her two-shot lead to three early on the front nine Sunday. But Kerr's game went astray with back-to-back bogeys at holes 5 and 6, then unraveled with a bogey at No. 16, her first three-putt of the week. As she was making par at the last hole, knowing she wouldn't be in a possible playoff, Kerr watched longingly as Ji lined up her putt.

"That's as good as it gets, rolling in that putt," Kerr said.

There was an interesting mix to the crowd following the final group: Americans rooting for Kerr and a sizable Korean and Korean-American contingent pulling for Ji, who became the second South Korean to win the U.S. Women's Open.

Ji began playing golf 10 years ago at age 13, giving up a promising water-skiing career in the process. Ji's dad, Young Ki Ji, used to coach the Korean national water-skiing team. Since taking up the game, she has been waterskiing only once.

"Yeah, sometimes," Ji said when asked whether she misses it. "But I didn't think there was a future as an athlete for waterskiing, so my father and I, we picked golf and stuck with that."

That proved a smart choice. Ji won the Korean Women's Amateur in 2003, then turned professional a year later. She qualified for the LPGA Tour in 2007 and won her first event, the Wegmans LPGA, last year.

Ji's father is her primary traveling companion on the LPGA Tour, except for this week. He was back in Korea tending to business, so Ji's mother, Kwang Il Pyun, accompanied her. They saw nothing of the area besides the Residence Inn, the Old Course and the airport, but there were two benefits of having her mother around.

First, she cooked at the hotel. "Food much better with mom," Ji said. Second, Ji was reminded of her first victory on the Korean Tour.

"That was where I didn't have my father as a caddie for the first time," she said. "So it's kind of funny how these things happen when my father is away."

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