U.S. Women’s Open Championship
U.S. Women’s Open Championship
A Korean golfer named “Lee” won the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open Championship, which was entirely predictable but not in a lazy, stereotypical, dismissive way. You only had to be paying attention to know that the new champion might be a worthy winner at the Country Club of Charleston — and the first woman to earn $1 million at a major championship.
She was the Rookie of the Year on the Korea LPGA tour in 2016 and the leading money winner in both 2017 and 2018. At the end of 2018 she won the eight-round LPGA qualifying series. In eight previous starts of her rookie season on the LPGA she had not finished lower than 26th. She was runner-up at the Mediheal Championship, losing in a playoff, and had two other top-10s. She was fifth on her debut at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2017 and 17th a year later.
A pedigree game matched by a unique name. Jeongeun Lee 6 is so annotated because she was the sixth player of what is a common name in Korea to join the KLPGA. The fifth simply goes by “Jeong Eun Lee” in America, but Lee 6 always embraced her numeral. “This is really a lucky number to me,” she said. Believe it. She finished sixth in her first KLPGA event as a professional. Her first win in 2017 came with three rounds of 66, six under par each day. By the end of 2018 she had six KLPGA wins. She writes “6” on her golf ball, has nicknames such as “Hot 6” and “Lucky 6,” the latter being the name of her fan club in Korea. When she won the oldest prize in women’s major golf, she did so by two strokes over Lexi Thompson, Angel Yin and compatriot So Yeon Ryu with a total of 278, six under par for the championship.
Adding the numeral helps Lee stand out from the crowd. So does the striking bleach-blond hair emerging from under her cap. She is an individual who comes with a unique backstory which emerged during the week. At the age of four, her father, a truck driver, was paralyzed when he fell asleep at the wheel. Her drive to succeed at golf came from wanting to provide for her family given neither of her parents work. Nor is it easy for her parents to travel, so Lee had to get used to being independent early in her golf career. “I wanted to support my family no matter what,” she said.
At the trophy presentation ceremony, Lee was clearly holding back tears as she spoke in Korean, and her manager, Jennifer Kim, who was translating for the audience, became choked up with the emotion. “I’m sorry,” Kim said after a moment to compose herself. “I am just really proud of her.” Later, in the press room, Lee said in her native tongue: “I want to thank my family, who’s in Korea right now watching me on TV and supporting me all the time. Coming to play the U.S. Women’s Open is such an honor. I can’t imagine winning a major tournament in the LPGA. I didn’t even expect to win this fast. I think this is very lucky.”
Luck may always play a part in a champion’s performance, but it was her steady, consistent play across all four days that was crucial. Lee opened with a 70, had two 69s and then closed with a 70. Lee was five behind after the first day, but of the five players ahead of her on the final day the best score was a 73, two over par. That perfectly illustrated how the spectacular layout at the Country Club of Charleston, the first Seth Raynor-designed course to host a major championship, gradually increased the challenge as the week went on. With generous fairways, many elevated greens with tightly mown run-off areas, 12 of them with false fronts, and interesting bunkering, the course provided golf that was strategically interesting to play and engrossing to watch.
Mamiko Higa’s 65 on the opening day was the best score of the week and the lowest by anyone on debut in the U.S. Women’s Open. The 25-year-old, who had won five times on the Japan LPGA tour and is married to a sumo wrestling star, had three birdies in a row from the third hole. She added three more and did not drop a shot to become the first Japanese player to lead the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open since 1993. One behind were Germany’s Esther Henseleit, who had already collected six top-10s in her first seven events as a rookie on the Ladies European Tour, and Gina Kim. The 19-year-old, fresh from helping Duke win the NCAA Championship, holed an eight iron for an eagle at the eighth, her 17th, and then birdied the ninth for a 66 to tie the lowest round by an amateur in the U.S. Women’s Open.
Celine Boutier, who claimed her first LPGA win at the Vic Open earlier in the season, scored a 67 on Thursday and then a 70 on Friday to be five under par, a mark reached by Jessica Korda with a second round of 68 with three birdies and 15 pars. Higa got to seven under par with an early birdie but had fallen back to four under when a thunderstorm interrupted play for two hours in the afternoon. Three birdies and only one bogey on the resumption put Higa back in the lead at six under after a 71.
Overnight a tree that had been struck by lighting during the storm had to be removed. It was located by the 18th fairway and close to the 11th green, leading to local great Beth Daniel to quip: “Not even God can hit the 11th green!” Perhaps it was some consolation to Minjee Lee after the Australian had a triple bogey at the par-three 11th, where the green slopes sharply in a “reverse Redan” manner and is bordered by deep bunkers on either side. It was the false front that did for Lee as her tee shot and two subsequent chips rolled off the front. Minjee Lee was still only four off the lead while Jeongeun Lee 6 was a shot closer after a 69 that contained only two bogeys, though both at par-fives. On Saturday Jeongeun dropped only one shot in another 69 to be two off the lead, now held by Boutier, after a 69, and Yu Liu, who had a 66. Higa had another 71 to be one back, alongside Americans Thompson and Jaye Marie Green, who both scored 68s.
Thompson had adopted a claw putting grip for the week after being persuaded to change her technique by her brother Curtis on Wednesday. The putter was particularly helpful in saving par at the 11th with a long putt and holing a 30-footer for eagle at the 15th. On Sunday Thompson missed too many fairways to contend after bogeying three of the first four holes. She did birdie the last for a 73 to tie for second, her highest placing in her 13th U.S. Women’s Open (she is still only 24).
Alongside Thompson on the course was Green, runner-up to Lydia Ko at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur. Green had missed her last four cuts and never finished better than 12th at a major. On Sunday she led briefly but came home in 38 for a 74. Tying for fifth place was her best result on the LPGA. Also on three under par were Higa, after a 74, Gerina Piller, with a 68, as well as Boutier and Liu, who both scored 75s. Two strokes further back in 12th place was leading amateur Kim, as well as Mexico’s Maria Fassi, the 2019 NCAA individual champion on her professional debut. Also making her first appearance as a pro, finishing 62nd, was Jennifer Kupcho, who won the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur after a thrilling duel with Fassi. Piller made a strong charge with five birdies in the first 11 holes and briefly joined a seven-way tie for the lead before bogeys at the 13th and 14th holes. Boutier and Liu, playing in the last pairing together, are friends from Duke’s 2014 NCAA winning season. But neither started well. Boutier double-bogeyed the first and bogeyed the third, while Liu bogeyed three of the first five.
Both managed a couple of birdies before the turn, but it was Lee who stole into top spot early on the back nine. She got to the turn in level par and then the magic happened. She hit the flagstick at the 10th with a 70-foot chip and tapped in for a par. At the 11th, the hardest hole for the week where Lydia Ko had a hole-in-one with a six iron on Sunday, Lee hit a superb tee shot to eight feet and made a rare two. At the next, she birdied from five feet and added another from five feet at the par-five 15th to go ahead by three strokes. The finish was still tense, however, as Lee missed the green at the 16th and 18th holes. “I was nervous starting 16, 17 and 18, and I knew that if I made all pars on those holes, I knew that I’m going to win,” said Lee. “I know I made two bogeys, but I just didn’t want to think about it too much.
I tried the best that I can.” Yin, with a closing 68, and Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion who scored a 70, had both finished at four under par, two behind, but Boutier was still battling away on the course at five under. “On a scale of one to 10, today was probably a one,” said the 25-year-old. “My putter was not good all day, and I just struggled to have birdie opportunities throughout the day.”
After six pars in a row, though the Frenchwoman was robbed of a birdie at the 16th when she lipped out from three feet, Boutier needed a birdie at the last to tie. That meant holing a bunker shot, which in fact caught a slope and ran off the green. So Boutier finished as she had started, with a double bogey. Six really must be Lee 6’s lucky number. For the eighth time in 12 years, and the 10th time in all, a Korean had won the U.S. Women’s Open and happened to be called “Lee”. This hardly validated the “prediction” made by veteran coach Hank Haney on his PGA Tour Radio show. Haney was suspended for his belittling comments on the eve of the biggest championship in the women’s game — he did not even appear to know it was happening that week.
Fittingly, Lee proved every champion has a story to be told as well as a game, and a name, to be respected.