From The Jaws Of Defeat
At the onset of the third round of the U.S. Women’s Open, there were a handful of players in contention. By the end of the round, two players had separated themselves from the field and appeared destined for a tete-a-tete duel on Sunday.
22-year old Thai superstar Ariya Jutanugarn shot a 5-under par, 67 to overtake Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith (who had started the day with a two shot advantage) to take a commanding 4 shot cushion heading to Sunday’s final round. The former Rolex Rankings world No. 1 has had a very consistent year so far with 8 top 10s in 13 starts to date, and a thrilling playoff win at the Kingsmill Championship two weeks ago.
It would be a surprise to see Jutanugarn bested on Sunday as she is a closer who has won 7 times when leading on Sunday. That includes her breakthrough win at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, where she entered the final round with a two stroke lead and extended that margin to 3 to claim her first Major. But the resilient Jutanugarn also had overcome a series of heartbreaks before her first LPGA victory in 2016 https://www.birdgolf.com/from-the-ashes-of-failure/ Golf.
For the 33-year old Smith, the crucible of playing in the final group on the last day of a Major would be uncharted waters. Although winless in her 13 years on the LPGA Tour, the affable Smith has been a consistent money winner having almost won US 2 million dollars to date in her career. Smith’s caddie is also her husband, Duane (they were married in 2009) and they are able to do the difficult task of living and working together brilliantly. Smith’s recent form though had been a precursor of her play this week as she had missed 6 of the last 7 cuts on the Tour and had only made the cut once in 6 attempts at the U.S. Women’s Open. Golf.
A pair of Kims were at 6 and 5 under in third and fourth place. South Korea’s H.J. and J.H. Kim (not related) were still on the periphery of contention but only if Jutanugarn and Smith faltered.
22-year old H.J. Kim won a Major for her maiden Tour win in 2014 when she captured the Evian championship and is an extremely accomplished player. Kim has 10 wins on the Korean Tour and has two other LPGA victories since the Evian.
The Open was being played in June for the first time in decades after having been a July fixture for as long as one can remember. The 2018 version is the 73rd playing of the oldest Major Championship in Women’s golf and was played at the very exclusive Shoal Creek Golf Club in Shelby County, Alabama. The heavy rains that had interrupted play on Friday afternoon had certainly softened the course which was reflected in the scoring. Jutanugarn’s 12-under score after three rounds is not the type of thing that the USGA likes for their Championships.
Jutanugarn continued her torrid play on the front-9 on Sunday shooting a 4-under par 32 that increased her lead to a whopping 7 shots over H.J. Kim before making a triple bogie 7 on the 10th hole. A bogey on the 12th by Jutanugarn and a birdie on the 13th by Kim and all of a sudden a seemingly invincible 7 shot lead had been whittled to 2. Golf.
Jutanugarn bogeyed her final two holes to finish tied with Kim at 11-under who had finished in the group ahead with a superb 67. The two players would then create history by being the first participants in the Open’s new play-off format which was a two hole aggregate decider. Smith meanwhile, was having a disastrous back-9 of her own, playing her final 9 in 6-over dropping into a tie for 5th but still giving her a career best finish in a Major.
Kim and Jutanugarn were still tied after playing the first two play-off holes in even par before heading back to the 14th hole for what was now sudden death. Both players made par-4 on that hole and continued to their 4th playoff hole where both hit their approach shots into greenside bunkers. Kim was unable to get up and down while Jutanugarn willed a sublime shot from a buried lie to within a foot of the hole and to claim victory.
It was a major triumph and an inspiration to watch such a talented player lose what seemed like an insurmountable lead, withstand a historic capitulation, only to prevail so courageously. It was an epic failure, without failing.
It was; golf.