U.S. WOMEN’S OPEN: Choi ignites another Korean celebration

KOHLER, Wis. – There was a poignant moment midway through the final round of the 67th U.S. Women’s Open on Sunday.

Se Ri Pak, who won the tournament at Blackwolf Run in 1998, was finishing her round just as two other Korean golfers – Na Yeon Choi and Amy Yang – were making the turn for the back nine. Choi and Yang were first and second on the leaderboard while playing in the final twosome, and the greens at Nos. 9 and 18 were adjoining.

Pak wanted to give Choi an encouraging look, but through better of it.

“I knew she was focused, and I didn’t want her to lose her focus,’’ said Pak. “So I tried not to give her a look, but she had been there many times. She had already won five times (on the Ladies PGA Tour).’’

When their paths crossed Pak was finishing off a 71, which eventually got her into a tie for ninth place. Choi had maintained the six-stroke lead on Yang that she had at the start of the round. Their status at the top of the leaderboard never changed, though Choi’s lead dwindled.

In the end the Korean domination of the biggest championship in women’s golf continued. Choi, 24, became the fifth Korean player to win the title in the last eight years and – for the second straight year – Korean players finished one-two. Paula Creamer, the top American, tied for seventh.

“Last year a couple of Koreans went to a playoff,’’ recalled Pak of the duel in which So Yeon Ryu defeated Hee Kyung Seo. “Again (two Koreans) played together in the last round. I’m really happy to see that. I’m very proud of both of them.’’

Choi and Yang, 22, continued the tradition that Pak started 14 years ago. They took charge of the competition in Saturday’s third round when Choi shot a tournament third-round record-tying 65 to open a six-stroke lead.

No golfer had ever come from six back to win the Women’s Open, and Yang couldn’t do it, either. Choi maintained the six-shot lead until passing Pak at the turn. Whether their brief, silent encounter affected her she wasn’t saying, but pressure did creep in.

“I wasn’t nervous at all. I was calm on the front nine,’’ said Choi. “I had one missed shot on 10 tee box and got a triple bogey.’’

That brought Yang within twi shots, but Choi recovered with a birdie at No. 11, saved par after a tee shot into high grass at No. 12 and got a big break at the 13th when her tee shot bounced off high rocks into a safe place.

From there it was easy. Choi finished with a 73 for 7-under-par 281. Yang carded 71 and 3-under 285. They were the class of the field on a course that was 400 yards longer than it was when Pak won her title in a 20-hole playoff. The scoring was much better than it was for Pak’s storied run to the title. Six-over-par golf was good enough when Pak won.

“I just can’t believe this,’’ said Choi, who added Sunday’s $585,000 first prize to the $6 million she earned since joining the LPGA in 2008. “Maybe tomorrow I will feel it – when I get to Korea.’’

After Pak the Korean winners of the U.S. Women’s Open included Birdie Kim (2005), Inbee Park (2008), Eun-Hee Ji (2009) and Ryu. Choi’s victory was more special, though, because it came on the same course on which Pak won.

“It was like 14 years ago when Se Ri won,’’ said Choi. “I watched it, and I call her legend. She inspired all the Korean players.’’