Na Yeon Choi captures season-ending Titleholders
NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — Moments after Na Yeon Choi tapped in for par to complete her two-shot win at the Titleholders, Inbee Park ran onto the 18th green at The TwinEagles Club and showered her with champagne.
Both South Koreans had reason to celebrate Sunday.
Choi captured the final event of the LPGA Tour season by atoning for a double bogey with an eagle on the front nine, and then playing it smart off the tee on the short 16th hole and hitting a superb sand wedge in which she had hardly any room for error. She closed with a 2-under 70 for a two-shot win over So Yeon Ryu.
Park was never in serious contention, though she needed a solid outing in the final round to lock up the LPGA Tour money title and capture the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average of the season.
That led to a debate of which Choi wanted no part. Who's the best South Korean in women's golf?
"Except me?" Choi said.
She laughed in a rare moment of bravado.
"I think it seems that Inbee is playing really well this year. I think she has a lot of confidence from this year and I think she can play really well next year, too," Choi said.
The LPGA Tour closed up shop for the year with plenty up for grabs.
Stacy Lewis won four times and was the first American to win player of the year since Beth Daniel in 1994. Park won the Vare Trophy and the money title, the only woman to surpass $2 million in earnings this year. Right behind her was Choi, the 25-year-old who plays with such control. She won twice this year, but they were big ones — $585,000 from the U.S. Women's Open and $500,000 from the Titleholders, the two biggest prizes in women's golf.
The rookie of the year was Ryu, who doesn't seem like a rookie and certainly doesn't play like one. Ryu won the U.S. Women's Open last year before she was an LPGA member. She gave Choi all she could handle until Ryu three-putted for bogey on the 14th hole, and had to scramble for par on the 16th when Choi pulled ahead.
And don't forget Yani Tseng, who remains No. 1 in the women's world ranking.
The LPGA Tour now takes three months off, and the lasting image will be Choi's solid play that turned a great season into her best one yet. She won her first major in the summer at Blackwolf Run and then closed out the year with another big win at the Titleholders, giving her just under $2 million in earnings.
"I feel really great, and I'm really satisfied how I played — not just this week, but this season," Choi said.
It was the first time Choi's mother watched her win outside South Korea, and Choi kept it suspenseful with a double bogey on the third hole that created a four-way tie atop the leaderboard with so much golf left to play. Two holes later, Choi drilled a 3-wood from 240 yards and bounced onto the green and settled 10 feet away for eagle.
Choi and Ryu pulled away from the field, and it felt like high noon over Seoul the rest of the way.
"I was very nervous last night," Choi said. "I told people that leading the tournament, there's always extra pressure. Even on front nine, when I had the double bogey and tie for first place, I felt more comfortable than leading. Maybe that sounds a little weird. I like chasing somebody, and then I can play more aggressive."
Choi and Ryu each made birdie on the par-3 12th that enabled Choi to keep a one-shot lead. Ryu then hit 3-wood into about 25 feet for a two-putt birdie on the 13th to tie for the lead. But on the next hole, she didn't account for the wind making her 30-foot birdie putt faster than it looked. The putt went some 6 feet by the hole, and a three-putt bogey cost her a share of the lead. She never caught up the rest of the way.
"I learn one more thing," Ryu said. "I have to think about the wind strength at the green."
Choi took it from there, and seized control on the 16th, which can be reached off the tee with a big drive. Her caddie, Jason Hamilton, didn't think it was worth the risk. Anything short leaves an awkward pitch, which is what Ryu ended up facing. Anything too close to the green and to the left leaves a blind pitch to the back of the three-tiered green, and par becomes a good score.
Choi hit 3-wood to the left side of the fairway and a 52-wedge to a tiny spot on an elevated green she couldn't see.
"Left side of the fairway is a better angle to the second shot," Choi said. "I think the pin was at 79 yards, but I just landed it almost at the pin. I tried to land it almost to the pin. There's not a lot of room."
It checked up and trickled to 3 feet, and she was on her way.
Brittany Lincicome also closed with a 70 at The TwinEagles Club for finish alone in third. Karrie Webb had a 69 to finish another shot behind.
"I'm really happy with how I played this season," Choi said. "I won my first major and even this tournament is very big for me. I think I can have even bigger expectations now and think I deserve it."
She is becoming known as "Big Apple" because of her initials — NYC — and she sure knows how to pick the right tournaments to win. Her wins at the U.S. Women's Open and the Titleholders provided about 55 percent of her season earnings. This win couldn't have come at a better time.
Her mother came over to help her buy a new house in Orlando on Monday.
"I talked to my mom last night and said if I win this week we can buy a bigger house," Choi said.