Sunday, June 26, 2005

Three If By Sand! Miracle Birdie Makes Pressel A Bridesmaid, Kim A Ju-Yun Bride

The events depicted in this story are true. Only the name has been changed to define the champion.

Nine months after presciently conceiving her nickname, Ju-Yun "Birdie" Kim delivered. From the sands of Cherry Hills Country Club's seemingly impregnable 18th hole, Kim produced a bouncing, bunkered birdie - a miraculous shot and one of the greatest in golf history the moment it fell - to win the mother of all ladies' championships, the U.S. Women's Open. It's Kim's firstborn American victory, and oh, baby, is it a whopper.

A week that commenced with the most popular player in women's golf, Annika Sorenstam, already halfway home toward the Grand Slam ended with perhaps its most anonymous contestant on top of Cherry Hills. In truth, Annika had been upstaged long before Sunday afternoon. A gaggle of teenagers and college kids contending for the holiest of grails in women's golf made the week play more like a slumber party than major championship.

The sports world had conveniently used Annika's Slam quest to get another peek at 15-year-old phenom Michelle Wie, who didn't disappoint but did inspire a fresh layer of hyperbole. Opening with a 2-under-par 69, Wie worked her way into a tie for the lead through 54 holes and onto NBC analyst Johnny Miller's top five list of best swings in all of golf.

Wie has chosen to spend her middle and high school years testing herself against grown-ups instead of taking the critics' preferred path of "learning to win" by beating up on kids her own age. Her ultimate desire is to play against men in major championships. Sunday, Wie proved the plan isn't working by folding with a final round 82. Good players, especially grown men, just don't shoot 82 with a U.S. Open on the line. Instead, they shoot 81s and 84s like Retief Goosen and Jason Gore last week. Had Wie "learned to win" against her peers the way Rookie of the Year lock Paula Creamer did, maybe she would've matched Creamer's Sunday 79.

I say let her play against whomever she wants. Sure, she blew it Sunday while the nation's top-ranked female amateur, Morgan Pressel, hung in 'til the bitter end. But there's a big difference. Pressel, who's taken the conventional route of racking up junior titles, is merely an exceptionally talented young player with Hall of Fame potential. Wie, on the other hand, is from another world and could wind up in another Hall, as in the men's.

Annika, of course, is already in the LPGA Hall of Fame, but she was and is still is interested in transcending women's golf into the pantheon of sports immortals by achieving the Grand Slam. She was in good stead after an opening 71, but three straight bogeys Friday left Annika six shots back and in a major funk. Needing a weekend aggregate of 1-under 141, she instead signed for 73-77 and saw her Grand Slam aspirations fizzle into a pedestrian tie for 23rd. I suppose the fact that Annika left Denver with only two legs instead of three proves she's human after all.

As is so often the case in U.S. Opens, the final round was less about great shotmaking and way more about survival. Which helps explain how Lorena Ochoa came to the final hole at +3, needing a par four to get into a playoff but left having taken twice that many whacks. And why Natalie Gulbis with a birdie could've posted +4 but bogeyed instead for yet another near-miss. And why Brittany Lang, fresh off an NCAA team title with Duke last month, was such an interested spectator when Birdie's birdie fell at the last. Lang was the only player in the final 10 groups to match par, and her chances of at least earning the right to a Monday playoff looked good until Kim lived up to her name.

Pressel played beyond her years, too, though she's been doing that for nearly as long as she's had any years at all. You may recall four years ago she became the youngest to qualify for this championship. Pressel missed the cut then, but now at 17 and a grizzled veteran of three U.S. Opens, she finally proved she's capable of playing on the grandest stage of women's golf and whetted our appetite for the day she'll be out here full-time. And she should take home from Cherry Hills considerable comfort in knowing she didn't lose this U.S. Open nearly as much as Kim won it.

This was a weird event and one reflective of what happens when the USGA plays Marquis de Sade with a classic course. A half dozen of the best players in the women's game had so much to gain and in the end lost a commensurate amount. Annika's Grand Slam bid was left begging. Paula Creamer and Lorena Ochoa both missed opportunities to establish themselves as the best young player in the game. Michelle Wie surrendered 11 too many strokes Sunday and, thus, instant immortality as a 15-year-old major champion. Calendar girl Natalie Gulbis, now starring in her own eponymous reality show on The Golf Channel, could've ended any and all Anna Kourni-komparisons by winning her first LPGA title. Karen Stupples left some wondering which was the fluke: her eagle/double eagle start en route to victory in the final round of last year's British Open or the 78 she turned in Sunday playing with a share of the lead. Pressel could've upstaged Wie. Lang could've been the first amateur champion in nearly 40 years.

But somehow, the player with the least to lose gained the most. Birdie not only hadn't shown signs of being one of the best players on tour, she wasn't even the best player named Kim. She could've quietly shot 77 Sunday, picked up a top ten plus a nice check, and made a lot of people in the press tent happy by not requiring them to actually flip over to the modest half page she occupies in the LPGA media guide.

Instead, Birdie Kim now occupies a place in golf history more rarefied than Denver's mile high air. And that name, prophetically altered, now occupies space on the U.S. Women's Open trophy and may give new birth to the belief that what's in a name matters after all.

by Pulitzer Boone


Donna G said...

Hmmm if pulitzer Boone works, maybe I can be Donna-John Grisham.... the initials are the same

Timothy D said... Oh, that Pulitzer