The ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer, which has a Hall of Fame list of champions that includes Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam, Betsy King, Se Ri Pak, Nancy Lopez and Juli Inkster, added first-time winner Annie Park to that roster on a Sunday when the mantra was “How low can you go?” Cheered on by family and friends, the 23-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., a couple hours up the New Jersey Turnpike from the Seaview Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., prevailed by one stroke over Sakura Yokomine.
Park, one of the few players on the LPGA to use a long putter, made birdie putts in the final round long enough to require tolls on the Garden State Parkway. She joined the ShopRite’s elite list of winners with a blistering 63 to finish at 16-under-par 197 with Yokomine at 198. Marina Alex, a Jersey girl from Wayne, was third at 199 with Sei Young Kim at 200. Sandra Gal and Su Oh were at 201 with Winchanee Meechai, Mariah Stackhouse and Ashleigh Buhai at 202.
Park, whose best finish was T-6 in the 2016 ShopRite, was the 2013 NCAA individual champion and also led the University of Southern California to the team title. She started the final round of the 54-hole event four strokes behind Kim. But Park launched a determines charge with a 40-foot eagle putt on No. 9 to get to 13 under par. She then made birdie putts longer than 30 feet on Nos. 11, 13 and 14 to get to 16 under par and lift her head above a crowed final-round leaderboard that had 17 rounds of 67 or lower, including a course record-tying 61 by Yokomine.
“My putter was great,” Park said in what was at best an understatement. “It seemed like every putt I looked at went in. If I said I wasn’t nervous that would be a lie. But I just focused on each shot.”
Nursing a one-stroke lead over Yokomine, Park’s gap wedge on the 86-yard 17th hole left her a challenging putt from 40 feet above the hole but once again she showed remarkable touch as it curled just inches low of the hole for a tap-in par. She played the par-5 closing hole conservatively, hitting the green in two and making a three-putt par.
“I can’t really describe it,” said Park, who started the year with minimal status on the LPGA and had to Monday qualify for the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship. “I’ve been through a lot of struggle and I have had so many family and friends who have supported me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Kim, seeking her seventh LPGA title, finished up a second-round 61 Sunday morning and took a two-stroke lead over Celine Herbin and three clear of Oh into the final round. Herbin fell back with a final-round 71 and Oh’s 68 was not good enough to keep up with the blistering pace set by Park and Yokomine. Kim closed with a 70,
When Yokomine teed off on the par-5 18th holding the lead at 15 under par she needed an eagle to match the LPGA single-round scoring record of 59 by Annika Sorenstam. But Yokomine’s chip-in try for the eagle bounded 12 feet past the hole and she missed a putt that would have put her at 16 under par.
When Yokomine finished, Park was 15 under with five holes to play. She took the lead with the birdie on No. 14 and then protected it with pars the rest of the way. Park’s play was magnificent on Sunday from top to bottom as she averaged 270 yards off the tee, hit 16 greens and needed that red-hot putter only 29 times.
Alex, a player on an upward arc, was also seeking her first LPGA victory and finished with a flourish, making a hole-in-one on No. 17 to get to 13 under par and a birdie on the last hole to get third place alone.
There have now been 14 winners in 15 tournaments this season, with U.S. Women’s Open champion Ariya Jutanugarn the only player with two titles. And in an International Crown season, the United States and South Korea are now tied for the most winners with four each. That’s already setting the stage for what should be a riveting showdown in Incheon, Korea this October.