Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu couldn’t settle who was the best on the LPGA in 2017, sharing the Rolex Player of the Year award. So it made sense they had to go to a playoff to decide the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship Sunday at Kemper Lakes, Park making birdies on both extra holes to claim her second major championship. It also made perfect sense that the winning putt came after a delay when a rather frisky storm rattled through. This was an electrifying day.
The final round at Kemper Lakes had great golf, a record and a near record, heartbreaks and, ultimately, an exhilarating finish. Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old rising star from Japan, rallied from nine back with a 64 to make the playoff at 10-under-par 278. The greatest comeback in LPGA major championship history was seven strokes by Patty Sheehan in 1983 and Karrie Webb in 2006. The 64 was a final-round record for the Women’s PGA.
And it was fitting that the playoff ended on No. 16, a hole where Ryu seemed to take control of the tournament in regulation when she rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt to get to 12-under par after Park made an all-world, up-and-down from the water hazard. At that time, Ryu was two clear of Hataoka, who finished 90 minutes earlier, and Park.
But Ryu found the water on the par-3, 17th hole and made double bogey to fall back into a tie with Park and Hataoka. Both Ryu and Park had birdie tries on No. 18 to win in regulation – from 20 and 15 feet respectively – and both scared the hole with near misses. Then it was off to sudden death with Park, Ryu at Hataoka at 278, three strokes clear of Jessica Korda and Angel Yin. Charley Hull and Brooke Henderson were at 282 with Jacqui Concolino, Lizette Salas and I.K. Kim at 283.
“It was a really long round today, and I can't still believe that I'm sitting right next to this trophy,” said Park, who won the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open. “This win means a lot to me since it made me go one step forward. I think I've been waiting this time for such a long time since I've been having a tough year this year especially, and this is my second major win in two years, and I can't still believe what I've done, but I'm really happy.”
The playoff was simply sensational. It began on No. 18 and Ryu, putting first, rolled in a 16-footer for only the second birdie of the day on the hole. After Hataoka missed from 15 feet and was eliminated, Park matched Ryu’s birdie, making a pressure-packed putt from 10 feet to send the sudden death out to No. 16, the start of the treacherous Gauntlet.
Moments after they both hit their approach shots onto the 16th green, play was stopped. When it resumed, Ryu’s 18-footer for birdie curled barely low. Park then rolled in a slippery 8-footer for the win. The normally stoic Park dissolved into tears in the arms of her caddie, David Jones, then, brushing away more tears, bowed to the large contingent of Korean fans following her.
“Actually, this is my first time feeling like this kind of emotion, like being this emotional, and I was really happy,” Park said about her surprising reaction. “Like I couldn't help that.”
Ryu took a three-stroke lead over Henderson and was four clear of Park going into Sunday’s final round, her 67 on Saturday creating separation from the pack. It seemed as if the tournament would be decided in the final threesome, but a double bogey on the second hole by Ryu let a slew of players back into the tournament.
“Definitely, making double bogey at the second hole wasn't a really great start,” said Ryu, who was trying to add the Women’s PGA to her U.S. Women’s Open and ANA Inspiration titles. “Maybe the biggest regret is 17. I was over the ball and I felt like the wind was a little bit more into, so I was going to have like one club longer, and then I was like, I just want to stick to my plan A, and then I hit it, I don't think it was a really bad shot, but just maybe ball drew more than I expected, then there was a really strong right-to-left wind.”
Hataoka, who beginning on No. 11 had six consecutive one-putt greens, made two eagles and five birdies in her historic round. The winner last week at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship was especially impressive given her age and relative lack of experience with major championship pressure. She ran the feared Gauntlet in one-under par.
“Finally, on the final round of the tournament, I was able to play my game today,” she said. “When I did finish, I didn't think I'd be in the playoff.” Then she put her disappointment into a very mature perspective. “Well, they're both major champs,” she said. “They're both great players, and when So Yeon made her putt, I had to give my hats off to her.”
There were a lot of hats off this week at Kemper Lakes. It was difficult to find anyone not impressed by the quality of the golf course and the first-class way the tournament was run. And in the end, it settled the tie for 2017 Player of the Year – at least for now. Hard to imagine a better ending than that.