Winning on the LPGA Tour is a life-changing accomplishment. Winning a major championship is a career-defining achievement. On Sunday, Sei Young Kim can add to an already robust resume at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship as she chases her first major against the toughest of competition.
Playing with an ease that was impressive in its meticulous perfection and a joy that was a pleasure to watch, Kim handled a demanding Aronimink Golf Club in 67 strokes on Saturday to finish 54 holes at seven-under-par 203, good enough for a two-stroke lead going into Sunday’s final round.
But if Kim is to get her first major – and with 10 LPGA Tour titles she has the most wins of any active player without a major – she’ll have to hold off a trio of proven winners who know how to get the job done under the most intense of pressure.
At 205 are Brooke Henderson, who won the KPMG Women’s PGA in 2016, one of her nine LPGA victories, and Anna Nordqvist, who took the Women’s PGA in 2009 and backed it up with another major at the 2017 Evian Championship.
Lurking in fourth place, three strokes back at 206, is Inbee Park, who counts seven majors among her 20 LPGA Tour wins, including the Women’s PGA in three consecutive years – 2013, ’14 and ’15. A victory Sunday would tie Park with the legendary Mickey Wright as the only four-time winners of the Women’s PGA.
After a bogey on No. 4, Kim ripped off three consecutive birdies and then took the lead with a birdie on No. 15. Through 54 holes, she’s missed only eight greens and has hit 33 fairways in 42 tries, which has positioned her at the top of the leaderboard.
“I wouldn't say I'm nervous, but I'm also excited about going into the final day,” Kim said. “I just want to take each shot at a time and just keep focus, and the results will follow. I'm going to hit some balls, have a great dinner and rest up for tomorrow.”
Kim, 27, has been one of the most consistent players for half a decade. She won three times in 2015, twice in 2016, once each in 2017 and 2018 and three times last year. While’s she’s yet to win a major, Kim was second in the 2015 Women’s PGA and T-4 in 2017.
Kim didn’t play on the LPGA Tour for seven months during the Covid-19 break, returning with a T-5 finish at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in late August then was T-18 in both the ANA Inspiration and the ShopRite Classic.
“I always tried to maintain my game-ready condition during the off time, and fortunately there were tournaments happening in Korea, which I was able to compete in, and that really helped me kind of transfer on and get ready for the LPGA as it returned,” she said.
Nordqvist, 33, won a major right out of the box, taking the Women’s PGA in 2009 at the age of 22. She also won the CME Group Tour Championship in 2009, perhaps unfairly burdening her with expectation. It was another five years until she took another title. She then won six times in four years but now has been without a win since the 2017 Evian.
“I'm very pleased with myself and the way I've been playing the last couple days,” she said Saturday after a 68. “All I can focus on is myself and doing the best I can, and hopefully continue to play some solid golf.”
Like Nordqvist, Henderson won the Women’s PGA at a tender age, taking the title in 2016 when she was 19. But with nine LPGA Tour wins she has the most of any Canadian and has won twice four consecutive years --2016, ‘-17, ’18 and ’19.
“I'm really happy with how today went,” she said after a 65, which matched the low round of the tournament. “I just love this tournament. Just every year I feel like I love the golf courses.”
As for Park, she’s been the best major-championship winner of her generation. She also won the gold medal in the 2016 Olympics and wants to be back on the South Korea team next year in Japan to defend her title.
“I thought going into today's round, anything maybe three to four inside of leader will be having a good chance at it tomorrow,” Park said. “I'm really loving the course, and playing under contention on the weekend, it's great fun.”
Kim, meanwhile, has done everything imaginable except win a major. Last year at the CME Group Tour Championship she took home the richest prize in women’s golf -- $1.5 million. In 2018, she set the LPGA Tour scoring record at 31-under-par 257 in the Thornberry Creek Classic.
Kim, whose rigorous workout program begins with five head-hang pull-ups, arrived on the LPGA Tour knowing only a few words of English but, employing the same work ethic that defines her conditioning and her golf, now speaks fluently, often catching listeners off guard with an idiomatic joke, a deft accomplishment in a second language.
When she won the $1.5 million at the Tour Championship, it was with a 25-foot birdie putt on the final. Asked the secret, she showed her humor.
“If I knew the answer to how to make clutch putts, I would have won so many more times,” she said Saturday.
On Sunday, only one tournament matters – the KPMG Women’s PGA. For Kim, it is the opportunity of a lifetime.