As we slip inside 100 days until the return of the Hanwha LIFEPLUS International Crown - which will take place May 7-9 at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco – it seems like the perfect time to look back at the last time this match-play spectacle was contested, and how extraordinary the event was at that time.
It was early fall, the first week in October 2018 to be precise, which turns out to be typhoon season in the East Sea. Who knew?
Many of us who were in the Republic of Korea for that International Crown weren’t exactly sure what a typhoon was. Turns out it’s the same tropical cyclone storm as a hurricane except typhoons originate in the western Pacific instead of the Atlantic or Northeastern Pacific. Typhoon Kong-rey sent a lot of us to the internet to research such things as it bore down on the Korean peninsula the week the Crown, as it became known colloquially, took place at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Incheon, about a 15-minute drive from the country’s main international airport and an hour from the heart of downtown Seoul.
The course was spectacular, one of Jack’s best designs. It was also in the kind of impeccable condition that caught everyone by surprise. No major championship in recent memory has been played on a more elegantly manicured site. Early in the week, 32 players from eight countries – four per team – saw the place for the first time, they heaped praise on the venue.
The hospitality and spectator facilities looked more like this was the Super Bowl or World Cup than a golf event. One drivable 270-yard par-4 had two-story hospitality suites the entire length of the hole. And there were more littered throughout the property.
The top seeds were Korea and the United States, but every team had superstar players. Jessica Korda and Michelle Wie West were among the most popular for Team USA, but England had its share of firebrands. Charley Hull and Georgia Hall were known quantities, but fans got to see them together for the first time when they went out in the opening match and played to a tie with Katherine Kirk and Su Oh of Australia.
Then there was the introduction of Bronte Law to a worldwide audience. Law had been a match-play stalwart for Great Britain as an amateur for years. She competed in three Curtis Cups and became the first Englishwoman to rack up a 5-0 record in those biennial matches back in 2016. But few outside the avid golf fan knew much about her.
All that changed in Korea with Law’s ferocious fist pumps and steely-eyed glare. Watching her in action reminded me of what Virginia Wolfe once wrote about Charlotte Brontë, the author for whom Law was named: “She seems powered by some untamed ferocity, perpetually at war with the accepted order of things, which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions.”
Many of the Korean fans, who were not accustomed to outbursts on the golf course, were drawn to Law’s fever pitch. But others were enamored by other players, like the long-hitting Madelene Sagstrom of Sweden who, despite having appeared on the 2017 Solheim Cup team in Des Moines, Iowa, was introducing herself to a new audience in Asia.
Almost all the fans in attendance were pulling for the home team. The Koreans fielded a near unstoppable quartet of talent. So Yeon Ryu, In-Kyung Kim, Sung Hyun Park and In Gee Chun couldn’t take a step that week without being surrounded by adoring fans. They were a force. On day one, Team Korea handily defeated Chinese Taipei. Then in round, two, they made quick work of Team Australia, a group that included future major champion Minjee Lee alongside Kirk, Oh and Sarah Jane Smith.
The typhoon compressed the schedule a bit. Third-round matches started late on Friday and were concluded early on Sunday so that Saturday could be taken off to weather the storm. That set up one of the most dramatic Sunday finishes golf had ever seen.
On the final day, everyone who had looked at the enormous hospitality suites and grandstands and wondered, “who’s coming?” got their answer. The largest crowd ever recorded at an LPGA Tour event showed up for the final matches of that 2018 International Crown. Gallery ropes bulged as a sea of fans swarmed the course.
They got a treat. Early that morning, Park, who had hundreds of fans wearing fan-club gear bearing her name, and Kim beat the English duo of Hull and Hall, 4 and 2. Then, in a match that would determine if Team Korea would enter the singles matches undefeated, Chun made a crucial putt on the 15th green to propel her and her partner, Ryu, to victory over Law and Jodi Ewart Shadoff.
The rest of Sunday was a coronation. The Koreans, playing under enormous pressure in front of an increasingly boisterous crowd, won two singles matches, lost one, and tied one. The heroine of the event turned out to the be youngest member of Team Korea, Chun, who beat Anna Nordqvist, 1 up, to secure the Crown for the home team.
“It means so much to me to be able to play for my country and to win this way for my fans,” Chun said afterward. “It was very special.”
That it was.
Everyone looks forward to the Hanwha LIFEPLUS International Crown being very special once again in less than 100 days.