Watch the Birdie

A pack of brash young Americans dominated the Women's Open, but Birdie Kim, an unknown from South Korea, stole the show
July 03, 2005

The U.S. open has no use for sentimentality. It is the cruelest tournament in golf, with bogeys the norm and heartbreak par for the course. It is where nerves are frayed and reputations are shredded. The LPGA's matriarch, Nancy Lopez, did everything in her incomparable career but win the Women's Open, walking away with four runner-up finishes and a million what-ifs. The U.S. Open is where Ben Hogan got Flecked and Arnold Palmer gagged a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play, devastating losses that more or less ended their days as serious contenders. So it should come as no surprise that last week's U.S. Women's Open could have been a transcendent moment for golf but instead ended in a four-car pileup. The only one left standing was a shy South Korean with a limited grasp of English, ensuring that this tournament will be remembered not for who won but for who didn't. ¬†Give Birdie (née Ju-Yun) Kim credit, though--she shot a solid one-over-par 72 on Sunday when no one else in the final six groups broke 74, securing the victory on the 72nd hole with what was simply one of the greatest bunker shots in history. Kim's 30-yard hole-out for birdie broke a tie with scrappy 17-year-old amateur Morgan Pressel, who was watching from the fairway. After missing the green short, Pressel couldn't match the miracle shot and Kim was our national champion, a mind-blowing achievement for a 23-year-old who last year as an LPGA rookie missed the cut in 17 of 20 starts and won a grand total of $9,897. The 60th Women's Open may or may not launch a big-time career for Kim, but it certainly damaged the players whom she beat. Annika Sorenstam arrived at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver looking to add to her legend with the third leg of the Grand

Slam, but her putter failed her and then so did her composure en route to a quiet 23rd-place finish. Michelle Wie had the chance to make the quantum leap from talented tease to major champion, and when she surged into a tie for the 54-hole lead Sorenstam was relegated to little more than a sidebar. But Wie took a giant step backward with a final-round 82, more scar tissue for a 15-year-old who has yet to prove she can win. In their stead a pair of compelling contenders had the chance to grab headlines, but each shrank at the magnitude of the opportunity.

Pressel, a high school senior from Boca Raton, Fla., makes no secret of her resentment over the fawning attention lavished on her rival, Wie, and you could tell she was dying to outplay her on Sunday. She did by a mile, thanks to a big heart and a hot putter, but will have to wait a little longer for her time to come. Lorena Ochoa, a 23-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, started the day five strokes off the lead, but with a back-nine birdie binge she arrived on the 72nd tee at three over par, the same score with which Kim would eventually win. With a chance to stake her claim as second-best player in the game, Ochoa proceeded to drop-kick her drive 40 yards left into a pond. Hello, quadruple bogey. Goodbye, Open.

Sorenstam was well positioned after an opening 71, but the tournament began to slip away last Friday, as she played in the afternoon on spiked-up greens. As one putt after another burned the edge or came up agonizingly short, her shoulders began to sag and she muttered to herself in two languages. The usually indomitable Swede finally caved with a bogey-bogey-bogey finish for a 75 that included 35 putts. After a 73 on Saturday, Sorenstam was in 16th place and had ceded the stage to Wie.

Cherry Hills was a poetic venue for this Open because 45 years earlier it had been the site of another historic generational collision, when Palmer, at the height of his powers, edged out 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus in one of the most memorable Opens ever. Wie looked ready to pick up where Jack left off. Over the first three days she displayed a remarkable maturity in her game, shaping shots, controlling her distances and scrambling with a flop shot that she didn't have a year ago. Rounds of 69, 73 and 72 put her in a tie with Pressel and defending British Open champ Karen Stupples--who would stumble on Sunday with a 78--and one up on Kim, who on Saturday shot a sizzling 69.

Come Sunday both Wie and Sorenstam were undone by mental errors early in the round. Though her goal was to shoot a modest two under par, Sorenstam abandoned the game plan she had used in the first three rounds and tried to drive the green of the 346-yard 1st hole. Palmer had famously done the same thing in 1960. But Sorenstam clipped a tree, and her drive tumbled into the creek that frames the right side of the hole, leading to a bogey. She made another bogey on number 2 and faded to a 77. "My game plan today was to be a little more aggressive, and it totally backfired, let's put it that way," she said.

Wie tried to lay up with a five-iron on the 1st hole but turned over her tee shot, and it scooted into a nasty spot of rough. She chopped it out short of the green, pitched over the back of the putting surface, fluffed a chip and then pushed the six-foot bogey putt. By the end of a gruesome Sunday, Wie had missed four putts of less than five feet on the way to seven bogeys and three doubles. "It was really hard out there for me today," she said afterward, her voice hoarse with emotion. "I haven't played this bad in a long time, so I definitely learned a lot of things."

It was left to Kim to provide the dramatic ending. She had gone almost unnoticed among the leaders until she hit every fairway on the front nine, shooting an even-par 35 to take the lead. Kim spent 2001 to '03 on the Futures tour, where she won a promotion to the LPGA by finishing fourth on the '03 money list. Before the Open, Kim had made the cut in six of 13 starts, with a tie for seventh, her best finish. It is instructive to know that even during her struggles Kim never lost her confidence. Says Miles Nixon, who began caddying for her this season, "One of the first things she said to me was, 'Every great player has one bad year, and I have already gotten mine out of the way.'"

It took all of Kim's chutzpah to produce the only birdie of the final round on the 18th hole, which at 459 yards was the longest par-4 in Women's Open history. After a perfect drive she blocked her seven-wood into the front bunker, from where Duke junior Brittany Lang had made a bogey that ruined her chances of becoming only the second amateur to win the Open. (Lang tied Pressel for second.)

Kim had a good lie on the upslope, but the slick green was running away from her. The stats wouldn't have predicted what followed. Kim came in ranked 141st in sand saves and had been so frustrated with her work in the bunkers that three weeks ago she put in play a new sand wedge. When the ball disappeared into the cup Kim had won $560,000 and a place in history alongside friend and mentor Se Ri Pak as the only Koreans to win a major. Kim also became only the third player to win the Women's Open in her first appearance, joining Patty Berg (1947) and Kathy Cornelius ('56).

Kim had better enjoy this triumph while she can because the Open has a way of extracting its revenge. Sorenstam is proof. On Sunday evening she was asked if, in spite of everything, she still loves the U.S. Open. "Yes I do," she said. "I always will." The problem for Sorenstam and so many others is that the Open doesn't love them back.

"It was really hard out there for me today," Wie said after her final-round 82. "I haven't played this bad in a long time, SO I DEFINITELY LEARNED A LOT OF THINGS."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Darren Carroll CALL ME SANDY The holed bunker shot by Kim (inset and left) was only the fourth birdie of the week on the brutal, 459-yard par-4 18th. COLOR PHOTOJACK DEMPSEY/AP CALL ME SANDYThe holed bunker shot by Kim (inset and left) was only the fourth birdie of the week on the brutal, 459-yard par-4 18th. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Darren Carroll BAD READ Sorenstam struggled on the greens, then disastrously abandoned her game plan in a bid to get into contention.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)