Follow The Birdie

Little-known Jeong Jang of Korea withstood the pressure to win an Open. Sound familiar?
September 07, 2005

Nothing in golf is less dramatic than a wire-to-wire victory in a major championship. Even Tiger can't make one exciting. But when the front-runner in the Women's British Open is a cheerful, 25-year-old South Korean named Jeong Jang, winless in six years on tour, ranked 82nd in driving distance and 122nd in putting, and she's being chased by a Who's Who of Hall of Famers, glamour-pusses, long bombers and teenage stars, well, there's a tendency to stick around to watch the inevitable implosion. ¶ It never happened. Jang, known as JJ, never spit the bit, finishing as the only competitor in the field with four rounds in the 60s (68-66-69-69--272) while cruising to a four-shot win over Sophie Gustafson of Sweden (276) and a cast of luminaries that included Michelle Wie (278, tied for third), Cristie Kerr and Annika Sorenstam (279, tied for fifth) and Paula Creamer (282, 11th). ¶ Jang went about her business on Sunday--hitting fairways and seeking pins--as if she'd been winning for years. Carrying a five-stroke lead into the final round and paired with the intimidating Sorenstam, whose 19 final-round comeback wins include one from 10 strokes down, Jang had only to read the morning papers to get Sorenstam's take on her chances. "She's in a new position. She's never won. It's a major," Sorenstam said. "She'll have a lot on her mind. I hope to put some pressure on her by making some birdies early." ¶ It was Jang, though, who birdied the first hole after bravely striking a nine-wood to within five feet of a hidden pin. As Sorenstam puttered in neutral, Jang hit the next seven greens for easy pars, then sank a 40-foot bomb on the ninth to extend her lead to six. The 5-foot-tall Jang, who would have been lost in Royal Birkdale's massive weeds if she'd been so foolish as to drive one out of the short grass, was steady, steely and poised, out-Sorenstaming Sorenstam. "I surprised myself," JJ said later. "I couldn't sleep last night. Maybe three hours. But I wasn't nervous on the course." ¶ Funny game, golf. It marked the second major in a row in which a previously winless, little-known Korean, armed with accuracy and a dogged refusal to buckle under pressure, had spoiled the party for the superstars. That said, Jang's track record was far better than U.S. Open winner Birdie Kim's. A policeman's daughter, Jang has seven top 10s this year, and she's been in the hunt in majors before, finishing sixth and seventh, respectively, in the 2003 and '04 U.S. Opens, and fourth in the '02 British. So it wasn't as if Jang came out of the blue.

Indeed, that was a color seldom seen in the skies above Royal Birkdale last week, especially on Thursday, when more than two inches of rain fell and the wind gusted to 25 mph. The 15-year-old Wie, who shot a three-over 75, called it the worst weather she'd ever played in. "I've played in rain before, I've played in wind before, and I've played when it was cold," she said, "but not all three together. I felt as if I got the whole British Open package."

The Brits got the whole Wie package as well, replete with Wie's father, B.J., on the bag, pumping his fists and shouting like a football coach when his daughter sank a putt. Her back-to-back rounds of 67 on Friday and Saturday propelled her into the hunt at seven under, a stroke behind Sorenstam and Kerr but six shots behind Jang. The headline writers loved it. WIE SHALL OVERCOME, read one. WIE HAVE TO MARVEL, read another.

Most observers believe it was Wie's last event as an amateur. She turns 16 on Oct. 11 and has accepted a sponsor's exemption to the Samsung World Championship two days later. Speculation is, she'll turn pro by signing a huge endorsement contract on her birthday, since her market value--at least until she starts winning some tournaments--will never be higher than it is now.

So what began as the Year of the Quest for the Sorenslam has morphed into the Year of the Teen. The 18-year-old Creamer has won twice, and 17-year-old Morgan Pressel tied for second in the U.S. Open with 19-year-old Brittany Lang. And they're still coming: A 15-year-old Spaniard who is eight months younger than Wie, Carlotta Ciganda, became the youngest woman ever to make the cut at the British Open. Think of a female Sergio García. (She finished 52nd.)

The future of women's golf has arrived, and it is filled with youthful enthusiasm.

TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by BOB MARTIN STEADY GOING Jang was all fairways and greens at Royal Birkdale, which led to a champagne shower (inset). COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by BOB MARTIN LATE MOVE Gustafson banged out a pair of 67s on the weekend to take second.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)