Evian Championship winner In Gee Chun an 'amazing ambassador' for women's golf
As the last of the soggy footprints were made near Lake Geneva, there was significance but not suspense.
The Evian Championship did not have a taut finish like this year's ANA Inspiration or KPMG Women's PGA Championship, and there was no pivotal caught-on-camera rules infraction as in the U.S. Women's Open. Even the Ricoh Women's British had tightened for a time in the final round before Ariya Jutanugarn, who had lost most of a big lead, reasserted control. The only doubt as In Gee Chun played the back nine on Sunday in Evian-les-Bains, France, was whether she would set a major championship scoring record in winning wire-to-wire.
By saving par on the 18th hole at Evian Resort Golf Club, Chun made history, breaking the mark for lowest 72-hole score in relation to par not only in women's golf but bettering the men's standard too. Sure, the final major of the LPGA season was played on a vulnerable course saturated by rain -- and where Hyo Joo Kim shot a major-record 61 in 2014 -- but only seven golfers finished double-digits under par.
Chun, a 22-year-old South Korean, was just in another league, shooting 21-under 263 for a 4-stroke victory over countrywomen So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park.
Chun's tour de force performance surpassed the women's major record of 19 under shared by Dottie Pepper (1999 Kraft Nabisco Championship), Karen Stupples (2004 Ricoh Women's British Open), Cristie Kerr (2010 LPGA Championship) Yani Tseng (2011 LPGA Championship) and Inbee Park (2015 KPMG Women's PGA). Chun finished one stroke lower than the 20 under posted by Jason Day (2015 PGA Championship) and Henrik Stenson (2016 Open Championship). Chun's 263 score was shots better than Betsy King's 72-hole total in the 1992 LPGA Championship.
Beyond the scoring achievements, the most notable aspect of Chun's week is that it is her second LPGA win, following a surprise victory in the 2015 U.S. Women's Open, when she rallied past Amy Yang and Stacy Lewis in the final round. The only other player whose first two LPGA victories came in majors is South Korean legend Se Ri Pak, who won the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open during a seven-week span in 1998. At the recent Rio Olympics, Chun tied for 13th in the women's golf competition as a member of the Republic of Korea team coached by Pak.
"She's a rookie right now, but she's not really like a rookie," Ryu said of Chun, who has nine career titles on the LPGA of Korea Tour and was that circuit's leading money-winner in 2015 prior to joining the LPGA in 2016.
Chun got off to a solid start this season then was hurt on an escalator at the Singapore airport when the father of fellow player Ha Na Jang lost control of a piece of luggage and it tumbled into Chun. A lower-back injury caused Chun to miss three tournaments, with the incident heavily covered by Korean media and devoured by that country's golf fans. Some of these fans believed Jang's family didn't apologize fully and that Jang celebrated too enthusiastically after winning a tournament that Chun missed because of injury.
The accident and surrounding turmoil roiled Chun's rookie LPGA campaign, but she regained her mojo at the Olympics. "I got my passion back at the Olympics," Chun told reporters after winning in France. "Golf had become fun."
The Evian victory gets the Chun narrative fully off the soap opera arc and back to what has been known since even before she won the Open at Lancaster Country Club last July: The complete player with a disarming smile could well be the heir apparent to seven-time major winner Inbee Park in the impressive chain of Korean women's stars. Although Park, who recently turned 28, won gold at Rio, she missed three 2016 majors, including the Evian, because of a thumb injury; having qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame, she might be short of goals and eager to start a family.
Chun's victory made it six consecutive years that a Korean has won at least one LPGA major title, a streak dating to Ryu's win in the 2011 U.S. Women's Open.
Since 1998, when Pak burst on the scene, South Koreans have won 24 women's majors compared to 23 by Americans. Don't be surprised if Sung Hyun Park, a star in her native country who led the 2016 U.S. Women's Open after 36 holes -- and like Jutanugarn wows with her power -- joins Chun in having major success during 2017.
Just as the tour has week to week, the LPGA majors were mostly a youthful domain this season. U.S. Women's Open champion Brittany Lang, at 30, was by far the oldest winner. Chun completed a young quartet of champions: Lydia Ko (19, ANA Inspiration), Brooke Henderson (18, KPMG Women's PGA) and Jutanugarn (20, Ricoh Women's British). Ko didn't factor at the Evian but with a runner-up finish at the Women's PGA and tie for third at the U.S. Women's Open won the Rolex Annika Major Award (named for 10-time major champion Annika Sorenstam) for the most outstanding overall record in the five majors.
Ko and Henderson were among Chun's fellow players who greeted the amiable winner after she completed the final round at Evian.
"I think she's an amazing ambassador for the women's game," Ko, herself quite popular with peers, told the media. "You can kind of see that from her personality. She's always smiling, and she's there for other people. I think that's why everybody really likes her, and you can see that by the many of us that came out to support her and celebrate and spray champagne [and] water on her."
Back home, there no doubt were plenty of toasts with Hite beer, one of Chun's sponsors, and not for the last time either.