South Koreans right on heels of China's Shanshan Feng at U.S. Women's Open
BEDMINSTER, N.J. -- On Monday morning in the golf-loving country of South Korea, when it is late Sunday afternoon at Trump National Bedminster, a lot of people will be watching television. They'll be tuned in to JTBC, enjoying one of their favorite shows, the pursuit of yet another U.S. Women's Open title by one of their own.
No doubt Shanshan Feng of China, the formidable and funny leader, won't be easy to catch. She made only one bogey through 54 holes, a record. But if she provides an opening, the championship's 2017 plot could play out as it often has recently, with South Koreans winning six of the past nine years.
While Feng is on top at 9-under 207, nine South Koreans are in the top 10 going into the final round. As sure as there are four seasons, players from the powerhouse women's golf nation rise to the occasion in the oldest and richest women's major championship.
"Obviously Koreans are strong and excellent players," said Mirim Lee, who shot a third-round 67 to move into a fifth-place tie 4 strokes behind Feng. "This is the biggest major tournament in the United States. So probably the players coming here have stronger determination that they want to play well, they want to play hard."
It is certainly a fitting affinity for success, because Se Ri Pak's victory in the 1998 U.S. Women's Open was the spark for a wave of South Koreans inspired by her achievement. Pak retired last season, but her impact -- and that of subsequent champions such as two-time Open winner Inbee Park, who set a standard for those who followed her -- persists.
Park, who won the Open in 2008 and 2013, had an uncharacteristically poor performance this week and missed the 36-hole cut, but there is strength in numbers. Twenty-nine South Koreans were in this week's field, second only to 55 players from the United States, just one of whom, Cristie Kerr (tied for eighth), is in the top 10 with 18 holes to go.
Kerr and fellow Americans Paula Creamer and Lexi Thompson were among half a dozen players who were invited to visit President Donald Trump in his viewing box near the 15th green after they finished their round Saturday. A friend of Trump's, Kerr, attempting to win a second Open on the 10th anniversary of her first, waved several times and jumped around trying to catch the president's attention after she putted out on No. 15.
"She was just fooling around," said Kerr's caddie, Brady Stockton. "He was looking the other way and she was trying to get his attention. He did not see her; he was in conversation."
South Koreans always seem to be in the conversation at the Women's Open, and the contenders this year are particularly intriguing.
Amy Yang and amateur Hye-Jin Choi trail Feng by 1. Yang, 27, should be used to her position, having had five top-fives in her previous 10 Women's Open starts, including runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2015. Choi, 17, matched Yang's 70 in the same pairing Saturday, putting the teenager in position to become the second amateur to win the event (Catherine Lacoste, 1967) and the youngest winner of a women's major, surpassing Lydia Ko, who was 18 when she won her first, if she can work some magic Sunday.
"[Yang] is definitely experienced player," Choi said, "so playing next to her definitely helped me. I was inspired by her play and tried to push myself to be as good as her."
Rachel Heck, a 15-year-old amateur from Memphis, Tennessee, has played with Choi in junior tournaments and testified to Choi's maturity, which she demonstrated by shaking off a bogey on the first hole Saturday.
"She's just so calm while she plays," Heck said. "Her mental game is so strong. She doesn't let a bad shot rattle her. She's solid, and she keeps her mind in a good place."
Typical of many South Korean women, Choi has a beautifully smooth and sequenced action. "There is a golf swing right there," Fox Sports analyst Paul Azinger said succinctly on the Saturday broadcast, admiring the way Choi delivered the club to the ball.
Between Yang and Choi in age is Sung Hyun Park, 23, who in her first Open last year led after 36 holes and closed with 74-74 to miss the Brittany Lang-Anna Nordqvist playoff by a stroke at CordeValle. Park, in her first year on the LPGA Tour, where she is one of 25 South Koreans, showed her explosiveness Saturday by shooting a back-nine 30 to climb the leaderboard and is fourth after 54 holes, 3 back.
A seven-time winner on the LPGA Tour of Korea, a valuable proving ground for many of the golfers who make their way onto the LPGA Tour, Park is feeling more comfortable. "Last year I played this tournament as a non-member," Park said. "This year I play as a member, and during the year I have gained a lot of experience, so I think that experience definitely helped me be here and maybe put me a little at ease, more comfortable."
Joining Choi, Yang, Mirim Lee and Park in the top 10 through 54 holes are 2011 champion So Yeon Ryu, Jeongeun6 Lee, 2009 champion Eun Hee Ji, Mi Jung Hur and Seon Woo Bae.
They're sports royalty back home and right at home at the Open.
"I strongly believe so," Park said through a translator when asked how big a deal the championship is in South Korea. "The U.S. Open is a tournament that reminds a lot of Korean players of Se Ri Pak and is one of the motivations for them to come and compete."
Compete they do, for themselves and their country, with an admirable resolve.
Earlier this week, Inbee Park and Ryu were among the Open competitors who attended a reception at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, not far from Trump Bedminster. At one point in the evening, the two gracious stars walked through the Hall of Champions that honors those who have won USGA events, an exhibit that will include more Korean names, possibly very soon.