South Koreans again part of the U.S. Women's Open leaderboard picture
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It will be difficult given that Ariya Jutanugarn carries a 4-stroke lead and a history of success in such situations into the final round of the U.S. Women's Open at Shoal Creek, but it would be fitting.
In the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, South Korean Se Ri Pak won a playoff over American amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn in a dramatic duel of fellow 20-year-olds. Pak's victory was the first by a Korean in an LPGA major championship, and it was a very big deal in a proud nation.
"I was just a kid. My dad was a really big fan of golf," Inbee Park recalled earlier this week. "He was watching golf and watching Se Ri play. I remember my dad getting very excited early in the morning."
The whole Republic of Korea got excited, and Pak was not only a winner but an inspiration for Park and many other young Koreans. Twenty years after Pak's breakthrough, her countrywomen have become mainstays on the LPGA Tour, where they have 94 victories since 2009.
Sixteen different Koreans have a combined 29 major titles, including the U.S. Women's Open seven of the past 10 years, starting with Inbee Park in 2008 through Sung Hyun Park in 2017. As the third round of the 73rd edition concluded on a hot, steamy but mercifully rain-free Saturday, Koreans are again a part of the leaderboard picture.
Hyo-Joo Kim finished 54 holes at 6-under 210 after a 68 and is in third place, 6 strokes behind Jutanugarn with Sarah Jane Smith between them at 8 under. Ji-Hyun Kim, playing in the event for the first time, is fourth at 5 under. Inbee Park is another stroke back in pursuit of her third Open title, with Open champions Eun-Hee Ji and So Yeon Ryu also in the top 10.
"This is the biggest event of the year, and something that makes everyone really concentrate on their game," Inbee Park said. "It's amazing to see how Koreans do in the U.S. Women's Open. We've won a lot of them -- got to be something about it the Koreans really like."
Jeffrey Snow is caddying for Hyo-Joo Kim this season and has worked previously for other Koreans.
"The nature of this tournament requires a lot of patience, you have to be very methodical, and you can't be aggressive most of the time," Snow said. "The Korean players never seem to too excited or too far down. In general they stay level and that helps tremendously. The Open is big for everybody -- the purse is big, the prestige is big -- but the Koreans seem to put a lot of emphasis on this event."
Ji-Hyun Kim was only 6 when Pak worked her magic at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin. The meaning of what Pak achieved was real and lasting.
"I do remember," Ji-Hyun Kim said through a translator. "That is one tournament that not only myself, but a lot of Koreans just cannot forget. As a nation we were having some pretty tough times at the time, and I think that really ran up people's spirit up when she won. Personally, it's a great honor for me to be here and play this great tournament."
Pak, who retired last year and is trying to mentor a new wave of golfers -- key among her advice is not to let the game be everything, to have other interests -- didn't immediately realize she was the focus of an entire country 20 years ago.
"Back then, there was not the communication there is today," Pak told LPGA.com. "It wasn't until a week after I won that I learned that all of Korea was watching. It was unbelievable to me."
Making it eight wins in 11 U.S. Women's Opens for Korean players, or nine in 14, if you go back to Birdie Kim's suprising conquest in 2005, will be a tall task. Inbee Park, who owns seven career major titles, hasn't given herself enough opportunties to cash in on her putting prowess.
"In the final round I just have got to hit the iron shots a little closer because I was busy making pars out there today," said Inbee Park, who surpassed Pak as the youngest U.S. Women's Open champion when she won at 19 a decade ago. "I just haven't been putting for many birdies."
Hyo-Joo Kim counts a major among her four LPGA wins, the 2014 Evian Championship, where she set a major scoring record with a first-round 61. She might not need to go quite that low in the final round of Shoal Creek, depending on how Jutanugarn and Smith perform under the Sunday pressure. She knows, though, that the abundance of good karma can't hurt.
"Realistically, I'm a few strokes behind her," Hyo-Joo Kim said. "But this course has been pretty good to Korean players, so I have not given up. I'm going in tomorrow with the hopes that I might have that chance. Who knows?" Seven thousand miles away from Alabama, a country will be watching, not for a surprise but for more of the same. Winning might get familiar, but it never gets old.