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In Gee Chun Makes U.S. Women's Open Debut A Memorable One

In Gee Chung became the fourth player to win the U.S. Women's Open on her first try. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

LANCASTER, Pa. -- In Gee Chun was a fourth-grader in South Korea, good at math and a stranger to golf, when her father and one of his friends took her to a driving range.

"They asked me to hit some shots and I tried to swing the club but the results weren't that good," Chun said. "My father and my father's friend teased me a little bit, and I got fired up and I felt I could do it. Then I decided to spend some time in golf, and I fell in love with it."

A decade later, on a sticky Sunday afternoon at Lancaster Country Club in the final round of the 70th U.S. Women's Open, Chun's results were very, very good. The 20-year-old closed with a sublime 66 despite a bogey on the last hole, overcoming a 4-stroke deficit to 54-hole leader Amy Yang to beat Yang by one.

"It's just her makeup," said Chun's caddie, Dean Herden, who was on her bag for the first time. "She's pretty cool, calm and collected. It's hard to relate that she's only 20."

Chun's smile and easy manner seemed to deflect the tension of a tight back-nine leaderboard and belied that it was her first time playing in the championship. After making a 12-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole to take the lead from Yang -- who had been on top since late in the second round -- Chun joyfully high-fived a couple dozen people as she was en route to the next tee.

She then played the next two holes looking as relaxed as some of the kayaking spectators watching the action from the Conestoga River. Chun sank a tricky 14-footer for a birdie at the drivable par-4 16th, then stiffed a 6-iron to 5 feet at the par-3 17th.

Yang struck back valiantly, making an 11-footer for eagle at No. 16 and matching Chun's birdie on the 17th. After Chun bogeyed the finishing hole, Yang could have forced a playoff with a closing par but, like Chun, drove poorly to the left rough and couldn't get up-and-down for par from 63 yards.

With an 8-under-272 total, Chun tied the Women's Open scoring record owned by Annika Sorenstam (1996) and Juli Inkster (1999). Although Chun is only the fourth player to win the championship on her first try, she is a seasoned winner in her home country with seven victories on the LPGA of Korea Tour, including three this season.

Chun's first memory of the U.S. Women's Open is from watching on television in 2005 when little-known Korean Birdie Kim holed a greenside bunker shot at Cherry Hills to defeat Morgan Pressel. That began a remarkable period of success by South Koreans in the Open. Chun is the seventh South Korean champion in the past 11 years.

Not all of the dozens of Koreans who have made their mark in women's golf over the past two decades come from affluent backgrounds, but Chun's family -- which includes her father, Jong Jin Chun, and mother, Eun Hee Kim -- went through particularly hard times.

In a rural area between Seoul and Gwangju, Chun's father ran a small business -- a "convenience shop," according to Herden -- and her mother managed a restaurant. "Then my father's business didn't go really well, and my mother hurt her leg and had to quit her restaurant job," Chun said through her coach and translator, Won Park. "Both were jobless, and then my family was in trouble. But I still made it. My family tried everything not to make me feel any financial difficulties."

Said Herden: "They were very, very poor a few years ago and they really trusted In Gee. She wanted to be a pro golfer, and her mom and dad stuck with here. She's been quite successful and they work for her now. It's one of the Cinderella stories."

Herden figures into the fairy tale too. A 51-year-old Australian who has caddied around the globe since 1991, Herden was a first-time caddie for So Yeon Ryu when she won the 2011 U.S. Women's Open. He now regularly works for Hee-Kyung Seo, who didn't qualify to play at Lancaster and is a friend and mentor of Chun. Park asked Herden a month ago if he would work the U.S. Open and Ricoh Women's British Open later this month for Chun.

Herden and Chun arrived in Pennsylvania eight days before the Open began, and she got in 72 holes of practice. Chun's crisp ballstriking gave Herden a good feeling, and after 54 holes he felt if a few putts would drop she could rally. Chun birdied three of her first seven holes Sunday. On the 10th, she salvaged a bogey that looked as if it could have been worse.

Chun has an unusual nickname, "Dumbo," given to her by Park because of her keen hearing. "She's got elephant ears," said Herden. "If somebody is opening a bottle 20 yards away, she'll hear it. You noticed she backed off a lot today."

She has fun with the nickname. The label is on her golf bag and on the yellow hats of members of her large fan club in Korea. "Everyone calls me Dumbo," said Chun. "When I came over here, some American fans recognized the nickname and called me Dumbo. Some even shouted it, 'Let's go, Dumbo.' That has really made me enjoy the game."

It has been 30 years since the late Ok-Hee Ku qualified for the LPGA Tour. She won the Standard Register Turquoise Classic in 1988, the first Korean to win an LPGA event, but the triumph was lost in the shadow of the Seoul Olympics. Not until Se Ri Pak won two majors as a 20-year-old in 1998 did golf become a serious fascination for girls and women in the Asian country. By the time Ku passed away of a heart attack at age 56 two years ago, Koreans had long been a dominant part of women's golf.

Chun will return home to Korea to play in two KLPGA tournaments before going to Scotland for the Women's British Open. "There might be 2,000 people greeting her at the Incheon airport," Herden said.

With commitments to her Korean sponsors, Chun might not claim the immediate LPGA membership but defer it until 2016. She isn't sure. "Absolutely, LPGA is my goal," Chun said. "I'll think real seriously about it tonight and maybe tomorrow with my parents and my coach and let you know. I still don't realize I won the championship."

But a short while later Chun was outside the media center doing more interviews, holding the trophy. The victory was well-deserved, and as told by her smile, very real.