2005: The Birdiemaker

Cherry Hills Village, Colo.

The conclusion of the 60th U.S. Women’s Open was a slam-bam-thank-you-mam stunner. Except the grand performance didn’t come from Annika Sorenstam. The improbable, unimaginable winner at Cherry Hills Country Club June 26 was a 23-year-old prophet named Birdie Kim.

How else can one explain how a player who changed her given name (Ju-Yun) to “Birdie” last fall can capture the most prestigious tournament in women’s golf on the 72nd hole with a miraculous holed bunker shot for, well, birdie? It’s not as if Kim ranked high on the LPGA coming into the event in birdies (70th) or sand saves (tied for 141st). The fact that she earned a trifling $9,897 in her rookie season last year explains why most folks never had heard of the sweet-natured South Korean.

That is, until she pulled off one of the most memorable shots in major championship history and crushed 17-year-old Morgan Pressel, the Open’s amateur darling, in the process.

Kim, who thinks of Se Ri Pak like an older sister, follows Pak as only the second Korean to win the U.S. Women’s Open and is the first player since Kathy Cornelius in 1956 to win in her Open debut. Her 3-over 287 total is the first winning total over par at the Women’s Open since 1998, when Pak won in a playoff after shooting 6 over at Blackwolf Run.

Playing in the group in front of Pressel, Kim headed to the 459-yard 18th deadlocked with the precocious teen at 4 over. Kim striped her drive down the center of the fairway but lost a 7-wood right into a gaping greenside bunker. Using a 56-degree sand wedge, Kim, who couldn’t see the bottom of the flagstick, blasted out low, just over the lip, and listened as the crowd crescendoed when her ball vanished into the cup.

Pressel, who appeared to have the upper hand, witnessed the 20-yard miracle from the 18th fairway and put both hands on her head as she walked along in shock.

“Morgan said, ‘Maybe she hit it in the water and that was for double (bogey),’ ” said Pressel’s caddie, Sam Hinshaw. “I said, ‘Well, we don’t quite know yet, boss. We got some golf to play.’ ”

Pressel tried to run a 5-iron onto the green but her approach landed short in the thick rough. She tried to hole her pitch but ran it well past the pin. After wiping away a few tears, the gritty performer two-putted for bogey, a final-round 75 and a share of second with fellow teen amateur Brittany Lang (71) at 5-over 289.

When Pressel came off the green, world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam – her own dream dashed earlier in the week – was waiting to give the teen a heartfelt embrace. She wasn’t the only one feeling Pressel’s pain.

“I’m a bit gutted for her really,” said Karen Stupples, who played with Pressel in Sunday’s final twosome. “She did everything that was asked of her and it was taken from her. She deserved the trophy.”

Still, nothing can take away from Kim’s heroic heist. She was the only player on the weekend to register a birdie on the final hole.

“Actually, I’m not a real good bunker player,” Kim said matter-of-factly. “Also, I changed my sand wedge about two weeks ago . . . so I have a lot of misses this week with bunker shot. Finally, I make it.”

Talk about timing.

“I just trained a horse that won the Kentucky Derby at 500-to-1,” said legendary instructor Bob Toski, who first met Kim four years ago. While Toski knew immediately that he’d found an exceptional student, Kim wasn’t as confident. When asked if she thought she could win before the tournament started, Kim gave a succinct answer: “Never.”

Pressel, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to play for anything but first. The fiery Pressel – ranked No. 1 in the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur rankings – began her third Open with a roller-coaster round that included five birdies in her first eight holes. Four bogeys and a double bogey coming in dropped her to a respectable even-par 71, and the tears started flowing.

“I am a little upset because I had it going so well, then it just entirely fell apart on me,” said Pressel, who ended a weather-delayed Round 1 tied for ninth. “When you look at the score it’s not that bad, but when you look at how I played it gets worse.”

Pressel bounced back strongly. She moved into a tie for seventh with a second-round 73, while surprise leader Nicole Perrot, the lone player still under par, held a two-shot lead over Lorena Ochoa and teen sensation Michelle Wie. When asked about her thoughts on playing in the last group on Sunday, Pressel relished the prospect: “I would love that. Oh, I would go crazy.”

In many respects Pressel is an average teen. She blushes at the mention of her boyfriend, buys dangly earrings in bulk at Claire’s and shops for stylish skorts at Stein-Mart. But while many high school seniors grow faint at the idea of speaking in front of a class of their peers, Pressel thrives with an audience. The bigger the better.

“Nothing seems to bother her, which is amazing for someone her age,” said her grandfather, Herb Krickstein.

A third-round 1-under 70 gave Pressel her wish. Stupples, the reigning British Open champion, birdied six consecutive holes in the middle of her round Saturday to shoot 69 and join Pressel in the final pairing. Wie, 15, rounded out a three-way tie for first at 1-over 214, but had to settle for the second-to-last group with Kim.

At the start of the week, it was Sorenstam’s quest for her third leg of the Slam that had the golf world enraptured. Yet when the dust finally settled outside Denver, the Swede looked like she had been run over by a bus. Lackluster performances in her first three rounds (71-75-73) left Sorenstam five shots back heading into Sunday, and all eyes shifted to a new generation.

“I am running out of holes,” Sorenstam said. “I need to climb on that leaderboard and show them I am still here and I am serious.”

Although Sorenstam calls her first Open victory 10 years ago “a fluke,” it didn’t go unnoticed that she erased a five-shot deficit to win that year, the last time the event had been played in Colorado. And if history does indeed like to repeat itself, then the fact that Arnold Palmer drove the first green en route to a 65 in the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open to come from seven behind should’ve left Sorenstam encouraged.

After three rounds of watching Sorenstam play ultra-conservatively, a huge gallery cheered when Sorenstam pulled out her driver for the first time on the 346-yard opening hole. When her tee shot found the bottom of the winding Little Dry Creek, however, a hush fell. Sorenstam took a drop and went on to bogey her first two holes, falling further out of the hunt. The Swede was never a threat Sunday and remained a mere two-legged mortal, closing with four consecutive bogeys to shoot 77 and tie for 23rd.

“My game plan today was to be a little more aggressive, and it totally backfired,” said Sorenstam. “To win a championship like this, you need some good momentum and I just tried to find it. I have no idea where it is.”

Sorenstam wasn’t the only one to get off to a sluggish start. Rookie Paula Creamer began the day one shot back but couldn’t manage the rough on No. 1 and posted double bogey. Wie followed suit after driving it into the left rough with a long-iron off the tee. The Hawaiian phenom shot 42 on the front, made three double bogeys in her closing 82 and dropped all the way to a tie for 23rd.

“I have to give my ball a GPS because it was lost,” Wie said. “I mean, put a magnet in the ball or something, because that thing was not going towards the hole.”

Pressel, however, seemed to make one clutch putt after another down the stretch of her tight duel with Kim on a sun-splashed Sunday. Lang looked as if she might put up the winning number until her 8-foot par putt slid by the hole on No. 18. The All-American from Duke was the first to post at 5 over after a closing even-par 71. Lorie Kane, who had the only sub-par round of the day (69), and Natalie Gulbis (71) tied for fourth at 6 over.

In the end, however, nothing could top Kim’s miraculous, magical sand shot from the very bunker from which Gulbis, Lang and Wie – among many others – failed to get up-and-down.

Kim started working with Toski shortly after coming to the United States and found success on the Futures Tour, finishing fourth on the money list in 2003 to earn her LPGA card. She then put her swing in David Leadbetter’s hands and said everything was “going down.” Her abysmal ’04 season led her back to Q-School last fall, where she entered as Birdie Kim. With six players named Kim in the LPGA media guide, it’s easy to see how she began to feel overlooked.

When asked how she settled on Birdie, Kim said, “Eagle sounds like boy.”

Kim returned to Toski’s tutelage this season and recorded her first top 10 at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in May after four consecutive missed cuts. Toski cites inner composure and exceptional technique as her greatest strengths. An 80 and missed cut at Rochester the week before the Open didn’t foreshadow greatness, but Toski, who through countless playing lessons has tried to turn Kim from a ballstriker into a player who can score, never lost faith.

Sunday morning the 78-year-old instructor sat in a church pew in stifling hot South Florida and looked up at the cross.

Said Toski, “I said, ‘Do me a favor and help this girl today.’ He did. On that last shot, He threw it in the hole.’ ”

And the people said amen.

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