2006: LPGA - Lee’s game shouts success

Galloway Township, N.J.

In all the preseason hype about the LPGA’s sudden wealth of young stars, Seon Hwa Lee received barely a whisper.

Little more than than a third of the way through the LPGA season, however, Lee’s game has shouted one fact loud and clear: The 20-year-old Korean should be mentioned right alongside the likes

of Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Ai Miyazato.

The only thing Lee had been lacking in her rookie season was a title, something she took care of June 4 with a three-stroke victory at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

Three second-place finishes (Fields Open, MasterCard Classic, Takefuji Classic) had put Lee in the top 10 on the money list and given her the surprising early edge in consideration for top rookie honors. But her final-round 63 at the Seaview Marriott’s Bay Course took down world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam, ended Lee’s runner-up blues and made her the odds-on favorite for the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year Award.

And the 2005 Futures Tour money leader did it in style, making birdies on her last two holes to finish with the lowest round of the tournament and a 16-under 197 total. Sorenstam (67), Jeong Jang (64) and Sherri Steinhauer (66) tied for second at 13-under 200.

“This means a lot to me,” Lee said after being showered with champagne and beer – not that she’s old enough to partake of such beverages. “I’m very happy.”

Lee was the last one standing after a final-round scramble in which several players had or shared the lead, thanks to a nine-birdie performance that included four consecutive birdies to start the back nine.

After ignoring the leaderboards all day, Lee birdied the par-3 17th and was walking up the fairway on No. 18 when her caddie told her she was in the lead. She then sank a 5-footer for birdie to clinch the $225,000 top prize, placing her fourth on the money list ($660,414).

Defending champion Sorenstam, who has won only once this year, saw her fortunes fade with more of the uneven play that has plagued her in recent months. She is now winless in her past seven events.

Coming into the final round one stroke behind Miyazato, Sorenstam bogeyed

two of her first three holes. She made birdie at No. 10 to get back to 11 under. But she bogeyed the next hole and played even par down the stretch before sinking a 40-foot eagle putt at No. 18.

“I made a few mistakes out there early on, which kind of set me back and was tough to catch up,” said Sorenstam. “But 16 under is a great score for three days. . . . When somebody plays well, you just have to congratulate them.”

And in Lee’s case, acknowledge that she belongs.

Tough go for Miyazato: Early on, it looked as if Ai Miyazato – not Seon Hwa Lee – would be the 20-year-old rookie in the spotlight. The Japanese star began the tournament with successive 66s and held a one-stroke lead heading into Sunday. But playing in the final group with Annika Sorenstam, Miyazato struggled all day with her putter and faded to a 3-over 74.

A day earlier, Miyazato seemingly felt no pressure, even with approximately 60 members of the Japanese media following her every move. After making birdies on Nos. 12 and 16 to go to 9 under for the tournament, she was about to finish her round with another birdie on the par-5 18th hole – her ball was sitting just a foot from the cup – when a rain delay was called.

Fifty-two minutes and one hamburger later, Miyazato made the putt that gave her a one-stroke lead over Sorenstam.

Being paired with the world’s best player, however, may have had taken its toll on Miyazato in the final round.

“She is my idol,” Miyazato said of Sorenstam after Round 2. “She has been my idol and she is a player that I admired and someone I look up to all the time.

“I will be nervous for sure. But I think this will be a good experience for me and it will be a plus and I’ll just try to enjoy it.”

It had to be hard to enjoy her front-nine 40, however. Miyazato made three bogeys in her first seven holes and never recovered, dropping into a tie for 13th.

Still, Miyazato seems to be finding her game. It was her fifth top-20 finish in her past six tournaments after failing to record a top 20 in her first five events.

Short shots: Morgan Pressel’s tie for fifth was her second consecutive top 10 (T-7 at Corning) and matched her best finish of the year (T-5 at the season-opening SBS Open). . . . The cut came at even-par 142, the lowest mark in the 21-year history of the event. . . . Duke freshman Amanda Blumenherst, the NCAA Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, shot 72-73 and missed the cut the week after helping the Blue Devils to their second consecutive national title. . . .

Sixteen-year-old amateur Ayaka Kaneko of Honolulu, playing under a sponsor exemption, shot 71-72 and missed the cut by one stroke.

– Staff and wire reports

On the tee

Next up: Wegmans LPGA, June 22-25, Locust Hill Country Club, Pittsford, N.Y. Defending champion: Lorena Ochoa.

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