2006: No helping Han for Lee

Corning, N.Y.

Hee-Won Han was getting tired of finishing second, and she was determined not to do it again at the LPGA Corning Classic. Even if it cost her friend in the process.

After finishing as runner-up the previous two weeks, Han defeated Meena Lee on the fourth playoff hole May 28 at Corning Country Club. It was Han’s first victory of the year and the fifth of her career, extending her streak of seasons with at least one victory to four. The $180,000 top prize pushed Han to third in 2006 earnings with $704,208.

The victory meant a lot to Han, but it would have meant even more to Lee, who had a U.S. Women’s Open spot on the line. Because she won the Fields Open in February, Lee was exempt from qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open. But she did not submit her application prior to the deadline and, after the playoff loss to Han, now must win one of her next three tournaments to get into the field June 29-July 2 at Newport (R.I.) Country Club.

Because Han and Lee are close friends, Han was aware of her fellow Korean’s plight. But she didn’t let that enter her mind in the playoff, which came after both players finished regulation play at 15-under 273.

“I’m not that good of a person,” Han said afterward, smiling. “Three times second place, that’s pretty good, but I don’t like that. I wanted to win.”

Both players parred the first three holes of the playoff, which rotated between the eighth and 18th holes. Lee, who finished second at Corning last year after making a double bogey on No. 18 and losing to Jimin Kang by two strokes, lost this year when her second shot at the par-4 eighth hole bounced badly away from the green.

Lee then played an aggressive third shot that bounced twice and nearly hit the flag before rolling 18 feet past it. When she missed the putt coming back, all Han had to do was two-putt for par and the win.

It looked for a while as if Lee’s final-round 66 would hold up. She started the round six shots behind third-round leader Jeon Jang, but shot 32 on the front nine, then took the lead with birdies at Nos. 16 and 17.

Han, however, caught her at the end of regulation, rolling in a birdie from 12 feet at the par-4 17th, then hitting her second shot to 3 feet and making the putt on No. 18.

Jang entered the day with a three-shot lead, but stumbled to a 4-over 76 and tied for seventh, thanks mainly to a double-bogey 7 on the 449-yard fifth hole, a par 5 that ranked as the course’s easiest all week.

Blessing in disguise? Virada Nirapathpongporn’s eye injury may have been the best thing for her. Since returning from the injury suffered two months ago, the former Duke All-American has displayed an aggressiveness that was lacking early in her rookie campaign.

“I’m back where I belong again,” Nirapathpongporn said after taking the second-round lead at the LPGA Corning Classic. “I have been here before on the leaderboard and winning golf tournaments. I just have to go out with the belief in myself, believe in all the work that I’ve done, keep on moving forward.”

The 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur winner opened 66-67 to hold the lead for the first time in an LPGA event, leading by a shot after 36 holes. Before the March 31 freak accident – a resistance tube she used for exercising snapped off a doorknob and hit her right eye, causing internal bleeding – she had earned $18,204 in four events.

Since her return, she has three top-20 finishes in five events – including a T-5 at Corning – and has earned $108,064.

“If I ever have a chance, I take it,” she said. “The injury taught me that. There’s no holding back.”

Short shots: Morgan Pressel, who celebrated her 18th birthday May 23, three days after graduating high school, closed with rounds of 64-68-71 to tie for seventh, her first top 10 as a pro. . . . There were two aces in Round 2: Beth Allen with a pitching wedge at the 120-yard 15th hole, and Catherine Cartwright with a 7-iron at the 146-yard 11th. . . . Jeong Jang tied a Corning record for consecutive birdies in a round with six in Round 1. Jang birdied holes 2-7 to match the mark set by Sherri Turner (1998) and Mhairi McKay (2001). . . . Kristina Wong of Vestal, N.Y., at 14

the youngest player in Corning’s 28-year history, missed the cut with rounds of 76-77.

– Staff and wire reports

On the tee

Next up: McDonald’s LPGA Championship, Bulle Rock Golf Course, Havre de Grace, Md. Defending champion: Annika Sorenstam.

The buzz: Suddenly, after Karrie Webb’s Kraft-Nabisco victory, there’s a Webb-Sorenstam rivalry again.

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