Jeong Jang forgot to read the script before she showed up at Royal Birkdale for the $1.8 million Weetabix Women’s British Open. Or if she did, the diminutive South Korean ripped it up and tossed it aside, turning the marquee names into mere bit players.
Jang, all 5 feet of her, stood head and shoulders above the field for four days, posting scores of 68-66-69-69 for a 16-under-par 272 total to win the $280,208 first-place prize July 31. The wire-to-wire victory was her maiden LPGA title.
Sweden’s Sophie Gustafson was second at 12 under following a closing 67. Michelle Wie (69) and Young Kim (69) tied for third at 10 under, with Wie earning the Smyth Salver that goes to the event’s leading amateur, edging Sweden’s Louise Stahle by two shots. Annika Sorenstam’s bid for her third major title of 2005 ended with a final-round 71 that left her in a tie for fifth at 9 under with Cristie Kerr (71) and Liselotte Neumann (70).
It was the second major in a row that was captured by an unheralded Korean, although Jang’s victory wasn’t as dramatic as Birdie Kim’s bunker blast to win the U.S. Women’s Open at Cherry Hills in June. This victory was founded on the sort of golf expected from Sorenstam, not someone who had never won an LPGA event or contended for a major championship.
For the first three days, the 25-year-old Jang outshone Sorenstam, Kerr, Wie, Paula Creamer and 2004 champion Karen Stupples, the players the Birkdale galleries had turned out to watch. Despite her five-shot lead over Sorenstam going into the final round, most expected Jang to fold under the strain, especially since she was playing with the world No. 1.
Instead, Jang stood up to the pressure and played as if she was the one who had won nine career major titles.
The first round foreshadowed what was to unfold Sunday. In torrential rain and strong winds that had seagulls diving for cover, Jang fired a 4-under 68 to take a one-shot lead over Gustafson, while Sorenstam struggled to a 73.
Sorenstam had talked about wanting to play in the final group Sunday to put pressure on Jang. She got her wish, but it was Jang who held all the trump cards, turning the tables on her more decorated companion. She birdied the opening hole to open a six-shot lead, then finished the front nine as she started, holing a 35-foot birdie putt to move to 15 under. Sorenstam had closed within four shots through eight holes, but failed to get up-and-down at the ninth to fall six behind and effectively bid goodbye to her chances.
Jang needed to come back to the field to give Team Sweden – Sorenstam, Gustafson and Liselotte Neumann – any shot at the title. At only one time did it look as if Jang might just help them out – when she bogeyed the 11th after finding a greenside bunker and failing to make par. But that was her only misstep as she plotted her way around the Birkdale links, finding fairways and greens and making birdies on two of the three closing par 5s to seal her victory.
She was left with the luxury of taking 8 at the last. Instead she finished like a champion, holing a 4-foot putt for birdie. Champagne and beer showers greeted her final stroke as friends ran on to the green to celebrate.
“I was really nervous before the round,” Jang said. “I couldn’t sleep last night and only got three hours of sleep. But I wasn’t nervous on the course.”
Jang arrived at Birkdale with six top-10 finishes this season, including a second at the Sybase Classic. The 50-to-1 shot with local bookmakers took one look at the Birkdale links, however, and her hopes soared.
“When I saw this course I had a lot of confidence because I hit my driver low and you need that for this course,” Jang said. “When I started my practice, I did so with confidence.”
Sorenstam’s chance of tying her pal Tiger Woods at 10 majors apiece came to an unfortunate end. She hit a poor drive off the last tee, lost her ball and ended with a double-bogey 7, hardly the sort of finish she envisioned when she arrived at Birkdale with two of the year’s three majors in her trophy cabinet.
“JJ just played incredible,” Sorenstam said. “I think she would have been very, very hard to catch today. My hat is off to her. I am pretty happy with the way I played the last three days. I didn’t finish good. It was a bad hole to finish with, and obviously that leaves a little sour taste in my mouth. Other than that, I hit some good shots during the week.”
In the end it fell to Gustafson to put the pressure on Jang. If any player in the field deserved to win this particular major, it was the long-hitting Swede. She won this event in 2000, the last time it was played at Royal Birkdale. The only problem was, it was still a year away from major championship status.
Short missed putts at the eighth and 14th – one for par, the other for birdie – and a failure to capitalize on the two closing par 5s put an end to Gustafson’s hopes.
“I’m disappointed, but I played well,” Gustafson said. “I do not think I could have done anything differently, but I am obviously disappointed that I could not take advantage of 17 and 18 – especially since they were downwind and both are reachable (in two).”
Wie arrived in Southport with the weight of expectations on her shoulders, and left feeling as frustrated as she has been in her short career. It’s safe to say she would have won the tournament if her play on the greens had matched the rest of her game.
“I’m really happy with the way I played in my first British Open, but I just left so many putts out there,” Wie said. “I felt a little disappointed by that. I will be working a lot on my putting during the offseason. I just couldn’t read anything. Everything looked flat to me today.”
Wie will head back to Hawaii to begin school on Aug. 24. She will celebrate her 16th birthday Oct. 11, then play in the Samsung World Championship two days later. Whether she will show up as a pro or an amateur hasn’t been determined.
“I haven’t decided (about turning professional),” Wie said. “I don’t know if I will decide. I don’t know how I am going to decide if I am going to decide.”
Regardless, with top 25s in all four majors this year, including a second at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, Wie’s performance at Royal Birkdale further underlined the fact that she seems destined for plenty of major titles.
So, too, does Jang if she can replicate the form she showed over four days at Royal Birkdale.