Every once in a while, Birdie Kim stands in a bunker and her mind races back to Cherry Hills, the chills of victory rushing to her fingertips and toes. It wasn’t a textbook blast, but Kim’s shot from a greenside bunker on the 72nd hole shocked the golf world as her ball rattled into the cup.
Seventeen-year-old Morgan Pressel, standing in the fairway on the cusp of a historic win, placed both hands on her head in utter disbelief, muttering words she’d still rather not repeat. Kim won the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open on the final hole with an unlikely, yet somehow befitting, birdie.
“I still have good memories,” said Kim, who had changed her name from Ju-Yun to “Birdie” for LPGA Q-School the previous year.
Major-championship victories are the culmination of hard work and exceptional talent. They’re the catalyst for more titles, more money and some semblance of fame. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe.
And so, on the eve of the Open’s return to Colorado for the July 7-10 event at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, this question comes to mind: What happens when a player bags the biggest title in women’s golf and then stops winning?
Five players in the history of the U.S. Women’s Open have only this prestigious title to their credit: Catherine Lacoste (amateur, 1967), Janet Alex (’82), Hilary Lunke (2003), Birdie Kim (’05) and Inbee Park (’08). Kim and Park are the only active players, and to be fair, have many years left to win another LPGA event and erase their names from this list. Still, it’s interesting to note how winning the U.S. Women’s Open changed their lives. And the ways it didn’t.
Kim turned professional in 1999, and in 2001 signed a five-year contract with KTF, a South Korean telecommunications firm. After winning the U.S. Open in her first appearance, Kim put too much pressure on herself the next year and didn’t have a top 10, finishing 108th on the money list. KTF did not renew her contract after 2006, and Kim has played without a sponsor since.
“Sponsors prefer younger players to old player,” said Kim, 29, who thinks LPGA majors in her native South Korea aren’t considered “a big deal.”
“I’m more famous in (the) States than in Korea.”
Kim’s life took a series of eventful turns in the years that followed. Her dentist introduced her to Bai Kyu Lee, a Korean PGA player whom she married in December 2007. After the British Open in ’09, she returned to Korea and was involved in a car accident that left the entire left side of her face crushed. Kim couldn’t eat for three months and had to remain motionless while the bones in her face – particularly those around her left eye – healed.
“If I cough, (I) could lose my eye,” she said. “It was a really bad situation.”
Kim has two titanium rods in her face and finally is off pain medication. She took a medical extension for the rest of ’09 and all of 2010. This season she has played six times and missed every cut.
“When I was young, I was a pretty simple player,” said Kim, who now converses with ease in English. “When I get old, I can see more. I can think more. I know what’s dangerous.”
Despite the physical setback, Kim remains impressively upbeat. This year, she sold her South Florida home to cut down on expenses and moved in with a family friend in Chino Hills, Calif.
She dropped the agent whom she picked up after the Open and travels alone. Her husband stays in Korea giving golf lessons. Kim envisionsfor herself in a Juli Inkster-like career: long and filled with children.
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Hilary Lunke can’t imagine trying to balance life on tour with her two young daughters. After giving birth to Marin, now 1, the idea of going back on the road seemed overwhelming. She retired at the end of the 2008 season.
“My hat’s off to some of the moms that are out there full time playing and still competing even with kids,” said Lunke, 32, “because for me to find the time to go hit balls for a couple of hours one or two times a week is a challenge.”
Lunke won the ’03 Open at Pumpkin Ridge in an 18-hole playoff against Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins. It was Lunke’s second year on tour, and her husband, Tylar, was on the bag that week. She became the first player in Women’s Open history to win the championship after advancing through local and sectional qualifying.
Lunke’s tournament schedule began to dwindle as she and Tylar started their family. She never again finished higher than 22nd.
Stanford, who has won four times on the LPGA but no majors, offers this perspective on winning once: “Obviously you did something right for one week out of your life, but who cares? You have the U.S. Open trophy.”
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Occasionally, a member at Janet Anderson’s club catches wind of her past life and says something along the lines of “I’ve known you for 10 years and didn’t know you won the Open.”
Anderson, 55, who won the ’82 Open under her then-married name of Janet Alex, has been the head pro at Aguila Golf Course in Phoenix since 1999. She considers her Open victory a “different lifetime” but can remember fans sitting on the roof at Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento, Calif., to watch her walk up the 18th.
“It was a surreal kind of week,” she said. “It was like nothing was going to go wrong. It was just strange, like a walk in the park.”
During the first two rounds, Anderson said she was paired with a player who didn’t break 90. Her game, however, was built for Open play in that she was long and straight off the tee and rarely in trouble. She won convincingly, beating Sandra Haynie, Donna White, JoAnne Carner and Beth Daniel by six strokes.
The first-place check of $27,315 didn’t do much to change her financial status. It did, however, change her expectations, and that added pressure didn’t help her quest to win again.
After 20 years on tour, Anderson felt the need to settle down. These days, she might play in the occasional Legends Tour event but spends most of her time at the golf course in relative anonymity.
Birdie Kim can relate. She sat at a sushi bar hours after she had missed the cut in Springfield, Ill., last month, and a couple sitting nearby asked where they could listen to live music. They were in town to watch the State Farm Classic, but had no idea that Kim was one of the players who had teed it up that day, much less won the Open.
Kim didn’t seem to mind. She’s happy to be back competing, ready to put in the hard work. Can she win again?
“Of course,” she said. “If I feel I can’t win, why am I here?”
Two days before Kim was scheduled to play the second sectional stage of LPGA Q-School in 1999, she broke her wrist at a nearby park. She had to settle for Futures Tour Q-School. Kim now looks at that unfortunate timing as simply the path that led her to a U.S. Women’s Open victory.
“Life is always changing,” a very sage Kim said. “Who knows?”
Another miracle shot could be just around the corner.