Kang, Choi share WPGA lead, many chase

Writing from Olympia Fields, Illinois

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Happy Canada 150 Day!

At one point early Saturday afternoon, there was a seven-way tie at 7-under-par for the lead in the 63rd KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Danielle Kang, Sei Young Kim, Woon-jung “Chella” Choi, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, Amy Yang and Brittany Lincicome were jammed into the top spot.

When the last putt fell on Olympia Fields Country Club’s North Course, only American Kang and South Korean Choi remained on top. Knotted at 10-under-par 203, they’ll play together Sunday in the final round of the year’s second major championship with a trophy and $525,000 on the line and 14 players within five strokes of them.

Only Jiyai Shin, a two-time major champion, is within two strokes. Her 7-under-par 64, the day’s best round, jumped her into solo third early in the afternoon. Defending champion Henderson is at 7-under 206 after a 2-under 69 on her native Canada’s 150th birthday, while Yang and Kim, like Choi from South Korea, are four back at 6-under 207 on a most international leader board.

Choi scored 4-under 67 to gain a share of the lead via birdies on the 14th and 18th holes. Kang birdied those holes as well, and would be the sole leader but for a bogey on the par-4 16th, her first three-putt of the tournament.

Choi’s round was bogey-free, which not only moved her to the front but gets her a gift from her dad, back as caddie the last four tournaments after a 10-week retirement. He had caddied for her since her junior days.

“He wanted to stay with my mom,” Choi said. “I lost my confidence. I said, ‘It’s very tough to play golf. Can you come back and help me, just a couple weeks? That’s why he come back. He says, ‘Just focus on golf, just one shot.’ ”

That worked. Choi had only 28 putts, saving par five times to go with the four birdies.

She’s not won a major, her best finish a tie for fifth in the then-LPGA Championship in 2013.

Kang won back-to-back U.S. Women’s Amateurs in 2010 and 2011, but hasn’t won since turning pro after the second U.S. Women’s Am title, and hasn’t finished better than tying for 14th in a major, that the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. She tied for 22nd in the 2013 LPGA.

A stroke behind after 36 holes, she’s been getting advice from high places: Wayne Gretzky, Caitlyn Jenner and three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Hollis Stacy either called or texted before the third round.

“Hollis said, ‘If you’re not nervous, what are you doing out there?’ ” Kang relayed, and added that brother Alex, whose advice she followed to the letter to craft her game plan for the week, said, “Stay aggressive. Your game’s perfect.”

It wasn’t quite that, but close enough. She finally bogeyed a hole – the par-4 third – but still went out in 2-under 34 and nearly botched the par-4 12th, the down-and-up eastbound classic adjacent to Vollmer Road that members play as the third hole. Her approach bounced off the hilltop green onto the slope well below the putting surface, and she had a difficult third. The pitch went two-thirds of the way up the hill. She was in danger of giving up the lead.

“The first chip I was being aggressive, but it came out soft,” Kang said. “I could either chip it normally and try to hit it close, but I said, ‘You know what, I like flop shots. I’m just going to flop it again.’ ”

It bounced onto the green and rolled into the hole, a par-saver to match Jerry Barber’s saved 4 on the same hole and the same side of the hill in the final round of the 1961 PGA Championship. He went on to win.

Shin was in the clubhouse, and just about headed back to her hotel, the ink dried on her 64 on the scoreboard, before the final twosome of Kang and Kim had played five holes. Four straight birdies and five in six holes coming in for a women’s course record 5-under 30 vaulted Shin up the leader board.

“I’m pretty lucky because I started early in the morning,” Shin said, thinking she beat the wind, which didn’t become a major factor.

Shin fell off the radar when she left the LPGA Tour following the 2013 season, but she won the Women’s British Open in 2008 and 2012 and piled up 11 wins on the circuit. Now she plays mostly in Japan.

“I very enjoy because less traveling and more three-day tournaments,” Shin said in halting English. “Physically, I feel much better.”

This Women’s PGA is a four-round test. Shin hasn’t been there in a while. Kang and Choi have been but haven’t won a pro major. Henderson is lurking. Yang and Kim are within striking distance if all goes perfectly.

How often does that happen?

O, Canada

Brooke Henderson, who calls Ontario home and sports sponsorships from Canadian Pacific and the Royal Bank of Canada on her shirts, received plenty of encouragement from the gallery on Saturday. That it was Canada Day, and the country’s 150th birthday, helped.

“Happy Canada Days a little bit over the course, which is good,” Henderson said. “I’m still in fourth place, which is great. Any time you can see your name that close to the top is a really good feeling. And it’s disappointing. I would really have liked to have 17 and 18 (a bogey and a par) back. They were very similar putts, and I just hit it through the break both times.”

If there was no tournament this week, Henderson would do a very Canadian thing.

“I would probably go to my cottage and watch fireworks at night,” she said. “This is a very special day back home.”

Around Olympia

World No. 3 Lydia Ko stubbed her scoring toe, firing a 5-over 76 to fall out of contention. ... Kelly Shon, who wowed everyone with an 8-under 63 on Friday, came back to earth with an even-par 71 on Saturday and stands at 2-under 211. ... The course averaged 71.312 strokes, compared to 73.217 in Round 1 and 72,083 in Round 2, when the full field was on hand. The three day average is 72.383. The final average for the 2003 U.S. Open was 72.38. ... Attendance continues to be spotty. There was a crowd of about 300 following Michelle Wie and Ko around on the front nine, and that was the largest gaggle with any group. Add in those in the KPMG suites and fans that parked themselves under a tree by a green for a while, along with various wanderers, and there might have been 6,000 on the grounds over the course of the day. The ticket price of $30 for the final round is a bargain for big-time golf, let alone a major championship.

Tim Cronin

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