By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008
HAVRE DE GRACE, Md., June 8 -- Lorena Ochoa's quest for a third straight major title melted down in the searing heat on the back nine at Bulle Rock on Sunday. That opened the way for a potential new international teenage star and possible future challenger to her No. 1 ranking to emerge as the thoroughly unexpected winner of the LPGA Championship.
On a day of high drama and temperatures that soared into the mid-90s for a second straight day, 19-year-old Yani Tseng, a native of Taiwan with a dazzling amateur résumé, made a five-foot birdie putt the third time she played the 413-yard 18th hole, ending a taut four-hole playoff against Sweden's Maria Hjorth, who seconds earlier had missed a 15-footer for birdie.
With a final-round 68 and 72-hole total of 12-under-par 276, Tseng became the first rookie to win a major since South Korea's Se Ri Pak, now a Hall of Famer, prevailed in this event in 1998 at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del. Tseng is the second youngest to win a major and the first player from her country to win a men's or women's major.
Morgan Pressel was 18 when she won at the Kraft Nabisco in Rancho Mirage, Calif., last season. Tseng had defeated Pressel in the final of North & South Women's Amateur in 2005, and a year earlier, she beat Michelle Wie in the final for the U.S. Public Links championship.
"I just tell myself, 'Just make this putt and win a major championship,' " said Tseng, who played in a threesome that included Ochoa, who had been hoping to win all four majors this season. "I couldn't believe it. I just won a major. I'm a rookie. Everything came so fast. . . . Before [the playoff] I just heard 'Lor-ena, Lor-ena!' And today, it's 'Ya-ni, Ya-ni!' It was very exciting."
Hjorth, with a 71 in the final round that included a damaging double bogey after a lost ball tee shot at the tricky 413-yard 13th hole, admitted afterward that she knew nothing about Tseng at the start of the 2008 season. But the talented teenager had clearly captured her playing peers' attention over her first 10 events, with two second-place finishes among her 10 starts and $535,000 in earnings.
Tseng earned a first-place check for $300,000 in this $2 million tournament after playing her final 36 holes in 11 under par, with a final round that included five birdies and a bogey after shooting a bogey-free 65 Saturday to get into contention.
"I don't know about her record, what she's done before," Hjorth said. "I haven't really seen her play. She's been knocking on the door. I'm very, very happy with the day. I played solid golf and I'm just very proud of myself, hanging in there after the double bogey . . . and still being able to get in the playoff."
Tseng's only serious blunder also came at the 13th, when she was unable to get up and down from deep rough after leaving herself a 45-foot par putt. But she came right back with a 10-footer for birdie at the 372-yard 14th and made four straight pars down the stretch. She nearly won in regulation at the 18th until her 10-foot birdie putt veered off line almost from the moment it was struck.
Hjorth had a one-shot lead through 70 holes until she missed a four-foot par-saving putt at the 171-yard 17th hole after her tee shot landed pin high on the fringe. She also had a chance to win in regulation, but her 15-footer for birdie missed the cup by inches and she made the three-foot comebacker to save her par and force the playoff.
Ochoa birdied her first hole and had countless chances to push forward and separate herself from the field on the front nine, but missed four birdie putts inside 12 feet before she made the turn. Back-to-back bogeys at the 12th and 13th holes, each with missed 10-footers, dimmed her chances considerably, but she likely will look back at the 15th and 16th holes as the tipping point in her final round of 1-under 71 for an 11-under 277.
At the 493-yard 15th, Ochoa reached the putting surface with two majestic shots and gave herself an eagle putt of 40 feet and a chance to pull within a shot of the lead. Instead, she three-putted for a frazzling par, missing a five-foot birdie attempt.
At the 330-yard 16th, her well-struck drive came to rest about 15 yards from the green, and her second shot wedge bounced on the green and tracked perfectly toward the hole, only to ricochet off the flagstick instead of diving into the cup for an eagle. Ochoa writhed in mock agony on her back, lamenting what might have been despite an 18-inch tap-in birdie. When she made one final 12-foot birdie putt at the 422-yard 18th hole, she was a shot short of the playoff.
"It was a strange day," Ochoa said. "It wasn't my time. I gave myself birdie chances and couldn't make any putts. I never gave up. I never lost hope. I thought 'something will happen.' Three birdies in the last three holes maybe. I'm not ashamed. I'm proud of my finish . . . I didn't feel any pressure of winning three in a row. I was very relaxed. We did our best, and it didn't happen."
Annika Sorenstam left this Harford County gated community thoroughly frustrated as well, also posting a 71 playing in the final group with Tseng and Hjorth. Like Ochoa, she also played brilliantly tee to green for most of the day, but she, too, had her woes on the greens, needing 33 putts.
Her most agonizing stroke of the day came at the 13th hole, when she missed a four-footer to save par after a wayward drive in the right rough left her with no chance to reach the green in regulation. Sorenstam's putt grazed the cup and lipped away for her first bogey in a stretch of 42 holes.
Sorenstam had long birdie putts in the 25- to 30-foot range on her next four holes, then hit a second shot to within 18 feet of the flag at No. 18. But that putt veered to the right almost from the start, leaving her a shot out of the playoff as well.
"There was nothing wrong with my long game," she said. "But I left a lot of shots out there. I wish I could have converted one or two [more putts] on the back. But I never gave up. I kept on fighting."