NAPLES, Fla. (AP) – U.S. Women's Open champion Na Yeon Choi won the Titleholders on Sunday to turn a great season into her best one yet.
Locked in a battle with So Yeon Ryu along the back nine, Choi pulled away with a wedge that had to hit a tiny spot on an elevated green with three tiers. It came off perfectly, spun to 3 feet for birdie and Choi took it from there. She closed with two pars for a 2-under 70 and a two-shot victory.
The 25-year-old from South Korea won for the second time this year, and she captured the two biggest paychecks on the LPGA Tour. She won $500,000 at the Titleholders, pushing her season earnings to a career-best $1.9 million.
Ryu, honored this week as the LPGA Rookie of the Year, hit 3-wood into about 25 feet for a two-putt birdie on the 13th to tie for the lead. But on the next hole, she didn't account for the wind making her 30-foot birdie putt faster than it looked. The putt went some 6 feet by the hole, and a three-putt bogey cost her a share of the lead. She never caught up.
Brittany Lincicome also closed with a 70 at The TwinEagles Club for finish alone in third. Karrie Webb had a 69 to finish another shot behind.
Inbee Park was never in the hunt, though she still felt plenty of pressure in the final LPGA Tour event of the year. She needed to make sure she didn't stumble in the final round to capture the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average, and she handled that with ease. Park had a 70, while Stacy Lewis had a 74.
Lewis is the first American since 1994 to be LPGA Player of the Year. Park took the Vare Trophy and money title, the only woman to earn more than $2 million this year.
Sunday, however, belonged to Choi.
“I'm really happy with how I played this season,'' Choi said. “I won my first major and even this tournament is very big for me. I think I can have even bigger expectations now and think I deserve it.''
She is becoming known as “Big Apple'' because of her initials – NYC – and she sure knows how to pick the right fruit when it comes to prize money. Choi showed she had the mettle to win big events with her first major this summer at Blackwolf Run in the U.S. Women's Open, the biggest purse in women's golf. And she finished off the year with a solid putting stroke in the final round, and a delicate touch with a wedge on the reachable par-4 16th.
She wanted to go for the green, a risky play if she didn't pull it off. Her caddie, Jason Hamilton, suggested a 3-wood to the left side for the best angle into the green, and Choi took it from there. Ryu was on the right side of the fairway, and her pitch shot up two tiers didn't quite clear the last ridge and rolled off the green.
“My putting wasn't really great,'' Ryu said. “Na Yeon is a great player, and I'm just a rookie, just starting this season. It was quite tough. Na Yeon was great.''
It capped off another banner year for South Koreans. They won three of the four majors and finished 1-2 on the money list.
The timing couldn't have been better for Choi.
Her mother came over to help her buy a house in Orlando, and this was the first time she saw her daughter win outside South Korea. And with a $500,000 check, Choi smiled and said, “I think I can buy bigger than I thought.''
There were a few nervous moments early, particularly on the third hole, that put the tournament up for grabs.
Choi pulled her approach some 30 yards left of the green, surrounded by steep slopes. Her chip failed to reach the green, and she two-putted for double bogey. There was a four-way tie for the lead among Choi, Ryu, Lincicome and Ai Miyazato, with Webb only one shot out of the lead.
Moments later, Choi seized regained the lead with a 3-wood from 240 yards that landed some 20 yards short of the green and bounced onto the putting surface, rolled next to the flag and stopped just inside 10 feet away. She holed that for eagle and never trailed again.
Ryu took on a front bunker with a tee shot to 10 feet for birdie on the 12th, but Choi followed her with a 9-iron into 3 feet. Choi struggled with her irons, particularly wedges into the par 5s on the back nine, but she came up big with the toughest one of all.
“I was very nervous last night,'' Choi said. “I told people that leading the tournament, there's always extra pressure. Even on front nine, when I had the double bogey and tie for first place, I felt more comfortable than leading. Maybe that sounds a little weird. I like chasing somebody, and then I can play more aggressive.''
She was aggressive until she tapped in for par on the final hole for the win, the third time in four seasons that she has had at least two victories. It put a smile on her face as she heads to Orlando for some house-hunting.