ElleAir Ladies Open Sunday: Sakura Yokomine Wins for 1st Time in 2014, Becoming 2nd Golfer in JLPGA History to Break the Billion-Yen Barrier in Career Winnings

Sakura Yokomine’s 23rd career victory on the JLPGA may be one of her sweetest.  Not only was her win at the ElleAir Ladies Open her 1st of 2014, it may well be her last as a JLPGA member–at least for awhile–as she’s one of the favorites at LPGA Q-School’s final stage in early December.  Of course, she can go on to win the final event of the JLPGA season, the Ricoh Cup, next week.  But let’s stay in the present for now!

Yokomine entered the final round 2 shots behind 20-year-old sensation Ai Suzuki, who bounced back from a bogey on the 197-yard par-3 3rd with birdies on the 4th and 6th holes, both short par 4s.  At that point, Suzuki was -17 and led her playing partner, 23-year-old Miki Sakai, by 2 shots; Yokomine, the last member of the final threesome, was one more shot behind.   But around the time that Sakai birdied the 148-yard par-3 7th to pull within one shot of Suzuki, some players from a few groups ahead of them entered the fray.  Rikako Morita, last year’s money-list title-holder, was the 1st to catch Yokomine at -14, as she opened with a bogey-free 33.  Yokomine responded with back-to-back birdies to close out the front 9 and tie Sakai for 2nd at -16, but Morita had already moved to -15 with her 2nd birdie in a row, this one on the long par-4 10th.

But it was a burst by Teresa Lu, which began with an eagle on the short par-5 9th and continued with birdies on the short par-5 11th and the long par-3 13th, that made the final threesome pay attention to what was going on 3 groups ahead of them.  Combined with a pair of early birdies (and her lone bogey of the day on the long par-4 8th), Lu moved from -10 to -15 in the space of 13 holes.  And when Suzuki bogeyed the long par-4 12th to fall back to -16, in a tie for the lead with Sakai and Yokomine, Lu had gone from 6 down to 1 down.  Which was exactly where her playing partner Erina Hara got to when she made her 6th birdie of the day (against only 1 bogey) on the 338-yard par-4 14th, her 3rd in her previous 4 holes.

So with a few holes to play there were 6 golfers who could win this thing.  Lu was the 1st to strike, sprinting past Hara with back-to-back birdies to close out her round and become the leader in the clubhouse at -17.  (Both players dashed the hopes of Na-Ri Lee, who had birdied 7 of her 1st 13 holes to fly to -15 very early in the day, but fallen to earth with a double bogey on 12 and finished at -14.)  Right behind them, Morita followed suit with birdies on the 273-yard par-4 16th and 535-yard par-5 18th to join Lu atop the leaderboard.  And when Yokomine and Sakai both responded with birdies on the 385-yard par-4 15th–Yokomine by making a 30-footer–we had 4 players tied for the lead at -17, 1 shot ahead of Suzuki.

The tiny 16th hole proved to be the difference-maker, as Yokomine birdied it, Sakai doubled it, and Suzuki parred it.  When Yokomine parred out and Sakai finished bogey-birdie to tie Hara at -15, that meant that Suzuki needed to birdie out to force a playoff.  In the end, her walkoff birdie secured her a tie for 2nd place with Lu and Morita.  Yokomine’s bogey-free 68 proved just good enough to beat Lu’s 65, Morita’s 66, and Suzuki’s 71.

What’s more, Yokomine’s victory pushed her past the billion-yen mark in career winnings.  Yokomine joins Yuri Fudoh as the only 2 golfers in JLPGA history to accomplish that amazing feat.  Speaking of amazing feats, Sun-Ju Ahn’s top-10 finish was enough to secure her 3rd money-list title on the JLPGA.  This one was the hardest for her, as she played through severe pain in her right wrist since the last week of October to hold off Bo-Mee Lee and Ji-Yai Shin.

So congratulations to Yokomine and Ahn.  Here’s how the JLPGA money list looks heading into the Ricoh Cup:

1. Sun-Ju Ahn ¥152.56M
2. Bo-Mee Lee ¥118.58M
3. Ji-Yai Shin ¥100.44M
4. Teresa Lu ¥98.17M
5. Misuzu Narita ¥95.23M
6. Miki Sakai ¥91.90M
7. Shiho Oyama ¥79.29M
8. Na-Ri Lee ¥77.45M
9. Erina Hara ¥74.96M
10. Momoko Ueda ¥70.60M
11. Ayaka Watanabe ¥65.72M
12. Ai Suzuki ¥59.97M
13. Esther Lee ¥59.01M
14. Sakura Yokomine ¥57.89M
15. Rikako Morita ¥55.18M
16. Onnarin Sattayabanphot ¥54.80M
17. Lala Anai ¥51.29M
18. Ritsuko Ryu ¥47.75M
19. Yumiko Yoshida ¥46.68M
20. Ji-Hee Lee ¥43.08M
21. Kotono Kozuma ¥41.80M
22. Junko Omote ¥40.51M
23. Erika Kikuchi ¥40.27M
24. Mi-Jeong Jeon ¥39.72M
25. Saiki Fujita ¥38.94M
26. Mami Fukuda ¥37.06M
27. Kaori Ohe ¥35.78M
28. Asako Fujimoto ¥32.45M
29. Yuki Ichinose ¥31.61M
30. Phoebe Yao ¥31.35M
31. Mayu Hattori ¥30.32M

32. Soo-Yun Kang ¥29.53M
33. Rui Kitada ¥29.39M
34. Yoko Maeda ¥29.21M
35. Yeon-Ju Jung ¥28.43M
36. Na-Ri Kim ¥28.21M
37. Megumi Kido ¥27.89M
38. Hikari Fujita ¥27.14M
39. Yukari Baba ¥26.44M
40. Rumi Yoshiba ¥25.74M
41. Akane Iijima ¥23.32M
42. Da-Ye Na ¥23.06M
43. Yukari Nishiyama ¥23.03M
44. Natsuka Hori ¥22.60M
45. Mamiko Higa ¥22.44M
46. Shanshan Feng ¥20.04M
47. Megumi Shimokawa ¥19.74M
48. Miki Saiki ¥18.67M
49. Eun-Bi Jang ¥18.14M
50. Ji-Woo Lee ¥17.61M

Next week’s event, the Ricoh Cup, is the last major of the JLPGA season, in addition to being its season-ending tournament.  It features this year’s winners, anyone in the the top 25 on the tour money list without a win, anyone in the top 25 of the Rolex Rankings who hasn’t otherwise qualified and wants to participate, and any Japanese player with a win on the LPGA.  That means that teenager Minami Katsu and world #1 Inbee Park will be competing against the JLPGA’s finest!

CME Group Tour Championship Weekdays: Julieta Granada and Carlota Ciganda Step Up

With the top golfers on the LPGA apparently feeling the pressure of playing for $1.5M and having trouble dealing with the changeable winds and slower greens at Tiburon this week at the CME Group Tour Championship, the door is slightly ajar for some unsung heroes to make like Christina Kim and make a statement at the end of 2014.  Julieta Granada has been dinking her way around the course, while Carlota Ciganda has been bombing her ways around it, but despite the 55-yard difference in average driving distance between them thus far this week, they find themselves tied for the lead at -7.

With 36 holes still to be played, Granada and Ciganda have to keep the pedal to the metal on the weekend.  The hottest golfer in the field, Morgan Pressel, is -9 over her last 26 holes after suffering a birdieless +3 start over her 1st 10 holes of the week, which puts her 1 behind the co-leaders,  Michelle Wie has also bounced back from a rocky start, going -6 over her last 19 holes (which featured an eagle on the par-4 7th) and shooting up the leaderboard to tie Sandra Gal and Sarah Jane Smith at -5.  Chella Choi eagled the par-5 17th to catch So Yeon Ryu, whose double bogey from the sand on the par-3 16th on Thursday and walkoff bogey on Friday dropped her to -4.

But what of the LPGA’s Big 3?  World #1 Inbee Park languishes at +1 after going +3 and birdieless over her last 10 holes on Friday.  Stacy Lewis, the leader in every major LPGA year-long race, had to battle back to -1 for the week after going +3 and birdieless over her 1st 16 holes yesterday.  That’s 1 shot worse than Lydia Ko, who’s been missing a lot of greens and scrambling her way to 7 birdies and 5 bogeys over her 1st 36 holes.

With Shanshan Feng, Suzann Pettersen, Na Yeon Choi, Lexi Thompson, Cristie Kerr, Brittany Lincicome, In-Kyung Kim, and Caroline Hedwall lingering with Lewis at -1, there’s still plenty of time for them to make a big move.  It’s probably too late for Mi Jung Hur (+6), Karrie Webb (+4), Pornanong Phatlum (+4), and Paula Creamer (+3), though.

With the big storm over and the big thaw about to begin, I’m hoping I’ll actually be able to relax and watch some golf today instead of spending 11 hours shovelling, clearing off my roof, and helping my neighbors, as I did yesterday.  Still have to clear the snow off my garage and go foraging with the family once the driving ban is lifted in the Village of Hamburg, however.  Maybe Sunday!

ElleAir Ladies Open Set-Up: Ai Suzuki’s 64 Lifts Her to Top of Dozen Players Double Digits Under Par

Ai Suzuki followed up yesterday’s 9-birdie 65 with a bogey-free 64 today to climb to the top of the heap at the ElleAir Ladies Open.  At -16, the 20-year-old major champion holds a 2-shot lead on LPGA Q-School-bound Sakura Yokomine (65), a 3-shot lead on Miki Sakai (66) and money-list leader Sun-Ju Ahn (68), a 4-shot lead on Shiho Oyama (68) and Rui Kitada (71), and a 5-shot lead on Rikako Morita (66), Yumiko Yoshida (68), and 1st-round leader Momoko Ueda (70).  Esther Lee (66), Teresa Lu (68), and Erina Hara (69) round out the list of 12 golfers already double digits under par, while Bo-Mee Lee (66, -9), Ayaka Watanabe (66, -8), and Yuko Fukuda (66, -7) also made big moves up the leaderboard.

The only players not in tomorrow’s final round who you might have expected to be in the mix on Sunday are Misuzu Narita and Mamiko Higa, who missed the cut by a shot, Yuri Fudoh, who missed it by 3 shots, and Ji-Yai Shin, who didn’t tee it up this week.  Otherwise, we have a big showdown brewing between the vast majority of players near the top of the JLPGA money list.  Should be a great final round!

My Picks for the CME Group Tour Championship

Around the World of Women’s Golf in 10 Easy Links

Between being figuratively snowed in at work and literally snowed in at home in Hamburg (where I’ve spent something like 12 of the last 48 hours shoveling), I’ve taken an unexpected sabbatical from Mostly Harmless, but I’m back!  Let’s catch up on what I’ve missed!

Christina Kim Prevails Over Shanshan Feng in Playoff at Lorena’s Place.  I’ve gotta be honest, I erased the 1st 3 rounds on my DVR after watching the intros and still have the last 6 holes of so of the final round to watch, but I’ll be sure to do so now that I finally gave in and saw that Kim won in a playoff over Feng!

Yoko Maeda Beats Satsuki Oshiro in Playoff for Early 30th Birthday Gift.  Maeda hasn’t even been on the JLPGA often enough to be called a journeywoman, but she bounced back from a walkoff bogey at the Ito-En Ladies that opened the door for Oshiro, who was also looking for her 1st-ever victory on tour, by closing it on the 1st playoff hole with a par.  Momoko Ueda finished 1 shot out of the playoff, which moved her into the top 10 on the money list.  Sun-Ju Ahn continues to maintain a near insurmountable lead on Bo-Mee Lee (not to mention Ji-Yai Shin, Misuzu Narita, Teresa Lu, and Miki Sakai, who all have either cracked the 100 million yen barrier this season or have a hope of doing it).

In Gee Chun Wins for 3rd Time on KLPGA in 2014.  Chun’s win came in dramatic fashion over the final 9 holes, but it was almost overshadowed by Kyu Jung Baek narrowly winning the Rookie of the Year race over Min Sun Kim and Jin Young Ko.  Also, Ha Neul Kim announced that she’ll be playing in the final stage of JLPGA Q-School (she finished T1 at one of the previous stage’s sites on 11/7).  Her last round in the last KLPGA event of 2014 may turn out to be her last start as a KLPGA member.

Xi Yu Lin Wins in Homeland on LET.  Congratulations to LPGA rookie Xi Yu Lin, who beat Charley Hull by 5 shots for her 1st-ever win on the LET!  Lin made her professional debut at the very same event in 2011, finishing 5th, so it’s fitting her 1st victory off the CLPGA came here, as well.

Sakura Yokomine, Ha Na Jang, Sei Young Kim, Charley Hull, Stephanie Meadow, Minjee Lee, Ariya Jutanugarn, Su Hyun Oh Highlight LPGA Q-School’s Final Stage.  But check the field list:  there are a lot of current, former, and maybe future LPGAers on it!  Names like Lorie Kane, Birdie Kim, Chie Arimura, Vicky Hurst, Cheyenne Woods, Ju Young Park (Hee Young’s little sis), Alison Lee, Annie Park, Simin Feng, Ani Gulugian, Ginger Howard, and Madison Pressel are just a few that’ll stick out to die-hard fans of women’s golf.  It all starts the 1st week of December!

The LPGA’s Last Event of 2014 and the JLPGA’s Next-to-Last Are on Tap This Week.  Check out the pre-tournament notes and interviews for the CME Group Tour Championship (where season-ending race leader Stacy Lewis, world #1 Inbee Park, and 2014 Rookie of the Year Lydia Ko have the best shot at winning the $1M Race to the CME Globe) and live scoring for the ElleAire Ladies Open (where Momoko Ueda has jumped out to an early lead).

So buckle your seat belts, everyone!  (That’s something I’ve practically forgotten how to do, as The Constructivist Family has been housebound the last 2 days and we have no idea when the state of emergency or travel ban will be lifted!)  2014 is going out with a bang!

My Picks for the Lorena Ochoa Invitational

There are only 2 tournaments left on the LPGA schedule and both have even more limited fields than the just-completed Asian Swing.  The Lorena Ochoa Invitational is the most exclusive of all and it has big implications for the $1M Race for the CME Globe, which ends with a bang in the year’s final event next week.  So who will be the best of the best this week?  Here are my picks!

1. Park Inbee
2. Ryu
3. Wie
4. Feng
5. Lewis
6. Ko
7. Pettersen
8. Creamer
9. Kerr
10. Munoz
11. Nordqvist
12. Stanford

Alts:  Thompson, Phatlum, Pressel

Tony Jesselli has completely outclassed me down the home stretch and is now in 2nd place in the season-long PakPicker competition.  Good luck to Tony, GDSmyth, Elf, and Ghinhee in the last 2 events of the year!

Mizuno Classic Weekend: Mi Hyang Lee Prevails in Classic Barnburner

21-year-old Mi Hyang Lee won the 2nd tournament of 2014 among major women’s professional tours by firing a final-round 63 in New Zealand and blowing past Lydia Ko, among others.  And she’s just won the Mizuno Classic, the 2nd of November–and her 1st on the LPGA–by blowing past 51-year-old Laura Davies, among others, catching Ilhee Lee and Kotomo Kozuma at -11, and beating them with a birdie on the 5th playoff hole.  With 9 players finishing at -10 and 5 at -9, it’s amazing that Lee could prevail, but somebody had to do it.  Here’s how it happened.

Lee had sprung into contention with a 2nd-round 67, but it wasn’t nearly the best round on moving day.  The JLPGA’s young star Ai Suzuki birdied her last 4 holes in a row (and 5 of her last 6) for a 64 that got her a share of the lead with Davies (67) and Ilhee Lee (66) at -9.  Na-Ri Lee birdied 6 of her last 11 holes to post a 65 that got her into solo 7th, 2 shots off the lead and 1 behind Mi Hyang Lee, Kozuma (67), and Chella Choi (68).  With Jessica KordaMisuzu Narita, and Teresa Lu firing 67s of their own to move to -6, -5, and -4, respectively, and with big names Karrie Webb (68), Sakura Yokomine (69), and Bo-Mee Lee (69) lurking, Sunday dawned with 21 players within 5 shots of the lead.  The only disappointment was that the 2 biggest names in the field, LPGA money-list leader Stacy Lewis and JLPGA money-list leader Sun-Ju Ahn, were not in that group.

Even without them in the hunt, what a Sunday it turned out to be!  Hall of Famer and 2006 champion Webb kicked off the festivities with a bogey-free 31 on the front from the 3rd-to-last group to move to -11 at the turn.  Playing in the next-to-last group, Choi and Mi Hyang Lee birdied 4 of her 1st 7 holes and 3 of her 1st 7, respectively, to join her.  Meanwhile Korda, sandwiched between those 2 groups, got it to -10 with a birdie-free 32 on the front.  But all of them were chasing Choi’s and Lee’s playing partner Kozuma, who birdied 4 holes in a row after parring the 1st and got it to -13 with a birdie on the par-5 7th.  As the 2nd-round co-leaders stumbled out of the gates–Suzuki bogeyed her 1st 2 holes and scrambled her way to a 37 that left her at -8, Davies offset her 2 birdies with 2 bogeys to stay at -9, and Ilhee Lee made 11-straight pars dating back to the end of moving day before making her lone birdie on the front that got her to -10–Kozuma suddenly gave everyone hope with bogeys on 9 and 11 that dropped her back to -11.

Even as the 22-year-old looking for her 1st JLPGA victory looked like she was starting to fumble it, other players entered the fray.  LPGA newbie Ayako Uehara, a 3-time winner on the JLPGA who was a fixture in the top 26 of their money list from 2006 to 2012, ended her 8-hole par train that closed out yesterday’s round with a birdie on her 1st hole today and followed it up with 4 more in her next 12 holes of bogey-free golf to climb to -11 and into a tie for the lead with her playing partner Korda (who birdied the 12th to get there), Choi (who would follow up her birdie barrage on the 1st 7 holes with a par train over her next 7), Kozuma, and Ilhee Lee (who birdied the 7th and 11th to get there and had gone without a bogey for 33 holes and counting at that point).  But what of Webb, Davies, and the eventual winner?  Well, Webb went bogey-birdie-bogey to fall back to -10 with only 4 holes left to play, Mi Hyang Lee had bogeyed the 10th to join her there but fought back into a tie for the lead with a birdie on the 14th, and Davies birdied the par-5 13th to get to -10.

A bunch of late charges complicated matters yet further.  1st-round leader Morgan Pressel, who had stalled Saturday after an opening 67 due to an unexpectedly balky putter, followed up her bogey-free 33 on the front today with 3 birdies in her last 6 holes, including 2 in her last 3, to post her 2nd 67 of the week and become the leader in the clubhouse at -10.  She was joined a few minutes later by playing partners Sakura Yokomine and Saiki Fujita.  Yokomine had birdied 2 of her 1st 3 holes but stalled midway through her round, yet finished strong with 4 birdies in her last 8 holes, including 3 of her last 6.  Fujita, meanwhile, followed up her 4 birdies in her 1st 6 holes with a lone eagle on the 13th in a sea of pars.  Their final playing partner, Harukyo Nomura, had a great chance to become the 4th co-leader in the clubhouse, but despite making 5 birdies between the 7th and 15th holes, could not make another on the 540-yard par-5 16th, 180-yard par-3 17th, or 405-yard par-4 18th.

So the big question as the leaders entered the home stretch was who would join Pressel, Yokomine, and Fujita at -10–and who would surpass them?

The 1st to try was Webb.  She made a heroic birdie on 17 to get to -11, but had to settle for becoming the 4th co-leader in the clubhouse when she suffered a walkoff bogey.

Next up were Korda, Uehara, and Na-Ri Lee.  Korda had fallen back to -10 with a bogey on the par-4 14th and couldn’t make a birdie coming home.  Lee did birdie 2 of her last 4 holes, but it was too little, too late.  So all Uehara needed to do to pass the 6 co-leaders was to stay at -11.  She did it with pars on 14, 15, 16, and 17, but she couldn’t do it on 18.  Now there were 7 players at -10 and only 6 left on the course.  Would anyone break the logjam?

The next threesome featured up-and-coming golfers looking for their 1st win ever (Choi and Kozuma) or 1st win on the LPGA (Mi Hyang Lee).  Kozuma had righted the ship after her mid-round stumbles and had made 6-straight pars as she headed into the 18th at -11.  Lee had followed up her birdie on 14 with 3-straight pars to keep pace with the JLPGA’s last hope for a homegrown winner.  But Choi had bogeyed the par-4 15th and needed a birdie on 18 or walkoff bogeys by her playing partners to have a hope of winning.  In the end, all 3 parred out, making it 8 golfers at -10–and 2 at -11.

Would anyone in the final group be able to beat Lee and Kozuma?  Davies couldn’t do it, as she finished with 5-straight pars to become the 9th player to end the week at -10.  After her rough start, Suzuki had fought back to -9 with 2 holes to play, but parred out.  Ilhee Lee got it to -12 with a birdie on the long par-5 16th, but she ended her 38-hole bogey-free run with a bogey on 17.  Could she birdie 18 for the win?  Would she join Webb and Uehara in the walkoff bogey club?  Nope, she parred it to join the playoff with Kozuma and Mi Hyang Lee.

And what a playoff it was!  They played the tough 18th over and over…and over.  All pars the 1st go-round…and the 2nd.  All birdies the 3rd.  All pars the 4th.  Finally Mi Hyang Lee prevailed with her 2nd birdie of the playoff on the 5th go-round!

If you had told me at the start of the week that Stacy Lewis, Na Yeon Choi, and Sun-Ju Ahn would finish outside the top 30 and Bo-Mee Lee, Ji-Yai Shin, Misuza Narita, Teresa Lu, and Mirim Lee would struggle to make the top 20, I would have told you that anyone could walk away with the victory (and that I’d be in contention for the wooden spoon, the cellar-dweller’s prize in SeoulSisters.com’s PakPicker, this week!).  In the midst of Morgan Pressel, Chella Choi, and Na-Ri Lee putting on a ball-striking exhibition, Ai Suzuki and Ayako Uehara putting on a putting exhibition, and Laura Davies and Karrie Webb showing the kids a thing or two, Mi Hyang Lee, Ilhee Lee, and Kotono Kozuma showed us all that you don’t need to have a big name or a huge resume to create a lot of drama.  Mi Hyang Lee’s 2nd win of 2014 will move her up my ranking of the top 22 under 22 on major women’s professional tours.  Congratulations to Lee and condolences to everyone she surpassed!

[Update 1 (5:39 am):  Sunday was a day of playoffs, as Min Sun Kim broke through for her 1st career KLPGA victory and Lee-Anne Pace made it 3 Ws in her last 3 starts!]