Lydia Ko couldn’t close it out at the New Zealand Women’s Open. Playing on home soil to a crowd that was cheering and tweeting her every shot, making an heroic effort to override the effects of a stomach virus that sent her to the hospital between rounds, the superb young athlete played an astonishingly controlled, come-from-behind game that at the 17th hole put her within one shot of a playoff with South Korean Mi Hyang Lee. But Ko couldn’t convert the 18th hole from a par to a birdie. Lee’s slim lead held and her hours of agonized waiting while the last group finished culminated in her first pro victory.
The Winner: A Profile
Newly minted champion Mi Hyang Lee is Rolex Ranked No. 256. She’s been playing on the LPTA Tour since 2012 and the New Zealand Open is her first pro win or top-10 finish. The 21-year old’s best finish prior to her New Zealand win was at the 2013 Evian Championship, where she ended in a tie for 19th place.
Lee’s first and second rounds at the New Zealand Open were unremarkable and she started the final round at even par, 8 shots off the lead. Then she had the round every golfer dreams of having, and she did it at the most opportune time. She fired a course record 9-under 63, glided past everyone on the board, finished her round well ahead of the last group, and waited in the clubhouse for more than an hour as the leaders — Lydia Ko, Beth Allen, and Anya Alvarez — tried to catch her, and ultimately failed.
Beth Allen and Anya Alvarez stayed in contention to the end.
Alvarez, a member of the LPGA’s 2014 rookie class, doesn’t even have a Rolex Rank yet! But Anya Alvarez played a sturdy, steady game of golf at the Clearwater Golf Club and held her own in a shot-by-shot contest with Lydia Ko. Alvarez held the lead by 2 shots going into the final round. When she bogeyed 8 and then 9, she and Ko, who were playing in the final group along with LET player, American Beth Allen, were even.
Allen, who plays on the LET, started the final round at -6, trailing Alvarez’s lead by 2 shots. At the turn she was still trailing, but then her putter got hot and she fired a string of birdies that brought her even with Alvarez and within reach of the lead.
Alvarez and Allen both failed to reach the 18th green in regulation, failed in their attempts to chip in from off the green, bogeyed the hole and tumbled back a place. Ko missed a birdie putt, made par, and stayed in 2nd place.
Australians Sarah-Jane Smith and Bree Arthur ended the Open at -5, sharing 6th place with Frenchwoman Marion Ricordeau, and Nikki Campbell finished just below them, at -4, with a share of 9th place. All three are in the field for next week’s RACV Women’s Australian Masters, so New Zealand may have served as their warm-up.
South Korea was also well-represented in the top finishers. In addition to My Hyang Lee, Seonwoo Bae finished at -7 and with a share of third place, alongside the Americans Beth Allen and Anya Alvarez.
The girls will play next at the RACV Women’s Australian Masters, February 6-9, and then at Women’s Australian Open February 13-16 in Victoria, Australia. The Australian Open, with a $1.2 millions purse, is the first of several 2014 events co-sanctioned by the LPGA, LET, and ALPG, and the field is filled with women’s pro golf luminaries, absent Inbee Park. Golf Channel will provide coverage and I’ll preview the fields for both events.