__BARRINGTON, R.I.—__No matter the outcome of Sunday's final match at the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship, some sort of history will be made at Rhode Island CC.
Should 17-year-old__Moriya Jutanugarn__ walk off with the Robert Cox Trophy, she will join younger sister Ariya, winner of the U.S. Girls' Junior title last month, as the first siblings to claim victories in USGA events in the same calendar year.
Should 18-year-old__Danielle Kang__, though, outlast Jutanugarn during the 36-hole finale, she will become the first repeat winner of the championship since__Kelli Kuehne__ did it in 1995-96 and only the fourth since World War II (joining Juli Inkster, 1980-82; and__Kay Cockerill__, 1986-87).
Neither player can say their place among the last two standing wasn't earned after dramatic performances in their respective semifinal matches, each winning by 1-up margins after holing short-but-scary par putts on the 18th hole.
Mind you, roughly an hour into Saturday's play, it looked as if the competition was going to be a dud. With a par and a birdie on the third and fourth holes, Kang took a 2-up lead on Brooke Pancake, who struggled to get her putter working. Similarly, Jutanugarn, a native of Thailand spending her second straight summer traveling with her family and playing tournaments in the U.S., took a 3-up lead on__Austin Ernst__ after three holes, making birdies on the first two holes.
Yet Kang, nursing a sore back and ribs, an injury that first occurred during a college event this spring and has re-surfaced in tournaments throughout the summer, struggled with her swing at times, pulling a handful of wayward shots to the left of her target and never being able to pull away from Pancake.
Friday night, after Kang experienced pain for the first time all week during her quarterfinal match earlier in the day, she went to see Dr. Ellen McNally, a chiropractor in nearby Providence. McNally gave Kang a back adjustment, at one point dislocated her shoulder and then relocating it to help loosen up the muscles.
Before the start of her match with Pancake Saturday, Kang had a trainer apply black therapeutic tape from her neck (it was exposed about her shirt) all down the left side of her torso. "I kind of felt resistance all day [in my back]," Kang said. "It didn't hurt, but I was always just waiting for some pain to come with every shot."
Maintaining a 2-up on Pancake going to the 12th hole, Kang lost there with a bogey, then saw Pancake make her first birdie putt of the day with a five footer on the 14th hole to square the match.
A first-team All-American at Alabama, Pancake maintained her momentum when she made a 15-foot birdie on the 15th hole to take her first lead of the day. It was a wake-up call for Kang.
"When she went 1 up, I was like 'I'm not ready to lose today.' " Kang said. "I just decided I was going to swing as hard as I could no matter what."
The attitude adjustment proved helpful on the very next hole, when Kang made a 25-foot birdie putt to square the match again. The two halved the 17th with pars and each hit their drive in the right rough on the par-4, 392-yard 18th hole. Both also hit their second shots short of the green, stopping in the fairway while Kang's hung up in the rough.
Pancake's chip for her third shot came up 10 feet short of the hole, giving Kang an opening. Her chip came to rest about four feet from the hole, putting the pressure on Pancake to make her par putt. When Pancake's try missed to the left of the hole, Kang confident knocked her putt in to claim the victory.
"She's solid," Pancake said. "I would assume she probably feels like she has even better golf in her."
Interestingly, Jutanugarn was also dealing with an injury: pain in both of her wrists stemming from wear and tear during a busy summer of competition. You wouldn't have known it from the way she was playing against Ernst. In addition to her birdies on the opening two holes, Jutanugarn made birdies three more over the next six holes.
To her credit, Ernst the rising sophomore at LSU whose last tournament was her victory at the NCAA Championship in May, never gave up. With birdies of her own on the fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth holes. While still 2 down in the match, she felt like she had picked up some momentum.
"I knew I had to go right at the pins, that was going to be the only way to cut into the lead," Ernst said.
Perhaps a function of fatigue, Jutanugarn did begin to make a few loose swings, allowing Ernst the opportunity she needed to get back into the match. When Jutanugarn hit the ball into water on the 13th hole, Ernst won with a par to get to 1 down. Then on the 15th hole, Jutanugarn surprisingly pushed her drive right out of bounds. Ernst hit her approach shot on the hole to five feet, her conceded birdie squaring the match.
The two halved the 16th and 17th with pars. On 18, Ernst thought she had hit a good drive, but the breeze off the Narragansett Bay pushed the ball into the right rough. She advanced her second shot back into the fairway some 30 yards from the green then hit her third shot to 10 feet above the hole. Jutanugarn, meanwhile, was safely in the fairway and hit her second shot on the green, 20 feet from the hole. Her birdie putt missed to the left of the hole, rolling four feet by. But Ernst couldn't get her par putt to drop, letting Jutanugarn claim the victory when she snuck her par putt into the hole.
"I shot three under, that's the best I've played in match play all well," Ernst said. "She just beat me, which is how I want to lose. There's not much more I could have done today."
"I know she's really good," Jutanugarn said of her Sunday opponent, Kang. "I just want to do my best tomorrow."
That effort will be helped by having Ariya on her bag, littler sister having been caddieing for Moriya since she got knocked out of match play on Thursday. It's a reverse of what took place during the Girls Junior at Olympia Fields (Ill.) CC, when Moriya caddied for Ariya en route to her title.
"It's exciting for both of us," Ariya said. "We enjoy seeing each other play well. We really want to help one another."
With the weather forecast stating the potential for rain Sunday afternoon, the USGA decided to move up the tee times for Sunday's finale. The morning 18 holes, previously scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m., have been moved to 7:30. The afternoon round, meanwhile, will begin at noon, moved from the anticipated 1:30 p.m. starting time.