Rookie finishes birdie-birdie, makes another in a playoff, to win first LPGA title at Lotte Championship
Australia's Grace Kim poses with the trophy after winning the Lotte Championship in a playoff.
Sean M. Haffey
Opportunities to win a first LPGA Tour title are rare. Even more unusual is to have three potential first-timers in a playoff for that maiden victory. Yet, on Saturday in the Lotte Championship, Grace Kim, Yu Liu and Yu Jin Sung were in that position after finishing at 12 under par. And it was the Australian rookie, Kim, who made the playoff only one hole, birdieing to win her first LPGA event at Hoakalei Golf Club outside of Honolulu.
"I'm still speechless that it's kind of done already and I got the job done,” Kim said. “So, yeah, mind is kind of busy, I would say.”
Kim made her first final group in only her third LPGA start as a member, posting a four-under 68 to get into the playoff. She got to the 17th hole, playing as the hardest on the course, at 10 under and needed to shoot two under over the remaining two holes to match Liu, the clubhouse leader who finished five groups in front of Kim and Sung, who shot 69. Showing veteran poise despite limited LPGA experience, the 22-year-old Kim delivered with back-to-back birdies.
"I'm pretty surprised at myself how not nervous I was, if that makes sense," said Kim, who was ranked 178th in the Rolex Official World Rankings heading into the week.
In the playoff at the par-5 18th, Kim ended up nearest to the flag, at five feet for birdie. Sung essentially took herself out of the hole by needing four shots to get onto the green, while Liu sat near 10 feet for birdie. After both Sung and Liu missed their putts, Kim rolled in hers for the win.
The Australian, who turned pro in late 2021, played alongside Sung, a 22-year-old South Korean who held the 54-hole lead. Sung was a non-member sponsor's invite, meaning that her only way into the season’s first major, next week’s Chevron Championship, was a victory. She would've been the first sponsor's invite to win since Lydia Ko in 2013 at the CP Women's Open. Despite the pressure, the KLPGA's 2022 Lotte Open winner seemed calm down the stretch, touching up her makeup before teeing off on the 18th and making a birdie to get into the playoff. She walked away upbeat and confident the next go-around would go her way.
"Very [good] introduction and very good experience, but very closer to win. I have to next time get this [win]," Sung said.
Liu set the 12-under mark with her career-best, bogey-free eight-under 64. She started Saturday at T-15 and five back of Sung. The native of China birdied four of her first five to charge up the leaderboard. The 185th player in the world watched four potential first-time winners try to catch her while she stayed loose on the driving range.
“I felt pretty overachieved today,” Liu said. “If I knew starting off the day I would end up in a playoff, I would be definitely very happy.”
Peiyun Chien had the first shot at catching the clubhouse leader. The 32-year-old's eagle attempt from the greenside bunker at 18 trickled just left of the cup. Linnea Strom's eight-foot birdie putt broke right just in front of the hole, leaving the four-year veteran a stroke out of joining the playoff.
Kim emerged from the crowded aspirational leaderboard and joined a heralded group of players to win the Lotte Championship. Since the tournament's inception in 2012, every winner has become the No. 1 player in the world (Ai Miyazato) and/or won a major title (Suzann Pettersen, Michelle Wie West, Sei Young Kim, Minjee Lee, Cristie Kerr, Brooke Henderson, Lydia Ko, Hyo Joo Kim).
In addition, Kim joins Minjee Lee, Karrie Webb and Hannah Green as Aussie winners on the tour. She beamed with pride about joining her countrywoman idols.
"I think [the win] really just puts the cherry on top of my career," Kim said, "I know it's just the beginning, but seeing how much they really motivated me to get here, it's really exciting."