Looking Back: A historic Sunday at Aronimink for Sei Young Kim
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – On the LPGA, it’s time to rework that Best Player Never To Win A Major list. South Korea’s Sei Young Kim didn’t just scratch her name off the top of that roll on Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, she tore the paper into tiny shreds and then ran it through the shredder three times.
Kim, 27, already a 10-time winner on the LPGA and ranked seventh in the world heading into the week, captured her first major in resounding, slam-the-door, Big Statement fashion. Just how good was Kim? She was seven-birdie, no-bogey, 63 good, posting the round of the championship at Aronimink Golf Club (and tying the low score in LPGA Championship history, which dates to 1963). At 14-under 266, Kim was all-time tournament record good (Betsy King, 1992, 267).
Inbee Park, who owns seven majors and has inspired so many South Korean stars to follow her path, started a historic Sunday at Aronimink three shots back, played virtually mistake-free, shot 5-under 65 … and lost by five. Yes, that’s how good Sei Young Kim was.
“I’m so excited,” Kim said afterward. “I’m actually really hiding my tears at the moment. It was a major that I really wanted, so (I’m) very excited and happy that I got it done.”
And relieved. Yes, truly relieved. Add that, too. Kim has had close calls at the majors before (as runner-up to Park at the KPMG in 2015, and tying for second at Evian in 2018). As her caddie of six years, Paul Fusco, made his way to the tented scoring area after the round, dripping in champion’s champagne, one word pretty much summed up the scene.
“Finally!,” he said. “Finally!”
Yes, finally. Kim captured the biggest check in the history of women’s golf last November in Florida, earning $1.5 million at the CME Group Tour Championship. That was big. That was significant for the bank account, for sure. But this was something different. Something major. Something Kim had daydreamed about winning majors since her days as a little girl in South Korea, when she was watching Se Ri Pak win big tournaments in the late 1990s.
“Winning CME was great,” Kim said. “It was really thrilling. But winning this one, it feels like a dramatic accomplishment to myself. So I’m very happy.”
Having started the day with a two-shot advantage over Canada’s Brooke Henderson and Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist and a three-shot cushion over Park, Kim coaxed in a 7-footer to scramble for a par save on the par-4 second hole and had an inkling she might be onto something special. She was right. Soon, the birdies would arrive by the bushel.
Park played brilliantly, trying to do what she could to apply pressure, but with every birdie, Kim had an answer and more. Park birdied the difficult first hole and added another at the fifth. Kim birdied the fourth and sixth. Park lipped out a birdie try from 15 feet at the ninth; playing one group behind, Kim stuffed an uphill pitch from 60 yards to 2 feet. Both turned in 32. Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, who forced a playoff in this event two years ago despite starting the final day nine shots back, did her best to push Kim, too. An eagle at the first hole – she holed a 5-iron from 188 yards – and an outward 4-under 31 barely nibbled into Kim’s lead. Hataoka shot 64, tying for third with Spain’s Carlota Ciganda, who closed with 65. Kim finished seven shots clear of them.
Kim was pedal-down on Sunday, and Fusco said for the first time in the six years the two have worked together, Kim took control and “owned it.” She asked for basic information and took over from there, and read most all of her own putts, just as Fusco was hoping he would one day see. It was like seeing a bird fly for the first time. Like Kim, Fusco, who has been part of 26 victories on the PGA Tour and LPGA, was landing his first major.
How “on” was Kim? Of her seven birdies, the longest of the bunch was 10 feet. Pre-tournament at venerable Aronimink, which stretched to nearly 6,600 yards, players were predicting a winning score just a few strokes under par. Kim destroyed that. She made 23 birdies; next closest was Park, with 16.
“When she’s on, nobody beats her, in my mind,” Fusco said. “When she’s confident? I mean, somebody can have a good day and beat her, that’s always going to happen. Most times, she’s awesome. When she’s on, she’s a good putter. I just don’t see her losing to anybody. She’s fearless. Once she gets her confidence, it’s ‘go.’ ”
The last of Park’s seven majors came in 2015. At the KPMG Women’s PGA that year, Kim was chasing her on the final day. Park started the day at Westchester Country Club up two shots, shot 68, and pulled away to win by five. (Sound familiar?) Another major for Park. Kim went back to working, and kept searching. Park, who won Olympic gold in 2016, has played quite nicely in the big tournaments this season, but has no trophy to show for it. Sunday was one of those days when you pretty much play your best and just get beat. Thoroughly.
“Sei Young was just really untouchable,” Park said. “That’s how a champion plays a final round. It was good to see that.”
Park awoke early Sunday with a sore neck, but she was ready to go. The only work she might have left undone in the final round was failing to birdie either of Aronimink’s par 5s. But that is sort of nitpicking. She figured if she went and shot 65 or 66 she’d have a chance. But 65, which had been the tournament low into Sunday, barely got Park into the picture frame.
Kim became the 18th South Korean player to win a major championship, and South Koreans now have accounted for 32 women’s majors in total. Kim was elated and relieved to know that her name will now be included with the rest. It was the middle of the night back home in Korea, but Kim was able to get on a video call with her father. She said she couldn’t wait to get home and hug her parents.
There will be others to hug, too. Finally, she’s a major winner. Break out the bubbly.
“What we do is just a great thing,” Park said of the major prowess of Korea’s female golfers, “and obviously Sei Young has made a lot of people happy this morning.”
It’s always nice to see dreams come to fruition.