Will Sei Young Kim win her first major?
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Sei Young Kim knows what it’s like to capture the richest check in women’s golf, having earned $1.5 million when she holed an improbable 25-footer for birdie to win the LPGA’s CME Group Tour Championship in November. The 27-year-old South Korean golfer says she hasn’t really splurged on anything with the sudden windfall. She is “saving for the future.”
At the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the purse again is terrific ($4.3 million, with $645,000 reserved for Sunday’s winner), but it is prestige that Kim will be chasing this time. She owns 10 victories on the LPGA, none of them major championships, and widely is regarded as the top player on the circuit without one (Aussie Minjee Lee and American Nelly Korda also would be in the conversation). After a steady, third-round 3-under 67 at Aronimink Golf Club lifted Kim to a two-stroke lead heading into Sunday, perhaps that future is now.
Kim stands at 7-under 203 through 54 holes, two shots better than two players who already have their names on the KPMG trophy. For Anna Nordqvist and Brooke Henderson, those victories were life-changing. Nordqvist (68–205) won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship barely out of college, in 2009, in only her fifth start on the LPGA. Henderson (65–205) was even younger, winning the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA at 18 years old in Washington, at Sahalee.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’m a major champion, but definitely in times like these it gives me a little bit of confidence,” Henderson said. “I’m excited to troy to do it again tomorrow.”
Kim finished off her brilliant 5-under 65 Friday on the front nine, and Saturday morning was right back out there picking up where’d she’d left off, pouring in birdies. Over the second and third rounds on the front, she has made 10 birdies (four on Saturday), more than many players have made on the entire course for the week.
“Birdies,” Kim said, “build my confidence.”
Nordqvist and Henderson exited Aronimink on Saturday feeling pretty good about their games, too. Nordqvist, 33, made two bogeys in her final seven holes, including a bogey-5 at 18 when her approach bounded over the firm green and she failed to get up and down. She still signed for 68, a solid effort. Henderson’s round was blemish-free. Five birdies and not a single bogey.
Henderson, 23, turned at 4-under 31, a nine made possible by a great opening par save after hitting her opening tee shot into a bad lie in the rough. She was short of the uphill par 4 in two and negotiated a tricky up and down over a couple of ridges to make par, rolling in a 7-footer. (“It was a nice way to start,” she said.) Then she was off and running. She birdied five of her next 11 holes.
Henderson has built a quality record at KPMG. In addition to winning in 2016, she was a runner-up in 2017 (to Danielle Kang) and has two other top-6 finishes.
“I just have so many great memories of playing in this event,” Henderson said, “and every year I feel like I love the golf courses. They’re just beautiful, and I feel like maybe they suit my eye every year, which is a great feeling. And, yeah, I’m just happy to be more on track than I was last year at this time (she finished T-30).”
Lurking three shots behind Kim is Inbee Park, who doesn’t hit it long, but has hit laser-like 3-wood and 5-wood approaches on many of Aronimink’s longer par 4s to stay in contention. Park’s last major was in 2015, and she contemplated retiring at one point, but she was reenergized after winning a gold medal in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Saturday, Park, 32, seeking to tie Mickey Wright with four LPGA Championship titles, shot her best round of the week, a 2-under 68. Her experience will be a great asset on Sunday.
“I didn’t know I would be out here still, but I’m still here, and I’m just really proud of myself that I can still put myself in contention at a major championship,” Park said. “I’m really proud of myself for doing that. But raising another trophy is a really, really different story, and something I would always remember.”
Saturday’s scoring average of 71.66 (par is 70) was the lowest of the week. Contenders Henderson (fourth), Kim (seventh) and Park (ninth) all rank among the top 10 players in the world. Nordqvist is ranked 75th. And three of the top four have the experience and accompanying good vibes of already winning the KPMG. Kim wants to know that feeling, too. Winning will not be easy. Experience will factor in.
Faced with an early television window (a scheduled 2 p.m. finish), Sunday’s leaders will tee off earlier than normal. Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s Chief Championships Officer, has implemented a reverse horseshoe tee time system in which the leaders will not tee off last. Threesomes will go off on two tees, with Kim, Nordqvist and Henderson slated to go at 8:49 a.m. There are three groupings behind them. Park is playing with Mina Harigae and rookie Bianca Pagdanganan (back-to-back 65s) at 8:38 a.m.
“Well, I’m not really a morning person,” Park said, smiling.
She’ll be fine. The tournament finish has great potential to be tight and exciting.
“It’s a great feeling knowing my name is on that trophy,” Nordqvist said, “but I really can’t focus too much ahead. I’m just trying to stay in the moment and stick to my game plan. I mean, there’s a lot of good golfers up there, and there’s been a few good rounds, so anything can happen tomorrow.”
Can Kim hold on? Can she finally land that first major? At Aronimink, that seems to be the million-dollar question. Or is it $1.5 million?