Congratulations to Mika Miyazato on her 1st career LPGA victory at the Safeway Classic! She played near-flawless golf for 44 holes, but had to gut it out over her last 10 after some hiccups midway through her final round gave new life to those chasing her.
Her problems started when she missed a 4-foot birdie attempt on the par-5 9th. Had she made it, she would have gotten to -14 and extended her lead on playing partner So Yeon Ryu to 4 shots (and put together her 3rd-straight 34 on the front!). As it was, her lead remained 3 over Ryu and Haeji Kang. No harm, no foul, right? It certainly seemed so when Mikan put herself in great position to get it right back with a birdie on the par-5 10th. She had a 25-yard wedge shot from a perfect position in the fairway, but babied the pitch and left it on the fringe 25 feet short of the pin. From there, she decided to run a wedge, but carried it too far and put it more than 10 feet by the hole. When she missed her par save and Ryu made her birdie, all of a sudden her lead was just 1. And it looked like it was going to disappear on the par-3 11th when she pushed her tee shot right toward the water hazard that gives the Ghost Creek course its name. But it landed right of the creek and got a huge bounce up and left into the rough just shy of the fringe, only 20 feet from the pin. It looked like that would be the break that turned her round back around, but she actually had a terrible lie and when she babied her chip, it didn't make it past the top of a ridge and rolled back away from the flag, ending up at least 30 feet from the hole. That's when Mikan made the putt that saved the tournament for her, a fantastic par save that never deviated from the center of the cup, prompting the most excited reaction I've ever seen from her.
Still, even though she put those 3 terrible chips behind her and seemingly righted her ship after the roller-coaster ride of the previous 3 holes, she couldn't do more than hang in there with par after par over the next several holes. And the sharks continued circling her life boat. Ryu matched her par for par early on the back, staying within 1 shot of the lead. Kang got it to -11 when she birdied the par-3 16th. Cristie Kerr was hanging around at -9 for most of the back 9. And Brittany Lincicome and Inbee Park were putting it into overdrive as Mikan was stuck in neutral. But then, amazingly--some might say, impossibly--the sharks blinked. Kang doubled the drive-able par-4 17th and even a fantastic final-hole birdie left her with a 66 for the day and a -10 total for the week. Ryu bogeyed the par-5 16th, unable to take advantage of her distance off the tee relative to Mikan. Kerr, one of the best putters on tour, had trouble getting her putts to drop on the back 9 and had to settle for a -10 total. Park drove the 17th and had a 10-foot putt for eagle to leap into a tie for the lead, but this fantastic putter, who couldn't miss a thing in the final round of her win at the Evian Masters a few Sundays ago, missed this one and failed to birdie 18. Yes, she had birdied 5 of her last 11 holes--just as Lincicome before her birdied 5 of her last 12 holes--but both just ran out of real estate and finished at -11.
So when Ryu birdied 16 to join them and give herself a great chance to win her 2nd LPGA tournament in a row, Mikan came to the 17th tee with a slim 1-shot lead on a trio of major winners. All she did was hit a perfect hybrid right into the neck of the fairway, just to the left of the green. And all she had to do was hit a great little wedge--exactly the kind of shot that had given her so much trouble on the 10th and 11th holes. But this time, she put it close and she made the putt for birdie to get back to -13. When Ryu couldn't match it, Mikan had extended her lead to 2 shots, right where it had been at the start of the day. And when Mikan split the fairway and Ryu pushed her drive into the water hazard to the right, all she had to do was keep her approach shot away from the pond guarding the front-right side of the 18th green. Fittingly, she faced yet another tricky chip from the rough when she hit such a solid shot that it ran through the back left fringe. After a long wait (Ryu had hit her 3rd shot into the back-left gallery and did well to save a bogey with a great chip-in after powering her previous pitch nearly into the pond!), Mikan chipped it to within a foot and tapped in for the win.
And what a great win it was. Mikan not only had to go from cruising--a 40-hole bogey-free run from the 7th hole Friday to the 9th hole Sunday during which she made 11 birdies--to grinding, but she also had to bounce back from some heart-stoppingly bad pitches and chips in the midst of final-9 pressure with the tournament on the line. She missed more greens in her final 10 holes than she had in her 1st 2 rounds, but managed to limit the damage to only 1 bogey (her 2nd of the tournament). She definitely earned the win on a day when players much more accustomed to the LPGA winner's circle just couldn't put enough pressure on her.
There were certainly a lot of other great stories this week. It was great to see Brittany Lincicome, Ya Ni Tseng, Michelle Wie, and Jee Young Lee playing good golf again (the bombers strike back!), exciting to see Sydnee Michaels and Haeji Kang experience being near the top of the leaderboard on the weekend, difficult to watch Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer struggle with the burden of being winless since 2010 while trying to get into the hunt this week, great to see Kang, Michaels, and Lizette Salas get the best finishes of their careers, and nice to see Ai Miyazato close with a 67 to sneak into the top 20. Stacy Lewis was flat this week, but she held onto the top spot on the money list. Still, with 6 golfers already across the $1M barrier, Azahara Munoz poised to cross it, and Mikan and Ryu not far behind her, Lewis's lead is a slim one. About half a stroke separates the 1st (Ai Miyazato) from the 10th (Ya Ni Tseng) player in the race for the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average. Lewis's lead of 21 points over Ya Ni Tseng in the Player of the Year race is ample in comparison.
But the big story is that Mika Miyazato has put herself smack into the middle of all these races with her win yesterday. She's 8th on the money list, 9th in scoring average, and 6th on the POY ranking. Now the burden of being the best golfer on the LPGA without a win on tour falls squarely on the strong shoulders of Amy Yang. Big hitters tend to win the CN Canadian Women's Open--maybe it'll be her turn next week?