CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – She gave herself the nickname "Birdie" to distinguish herself from the other girls on the LPGA Tour. All it took was one shot — one spectacular birdie from the bunker — to make Birdie Kim (search) a most unlikely U.S. Women's Open champion Sunday.
Going shot-for-shot with 17-year-old Morgan Pressel (search) in a tense duel at Cherry Hills, the 23-year-old South Korean was trying to get close for par when she holed a 30-yard bunker shot from across the 18th green, raising her arms as the ball disappeared in the back of the cup.
Pressel, poised to become the youngest major champion in golf history, was walking up the fairway in the group behind when she saw the reaction of the record gallery. She put both hands over her head in disbelief, realizing her dream of winning was all but gone.
Kim's victory put an end to Annika Sorenstam's (search) pursuit of a Grand Slam, and it put the kids in their place. Even so, her victory might have been even more shocking.
In two years on the LPGA Tour, she had made only 10 cuts in 34 starts. Her career earnings were $79,832.
A shot that ranks among the most dramatic in golf gave her a 1-over 72 and a two-shot victory over a pair of teenage amateurs — Pressel, who went for broke on her birdie chip and made a bogey to shoot 75; and 19-year-old Brittany Lang (search), who missed an 8-foot par putt on the final hole for a 71.
It was the only birdie on the 18th hole in two days, a 459-yard par 4 that requires a daunting tee shot over water and an uphill climb the final 180 yards.
Kim finished at 3-over 287 and earned $560,000, the biggest payoff in women's golf.
"I can't believe it," she said. "I don't think I was going to make it. I was trying my best to make par."
She played as Ju-Yun Kim as a rookie last year, but decided to go by "Birdie" this season to stand out from the other five players with Kim as a surname on the LPGA Tour.
"I wanted something different, something simple and easy," she said at the start of the season. "Birdie is good in golf, and it's good for me."
It was better than she ever imagined on a sun-baked afternoon at Cherry Hills, which ultimately came down to a battle for survival. This was the first time the Women's Open champion was over par since 1998 at Blackwolf Run, when Se Ri Pak won in a playoff after finishing at 6 over.
This one looked destined for a playoff.
Separated by one group, Kim and Pressel were tied at 4 over with two holes to play. Both gave themselves a good chance at birdie on the par-5 17th, missing from about 20 feet.
With Pressel in the fairway behind her, Kim needed to get up-and-down for any chance of a playoff — a tall order considering she ranked 141st in sand saves coming into the Open.
But the shot came out clean, checked slightly and rode the slope toward the hole.
Pressel, who stayed in contention as fellow teens Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer wilted, chipped well past the hole. She tossed her wedge at the bag, removed her glove and slapped it against her thigh.
Crouching behind the green after it was over, she wiped away tears. Sorenstam came out of the clubhouse and gave Pressel a long hug before she went to sign her card.
Sorenstam tried to drive the first green and made bogey from the hazard, and fell even further behind. She wound up with a 6-over 77 and finished at 12-over 296 — the first time in four years she finished over par in a 72-hole event.
It was a stunning conclusion to a brutal final round in which the field averaged 76.1 and there was only one round under par, a 69 by Lorie Kane of Canada.
Arnold Palmer made Cherry Hills famous in the 1960 U.S. Open for his charge from seven shots behind. This was more of a retreat, a battle to see who could survive.
Lorena Ochoa of Mexico had cause to feel even worse than Pressel.
She was 3 under for the round and 3 over for the tournament — a likely winning score — until the pressure got the best of her and she chunked her tee shot into the water on the 18th, making a quadruple-bogey 8 to finish four shots behind.
"I fought so hard for 71 holes and just the last one, you know," Ochoa said, as tears welled in her eyes. "I feel really sad. That's the way golf is."