Posted: July 11, 2015 10:23 pm
By the time she sank a second straight birdie putt on the 17th hole early Saturday afternoon, more than a murmur ran through the ever-growing gallery.
“That’s Choi,” someone said.
“That’s golf!” another exclaimed.
Indeed. Respective rounds of 71 and 73 Thursday and Friday at the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club had Chella Choi at 4-over and on the fringe of making the cut. By her round’s end Saturday she was tied for fifth, having flirted with history by firing a 64 that was one shot off the U.S. Women’s Open record set by Helen Alfredsson in 1994.
As it is, the South Korea native and Jacksonville, Florida, resident tied marks set by Kelli Kuehne, Lori Kane and Becky Iverson in 1999.
“I made birdies a lot today,” a smiling Choi told the media. “My putting was good.”
Good enough to burn up the course on this sunbaked Saturday. Wearing a bright yellow top, there was no mistaking her as she shot a 29 on the front nine, the lowest nine-hole score in U.S. Women’s Open history, courtesy of birdies on 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9. No. 8, she recalled, was “a really good birdie putt,” a five-footer that broke left-to-right.
Hole No. 8 at LCC is a par-3 measuring 198 yards. In reality, it plays some 15 yards longer, requiring a long iron or wood to the smallest green on the course. According to the course description it’s pitched dramatically from front to back and left to right, with the right side of the green defended by a deep bunker. It’s said that shots from the left of the green, as Choi made Saturday, require “a magician’s touch.”
For much of the day Choi was Merlin with her magic wands. She credited a new putter and said she also relied heavily on hybrids and low irons. One more weapon in her golf bag was the confidence gained from seeing her “29” on the board at the turn.
“Really confident,” she said.
Holes 10-13 brought mixed results — par, bogey, par, birdie. She saved par on 14 by chipping her bright-orange ball across the manicured green to within four feet of the cup and holing in from a pin-high lie. She was now at 6-under and the gallery, which included neighbors from Jacksonville, stirred excitedly as it moved along to 15, nicknamed the “Devil’s Elbow” due to a big dogleg-right.
“Wow. … She’s 6-under.”
“Get the heck out!”
Choi bogeyed 15 when her steep downhill putt found the cup but lipped out. She settled for a tap-in, and if she was bedeviled by the Devil’s Elbow, she didn’t show it. She birdied 16 and 17, and now a startling 7-under, she and her father/caddie Ji Yeon Choi and the sizable gallery strode to 18.
One spectator, puffing out cigar smoke and opinions in equal measure, said, “I don’t think this group anticipated this kind of following.”
From the Devil’s Elbow Choi and Co. proceeded to the Pearly Gates, the nickname for the par-4, 470-yard finishing hole. It’s so named, perhaps, because its prodigious length may require some divine intervention.
The 18th boasts a generous fairway but also a dramatic uphill hole. Because the green has more than seven feet of elevation change, putting can be as demanding as the tee shot.
Choi scraped the high sky with her drive and said she was not aware that history beckoned moments later when she methodically lined up her putt. She bogeyed the hole, but having shot the lowest third-round score in U.S. Women’s Open history, walked off with head held high as applause and sunshine washed over her.
“So exciting,” she said later. “So close.”
And, it should be added, so in contention for Sunday’s final round.