In Gee Chun talks through an interpreter in a press conference after winning the 2015 U.S. Open at Lancaster Country Club Sunday. (Photo/Blaine Shahan)

Mike Gross: Rookie In Gee Chun was already well-prepared for this day

Posted: July 13, 2015 1:06 am

Of the top 25 female golfers in the world, 12 are from South Korea, and none of them is better evidence of that country’s golfing eminence than In Gee Chun, U.S. Women’s Open champion.

Chun is 20. She doesn’t even play the LPGA Tour (yet). She is, in essence, a minor-leaguer. A blue-chip prospect and surely not long for the minors, but a minor-leaguer nonetheless.

In her first major championship, she couldn’t have been more ready.

The drama got wild here late Sunday, after simmering for three-plus days. As the dynamite lit, on the middle of the back nine of the final round, Chun was tied for the lead with Amy Yang and Stacy Lewis, all at 6-under par.

Yang and Lewis played together in the final group and, by conventional thinking, were ready to decide it at, effectively, match play.

Chun birdied the par-4 15th, which had been the toughest hole for the field Sunday. The final two butchered it, Lewis gouging a double-bogey from the rough and exiting the stage, and Yang making a struggling bogey.

On 16, the USGA had moved the tee way up, making it drivable. Good idea. Chun drove it in a greenside bunker and made birdie. Yang got it on the green and made eagle.

As Yang was doing that, Chun was stuffing a nervy five-iron to within five feet of a tucked pin at the par-3 17th. Yang’s crowd cheered her as Chun — who’s known as Dumbo for her acute hearing — stepped to her putt. She stepped away, took her time, and drilled it.

Both players drove left, into hopeless rough, at 18. Both whacked out way short, pitched well, and barely missed putts in the 8-10 foot range.

Dumbo was a champion.

This looked for a long time like Yang’s breakthrough. She is a ball-striker, and she was rock-solid most of the day. Then she became a Molotov cocktail, playing the last five holes bogey, bogey, eagle, birdie, bogey.

Chun led the field in greens in regulation, 62 of 72. Her Sunday 66 included birdies on the 69th, 70th, and 71st holes of her first major championship. Strong, strong stuff.

On paper, Chun joins the pantheon of unlikely winners of major championships, led by teenage caddie Francis Ouimet in the 1913 men’s open and including Birdie Kim, who won the 2005 Women’s Open and no other tour event, before or since.

Kim’s Open was the first Chun ever saw, at television, at home in rural Korea at age 10.

Chun is the product of something powerful. She is from a family of very modest means, but they have found a way, within a helping culture, to foster their daughter’s talents and fund her dream.

Dean Herden, a burly Australian tour veteran caddie who was working for Chun for the first time, wrote a recent article on Korean golf for Golf Digest’s European edition. He describes what amounts to a minor-league system.

“It’s support from the parents and all that, but I really think it’s the Korean system,” he said, holding two bottles of something celebratory in brown-paper bags someone had handed him.

“There’s three levels of it, and it’s developmental. There’s the “jump,” level (16 tournaments) and the step-up (22) and then the main tour.

“By the time they get over here, they’re ready. They’ve dealt with sponsors, they’ve played the pro-ams. They know how to do it.”

Herden has worked for Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu. He has 40-some worldwide wins and four majors, but said this one might be his favorite.

“Because of (Chun’s) age, and what she’s come from,” he said. “Because of this golf course. It’s a great one. I feel I caddied my (butt) off.”

Chun did come to America early this year, with a group of Korean players, to play in a few LPGA events and work with her coach and interpreter, Dr. Won Park.

She has now won five tournaments worldwide this year, and is an established star in Korea, where her fan club, 700 strong, wears yellow hats with “Dumbo” on them. There will be thousands waiting to greet her in the Seoul airport when she gets back.

With Sunday’s triumph, Chun can join the LPGA Tour immediately, or at the beginning of next season. Herden will work for her again at the Women’s British Open at Turnberry in two weeks. After that, his understanding is that she was obligated to go back to the KLPGA, at least for the rest of the year.

Chun said, through Park, that she isn’t so sure.

“I’ll think about it. I’ll talk about it with my parents and my coach, and I’ll let you know.”