Monday, August 08, 2016

Eun Jeong Seong outlasts ailing Carta to win U.S. Women’s Amateur and make history

Eun Jeong Seong became the first player to win the U.S . Women's Amateur and Girls' Junior in the same year.
Eun Jeong Seong became the first player to win the U.S . Women's Amateur and Girls' Junior in the same year. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)
SPRINGFIELD, Pennsylvania – Eun Jeong Seong joked she was too tired to smile midway through the U.S. Women’s Amateur final. Nothing like making history to provide a sudden burst of energy. The 16-year-old South Korean beamed with pride as she became the first woman to claim both the U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur titles in the same year. She also became the youngest player in history to win three USGA titles. And she did in spectacular style.
“Today is different feeling because I make history,” she said. “It feels so amazing.”
On the men’s side, only Tiger Woods has won both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior, but not in the same year. Seong’s exclamation point on the 36th hole certainly seemed Tigeresque. With an ailing Virginia Elena Carta mounting a heroic comeback, Seong put a stop to it by draining a 40-foot birdie putt to win the match, 1 up.
“I was actually like ready to make one more putt on 18 to get to play a playoff hole,” said Carta, “but at the same time, she did a tremendous job, and clutching that putt was amazing, I think.”
Seong, already a two-time Girls’ Junior champion, became only the third woman to win two USGA championships in one year, joining Pearl Sinn (1988) and Jennifer Song (2009).
After finishing the morning session all square, the pair started a ping-pong match in the second round that had Seong constantly taking a 1-up advantage and then giving it away. Carta, a rising sophomore at Duke, fell 2 down on the 29th hole and then began feeling ill from the rising heat. The expressive Italian had a wet towel over her head as early as the 23rd hole and rotated between chugging water and Cokes throughout the afternoon.
After cutting her deficit to 1 hole on No. 13 (the 31st), Carta asked a rules official to take a short rest as her breathing became difficult. The rules allow for one 15-minute break. Carta laid down behind the 14th tee while medical staff checked her heart rate and loaded her up with Gatorade. She looked pale and weak, leaving many to wonder if she could continue.
“They said that probably I was dehydrated,” said Carta, “and that’s like unbelievable because I drank so much water.”
Seong said the break actually helped her regroup too, as she’d just lost the previous hole. She took the opportunity to practice her putting on the 13th green.
When they resumed play, Carta walked gingerly to the 14th tee to a round of applause. Feeling lightheaded, Carta had her caddie mark and replace her ball on the greens. She was shaking on her practice swings and over her putts.
But a 10-year-old Carta once passed out on the last hole of a tournament and still finished. It’s not in her nature to quit. She pressed on, and came to the 35th hole, 2 down. She’d likely need birdie to keep the match alive.
“I think it’s my personality,” said Carta of meeting the challenge. “I don’t want to give up no matter how it goes.”
Carta, the 2016 NCAA champion, knocked her second shot in the bunker on the penultimate par 5 and then hit her third shot long and over the green. She opted to leave the flagstick in as she putted up the hill and through the fringe from 30 feet off the green.
When the birdie putt dropped, Carta unleashed a mighty fist pump as the gallery roared.
“Virginia’s putt is so hard,” Seong later marveled. She began to shake too, only from nerves.
On the 18th green, Rolling Green staff stood around with platters of champagne glasses, poised to toast a winner. Carta faced about a 35-foot downhill putt for birdie to push the match into overtime. But first, Seong would make her attempt from 40 feet left of the hole.
The normally stoic Seong raised her hands when the putt fell and a group of fellow players rushed to douse her with water. Carta, in a fine show of sportsmanship, immediately clapped.
“I can’t forget today,” Seong said.
In a way, it was a moral victory for Carta to even push the match to the 36th hole, given her weak and unstable condition.
“I don’t think I actually lost the game, the match, the championship,” said Carta. “Of course I did not win it, but at the same time it’s not the same as saying I lost today.”
Seong petitioned the LPGA to attend qualifying school this year but was denied due to her age. (LPGA rules stipulate players must be 18.) She’ll try again next year, but now plans to stay amateur through the summer so that she can take advantage of major exemptions that come with being U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. One she’s particularly pleased about: the U.S. Women’s Open.
“I try five times,” she said of USWO qualifying. “But my mom last year, my mom said, you win Women’s Amateur and you got in.”
One year later, mission accomplished.