BETHESDA — In Gee Chun led wire-to-wire in winning her first Women’s PGA Championship at Congressional Country Club Sunday.
But that wire, which was as taut as a frozen rope for rounds one and two became a meandering ribbon by the end of the weekend. A ribbon that ran the gamut of emotions for Chun and playing partner Lexi Thompson under the beating Maryland sun — frustration, self-doubt, relief, and steadiness all included.
The final emotions walking off the 18th green of the Blue Course for the two represented the alpha and omega of the professional golf spectrum: Elation and heartbreak.
“Golf is never easy,” Chun said, laughing. “Still, I can’t believe I made the win. That’s why I feel really emotional now.”
The South Korean finished the week 5-under, posting back-to-back rounds of 75 (after a course-record 64 on Thursday and 69 on Friday on the par-72 track) to outlast Thompson and Australia’s Minjee Lee by one stroke.
“I’m just so happy to make a win after all that happened,” she said. “I just want to keep saying, ‘I’m so proud of myself.’”
Thompson was excruciatingly close to her second major victory and her first in 14 years. She held the lead on 13 of the day’s 18 holes, taking advantage of some misses on the green by Chun. Her round, however, went somewhat similar to another major she led: Last year’s heartbreak in the U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club.
A two-shot lead on the field after a birdie on the par-5 11th was negated by bogeys on four of the next six holes. Two of them — on 16 and 17 — came after the Floridian missed putts for par inside of two feet. A birdie from Chun at the 16th, one of only two for her round, brought her back into a tie for the lead with Thompson.
“My caddie, Dean [Herdon], said, ‘In Gee, don’t try too hard. Just trust what you see.’” Chun said. “Then just [rolled the ball] slowly, and it was in.”
Trailing by a stroke after the miss on 17, Thompson had one more chance to tie and force a playoff. Chun gave her an opening by sailing her second shot to the back of the green after a divot lie.
But after reaching the 18th green in regulation from the right rough, Thompson’s 10-foot birdie putt missed the cup. And Chun left her comeback putt from the fringe within four feet of the hole, which she poured in to win the championship.
“I tried to keep … good focus until I finished it. Then I trusted that I can make a good finish,” Chun said.
For Thompson, it’s her 13th runner-up finish in the 51 events since her last win, the 2019 ShopRite LPGA Classic. Visibly crushed by how her tournament ended, she was consoled by her caddie Will Davidson as they rode away from the course in a golf cart, and did not speak with reporters following her round.
“I think every player when they are playing golf and when they play from the last group on the last day, everyone has pressure. So I thought this pressure is not just on me,” Chun said of Thompson’s round.
Thompson made her charge from the opening hole, posting birdie-par-birdie on the first three holes. She outdrove her playing partners on Nos. 1 and 3, and made an even number on the par-3 2nd after bogeying the hole the previous three rounds.
With Chun bogeying that hole for the first time all week — she’d birdied it otherwise — along with Thompson’s charge, the two were tied for the lead at 7-under headed to No. 4, and then some cracks began to show in the South Korean’s game.
Chun would also bogey the 4th (par 4), 6th and 9th (both par 5s) to finish the front at 4-over, losing those strokes not from wayward tee shots but on the green. Chun deliberated at length on every putt, enough that it earned her and the group a warning to speed up play but not enough to put more than one circle through her first 11 holes.
“First nine holes I got a lot of pressure,” Chun said. “So to be honest, I couldn’t enjoy playing golf.”
Thompson also had some struggles before the turn. She found the rough on both front-side par 5s, but rolled a putt from the thick grass beyond the green on 6 to within three feet and finished for par. Coupled with Chun’s bogey, she reached 7-under.
Then on No. 9, her second shot settled in the rough near the ropes on the right side of the fairway. Facing an uphill lie, Thompson got her third shot up-and-on within feet of the hole to avoid dropping a stroke.
“I’m a player too, so when I see someone miss a short putt, my heart is hurt too because I understand,” Chun said.
For Chun, it’s three career majors in four LPGA Tour wins and a $1.35 million dollar prize, the largest in this tournament’s history and the second biggest to date at a tour event. After being open about her mental health struggles — she’s borne the brunt of unfortunate criticism from some fans in her golf-crazed homeland and her sister encouraged her to quit the game in a tearful phone call last week — this emotional win helped affirm her desire to continue to play.
“I think, ‘In Gee, never give up, then you can get something.’” Chun said. “Just don’t crack under pressure, or just keep doing what you want because from here I said I want to see the big picture.”
“Just trying to keep going to catch my goal. No matter what people said.”
• George Gerbo can be reached at email@example.com.
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