Chun smiles her way to historic second major title

By Randall MellSeptember 18, 2016, 6:24 pm

In Gee Chun sealed the deal Sunday winning the Evian Championship.

It’s officially the “Year of the Smile” in women’s golf.

If Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko leads the LPGA in smiles, Chun is a close second with Ariya Jutanugarn not far behind.

In fact, Jutanugarn may have become the first player to turn a smile into a practical device this year. She integrated a smile into her pre-shot routine back in April. She didn’t begin her tour best run of five victories this season until she began using a smile as a trigger to remind her to slow down and be confident before stepping over a shot.

Chun had more to smile about winning the Evian Championship Sunday than any player who ever teed it up in a major. She went lower over 72 holes in a major than any man or woman in history. With a dramatic par save at the last, Chun shot 69, posting a four-day total of 21 under, the lowest total in relation to par in major championship golf.

Evian Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I can’t believe I won the Evian Championship at 21 under,” Chun said. “I’m not dreaming, right?”

Chun finished a shot better than the 20-under total Henrik Stenson posted winning The Open Championship at Royal Troon this summer and a shot better than Jason Day posted winning the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits last year.

Chun’s total was two better than the women’s record shared by Dottie Pepper (1999 Kraft Nabisco), Karen Stupples (2004 Women’s British Open), Cristie Kerr (2010 LPGA Championship), Yani Tseng (2011 LPGA Championship) and Inbee Park (2015 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship).

Chun’s smile is apparently as integral to her game as it is to Jutanugarn’s.

“It’s the most important part of In Gee’s game,” Dr. Won Park, Chun’s coach, told

It’s a strong statement, given Park has helped Chun build one of the most elegant swings in the women’s game.

Park says Chun’s pre-shot routine is built on the idea of “flow,” of creating positive flow through her game. Her smile after shots, after plucking her ball from the cup and while acknowledging fans, is an integral part of that flow.

“She has learned to enjoy the game whether she is playing well or playing badly,” Park said. “I try to teach that to every player of mine, but they don’t all pick it up. In Gee does.”

There’s another benefit to Chun’s smile. It has helped her connect to fans in meaningful ways.

She is one of the most popular players in South Korea. She goes by the nickname “Dumbo,” a moniker she says she gained because of her natural curiosity, “like the baby elephant.” Her fan club is called “The Flying Dumbos,” which is spreading to the United States.

Chun is working hard to connect to American fans.

Park told that Chun began carrying a pair of small books in her back pockets during rounds after she came to the United States to play full time this year. She carried a yardage book in one pocket and an English-Korean translation book in the other pocket.

“So she could practice her English between shots,” Park said.

Chun has started combining the books, moving her English notes into the back of her yardage book. Park said you can sometimes see Chun appear to be talking to herself when she’s walking between shots.

“She’s practicing her English,” Park said.

After Chun won the U.S. Women’s Open last year, Park was her translator when she met media in her news conference. When Chun arrived for the ANA Inspiration for her first major as an LPGA member this year, Park encouraged her to do as many interviews as she could in English. He helped her here and there.

After winning Sunday at Evian, Chun did her NBC TV interview herself, completely in English.

“Most people say golf is an individual sport, but I believe it is a team sport,” Chun told NBC and Golf Channel’s Tom Abbott while cradling her new trophy. “My manager, my caddie, my coach, my family ... I have a team, and we prepare for this game and play this game together. I love my team.”

Chun’s smile is proving a universal language.

“I think she's an amazing ambassador for the women's game,” said Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko, who was there on the 18th green to help douse Chun in a champagne-soaked victory celebration. “You can see that from her personality. She's always smiling, and she's there for other people. I think that's why everybody really likes her. You can see that by the many of us that came out to support her and celebrate and spray champagne and water on her.”

With Sunday’s victory, Chun joins South Korean legend Se Ri Pak as the only players to win major championships as their first two LPGA victories.

With Chun’s triumph coming on the heels of Inbee Park’s gold medal win, there’s immense pride back in South Korea. Chun helped the Koreans avoid a shutout in this year’s majors. They’ve now won a major in each of the last six years. They’ve won 11 of the last 22 majors played.

“This is going to be huge for Korean fans,” So Yeon Ryu said.

After winning Sunday, Chun revealed she smiled through some emotional pain at year’s start. A controversial mishap at the Singapore airport before the HSBC Women’s Champions in March was harder on Chun than she acknowledged publicly.

Back in the spring, Chun was injured when fellow South Korean star Ha Na Jang’s father lost control of a 15-pound travel bag, sending it bouncing down an escalator. It struck Chun in the lower back. She missed a month recovering from injuries to her pelvis, sacroiliac joint and lumbar muscles. The media furor the mishap created in South Korea, pitting her against Jang, troubled her more than she acknowledged at the time.

Chun withdrew from the HSBC Women’s Champions, the JTBC Founders Cup and Kia Classic while recovering from injury. All the while, the controversy simmered between Chun and Jang fans.

“It was an inner struggle,” Chun said Sunday. “I just had to keep it quiet inside, but I had to go through all those hard times, not being able to mention anything about my injury and my hurt and pain.”

Chun was paired with Jang in the first two rounds of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in June. She said the pairing was stressful, but it actually “led to healing” between her and Jang. “It was nobody’s fault, just by mistake, everything’s cool,” Chun said.

Chun’s smile said everything’s more than cool now in Chun’s world. It’s historically excellent.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.