OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The United States vs. the Republic of Korea.
Nobody should have been surprised to see the International Crown come down to a battle between these titans in the women’s game. It was shocking, though, to see them in a desperate battle Saturday just to stay alive in the event.
It was even more shocking to see the No. 1-seeded Americans sent packing after being eliminated in a sudden-death playoff for the fifth and final qualifying spot into Sunday singles.
With Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu making birdies on the first hole of the fourball sudden-death playoff, the No. 2-seeded Koreans dispatched the United States to remain alive in their bid to win the international team event at Caves Valley Golf Club.
The inaugural event will conclude without the Americans there for local fans to cheer.
The idea the Americans wouldn’t be here Sunday didn’t seem possible going into Saturday’s fourballs.
“The first time I thought about that was on our cart ride up into the media center [after the playoff],” Lewis said. “I never thought that we wouldn't be playing tomorrow. It never really even crossed my mind until we were driving up here.”
Even the Koreans seemed dismayed seeing the Americans eliminated before Sunday’s finale.
“It is very unfortunate that we had to play against the United States, because that was something that nobody really expected to be seeing,” Park said. “I think that it was really tough, because they're great competitors and they had a lot of fans that are coming out and watching them. They're great players. And losing is always tough to accept.”
Five teams survived for Sunday singles.
Thailand and Spain advanced from Pool A with seven points each. Japan advanced from Pool B with eight points and Sweden with seven points. Korea advanced with six points.
The points carry over, with a singles victory worth two points on Sunday and a halved match worth one point.
For the Americans, it’s hard to figure. They’re on a resurgent march on tour this year. They’ve won 11 LPGA titles already, more than they’ve won in any year since the turn of the century. They’ve won the first three major championships of the year, but they’re momentum is all the other way in international team events. There have back-to-back Solheim Cup losses, including their first loss on home soil last year in the biggest rout in that event’s history.
And now this.
What isn’t translating for the Americans in these team events?
“I don't think I have the answer,” Cristie Kerr said. “I think you have to look at the overall body of work and what the Americans have done the last couple years on tour, especially this year. You have to look at that, but match play’s a different animal.”
The Americans and Koreans met in a playoff for the final Sunday berth by virtue of finishing third in their respective pools.
For the United States, pool play came down to Rolex No. 1 Stacy Lewis and No. 12 Paula Creamer in a fourballs match against Thailand’s Pornanong Phatlum and Onnarin Sattayabanphot. The Americans needed to win or halve the match to advance, but the Thais defeated them, 1 up. Phatlum rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt at the 14th to give Thailand a lead it didn’t relinquish.
“Pornanong just went crazy there on the back nine on us,” Lewis said. “If she wasn't hitting it to gimme range, she was making a 20 footer. We had plenty of opportunities, though.
“It's certainly disappointing, because we played a lot better than that outcome.”
Lewis and Creamer combined for a best-ball score of 7-under-par 64. Phatlum and Sattayabonphot shot 63.
With that loss, the Americans sent Kerr and Lexi Thompson out in the playoff against the Koreans. They were the American hot hands. They beat Thailand’s Jutanugarn sisters, 3 and 2, earlier in the afternoon. Thompson caught fire on the back nine. She made birdie-eagle-birdie starting at the 11th hole to turn the match into a rout.
Thompson got some hard luck in the playoff, though. After bombing her drive at the first playoff hole, the par-5 16th, she followed with a nearly brilliant approach, trying to reach the green in two. Her iron shot bounced to the front edge of the green, but then it checked up and rolled backward, down a slope back into the fairway, where the ball came to rest in a divot. Thompson tried to putt it out and up the slope, but it came up short, stopping just at the fringe, 15 feet from the hole. Kerr birdied, but Thompson missed her own birdie chance. It was over with Ryu and Park making birdie and the second ball acting as a tiebreaker.
“She hit two great golf shots there, and she did exactly as she was supposed to do,” Lewis said.
Kerr had Thompson’s back, too.
“She was the best player,” Kerr said. “I think she was the best player the last couple days. I mean, it was so much fun to watch her play.”
The Americans probably lost their chance on Thursday, when they were the only team to get shut out, losing both their fourball matches to Chinese Taipei.
“The format's hard,” Lewis said. “It's only two matches a day, so there's only opportunity for four points a day. It's best ball, which with best ball, you can throw rankings and all that kind of stuff out the window. It's just crazy to think that we're two points out of the lead in this thing, and we're not able to play tomorrow. So, that's really what's the most disappointing part about the format.
“It’s the first year of this event. Nobody really knew how it was going to fall. We just wish we had an opportunity tomorrow, because I think that we really could win tomorrow if we had an opportunity to play.”