The LPGA Tour's cover girls took center stage most of yesterday afternoon at Highland Meadows Golf Club.
But the girl with all the covers - head covers, that is - ended up stealing the show and the championship of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic presented by Kroger.
For the second straight year, the Farr was decided in a three-hole, sudden-death playoff and this time it was Mi Hyun Kim of South Korea sinking an 18-foot putt on the 18th green to beat Natalie Gulbis.
Gulbis, who owned a four-shot lead late on the front side after making five straight birdies, had a nine-foot putt to match Kim's birdie and extend the playoff, but it never really threatened the hole.
Gulbis dominated early before her close friend Paula Creamer, pretty in pink and just as big a crowd favorite, charged on the back nine. She was five shots out of the lead at one point, but birdied four straight holes from Nos. 14-17 and could have made it a three-way playoff with another birdie at the 18th hole.
Her third shot to the par-5 hole landed about six inches from the flag, but she had struck it from the right rough and could get no spin on the ball. Instead, the ball released and rolled about 12 feet past, and her birdie putt drifted well right of the cup.
The lead group, meanwhile, was finishing on No. 17, where Gulbis missed the green with her third shot and could do no better than par a par-5 hole that surrendered 106 sub-par scores during the course of the tournament.
Kim, however, used her deadly short game to produce a birdie and tie things up at 18-under.
Kim, Gulbis and Creamer, who finished third with a 17-under-par 267 total, all carded 6-under 65s in the final round on a sunny, almost oppressively hot day at the Meadows.
Four-time Farr champion Se Ri Pak carded a 66 and finished fourth at 268, four shots better than Reilley Rankin, who closed with a 70. Brittany Lang finished with a 66 and was tied for sixth with Sung Ah Yim at 10-under. Top-ranked Annika Sorenstam struggled all day on the greens, shot a 1-under 70, and finished eighth at 9-under 275.
Kim, whose collection of colorful head covers includes two lions, a blue dog and a pink dog, knew she wasn't the people's choice yesterday as another big crowd at the Meadows split its loyalties between Gulbis, who was bidding for her first career win, and the popular Creamer, a second-year pro who was the LPGA's top rookie a year ago.
"I played with Natalie yesterday and today and she had so many fans," Kim said. "I hear, 'Go Natalie, Go Natalie.' It made me feel a little sad. After I won, [the fans] got up and left. But I won and got a trophy, so I'm very happy."
After her birdie binge on the front nine, Gulbis got to 18-under with a birdie at No. 10, but could only string pars over the next 11 holes, including the playoff.
"I made a lot of putts on the front," Gulbis said. "Iron play is probably the strength of my game and today I drove well, too. Being in the fairway allowed me to fire at the pins and as soft as the greens were you could go pin-hunting on this course.
"I knew I had to stay aggressive even with the lead. A lot of people were playing well. Paula was making birdies and Kimmy has one of the best short games. I kept firing and I had chance after chance on the back. But I must have lipped out three or four putts."
She made two fine putts on the first two playoff holes - No. 18, then No. 17 - but both burned the edges.
That kept Kim alive and she played No. 18, the third playoff hole, in an almost identical fashion to when she and Gulbis started the playoff there. She drove into the right rough, chopped out and chased the ball up the hill with a 7-wood, then hit an easy 8-iron to the green.
"When Natalie got a four-shot lead I just kept trying to play my best," said Kim, whose nickname is Super Peanut. "I still thought I had a chance to win."
And she did, for the second time this year and for the seventh time in her career. The native of Inchon, South Korea, joined the LPGA Tour in 1999, coming to the U.S. one year after Pak won the Farr Classic for the first time.
The first-place check of $180,000 bumped Kim's season earnings over the $1 million mark and her career earnings to $6.3 million.
Gulbis won $106,155, but probably would have traded the money for a victory. The 23-year-old is in her fifth year on tour and is one of its most recognizable players, thanks to her fashion/swimsuit calendars, a popular website, and a reality TV show on the Golf Channel.
"It's very difficult," Gulbis said of losing a tournament she once appeared to have well in hand. "I always thought I could win on tour. Five years ago, I thought I'd win my first event. All you can do is keep giving yourself chances. This is where you want to be and I'll learn from it.
"I had four really good rounds, four rounds in the 60s. That was very positive."
Gulbis out-drove Kim on nearly every hole, but the 5-foot-1, 110-pound Korean is used to that. She is accomplished with fairway woods and proved down the stretch that she is among the best short-game players in women's golf.
Maybe the best?
"I think so," Kim said. "That's why I win!"
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.