Mi Hyun Kim understood why the vast majority of fans attending Sunday's final round of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic presented by Kroger were cheering for someone else to win.
"I'm Korean," said Kim, who was part of a final-round pairing with Natalie Gulbis, the leader by four shots at one point on the front nine at Highland Meadows Golf Club. "American fans are cheering for Natalie. You know, I understand that.
"When I walk between holes, a few people say, like 'Go, Mi Hyun.' But Natalie had hundreds of people cheering for her. I understand."
Kim - nicknamed 'Super Peanut' because of her diminutive size (Kim is 5-foot-1, 110 pounds) - sent most of the fans home disappointed by beating Gulbis on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff.
It's not like American fans are unappreciative of Kim's skills. She is, after all, one of the LPGA Tour's premier players.
The final member of the lead threesome Sunday was Se Ri Pak, another Korean who has won the Farr Classic four times. Kim and Pak have combined for 30 LPGA Tour victories and earnings of nearly $15 million since 1998.
So a Korean golfer cashing a check in Toledo, or anywhere else in the United States, is not a foreign concept.
But Gulbis' bid for a first victory in five years on tour was a story that captured the imagination of fans locally and throughout the United States. And if her story wasn't enough, young Paula Creamer - aka the Pink Panther, which ties in nicely with the Farr's corporate sponsor - charged into contention with four straight birdies late in her round.
ESPN2, for example, had slotted 3-5 Sunday afternoon for its Farr Classic telecast. Because the tournament had been backed up by weather factors, the cable network initially agreed to extend its coverage through 6 p.m. With Gulbis on the cusp of victory, though, ESPN2 stayed with live coverage until the end of the playoff at around 7:30.
Mi Hyun Kim wasn't the golfer everyone tuned in to watch, but she's the champion they got.
That's golf. Sometimes you go looking for Phil Mickelson and get Geoff Ogilvy.
Tournament officials, truth be told, probably reacted no differently than the fans. Having Gulbis, the tour's pin-up girl, getting her first win at the Farr would have been big news in the present tense. But Gulbis, or even Creamer, as defending champion would have provided a marketing bonanza next spring and summer in advance of the 2007 Jamie Farr.
Judd Silverman, the tourney's director, and his staff had to be content with the tournament going the full 72 holes and being completed Sunday. If not for the playoff, the Farr would have ended about 90 minutes past the originally scheduled 5 p.m. finish.
That was accomplished despite severe storms Wednesday and Friday that flooded the Meadows and turned course superintendent Mark Mixdorf, his staff, and volunteers from several other local clubs into the real heroes of the week.
Neither the second nor third rounds were completed the same days they began.
Despite that and 90-degree temperatures, problems with access to parts of the course, sloppy conditions outside of the ropes in spectator areas, and problems at the public parking lot, which also turned swamp-like in some areas, weekend crowds were not appreciably down from previous years, according to Silverman.
"We always get great support, but our fans and volunteers went above and beyond this year," he said. "We had some difficult challenges, and thanks to Mark and his crew we overcame most of them. It was an exciting finish and, thanks to the wonderful support, we raised a lot of money for children's charities, which is our No. 1 mission."
The amount raised will be announced at a later date. Final attendance figures also were not available yesterday.
Whatever the number, those fans saw Gulbis, who was tied with Kim at 12-under after 54 holes, open up a four-shot lead with five straight birdies from Nos. 3-7 in the final round. The 23-year-old Gulbis got a bad break at the par-3 8th hole when her tee shot landed inches from the cup, grazed the flagstick and caromed about 18 feet, undoubtedly costing her another birdie.
She got to minus-18 with a birdie at No. 10, but couldn't get another the rest of the day despite several decent chances.
When Gulbis' birdie binge ended after No. 7, Kim's began. She got three straight starting at No. 8 and got back-to-back birdies at Nos. 16-17 to tie for the lead. The Korean then curled in an 18-footer for birdie at No. 18 to win it on the third hole of sudden death.
Creamer got within a shot of the lead with a four-birdie run starting at No. 14, but couldn't convert a 12-footer on the 18th green to claim a spot in the playoff.
So it will be the little lady with the big game and not Gulbis or Creamer, who will step to the first tee next year as the defending champion. Dates for the 2007 Farr Classic have not been announced by the LPGA Tour.
Contact Dave Hackenberg at:
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