Eun-Hee Ji has been a bit of an enigma in her LPGA career, a tease really who might now be ready to deliver on her full promise. She won for the first time in 2008 at the age of 22 and the next year grabbed the U.S. Women’s Open with 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole to take the title by one stroke over Candie Kung, two clear of Cristie Kerr and In-Kyung Kim. It seemed as if Ji was yet another star in the making from South Korea.
But it was eight years before she grabbed her next LPGA title at the 2017 Swinging Skirts Taiwan. This time, she did not wait as long to back up her victory. On Sunday, the 31-year-old Ji held off both Kim and Kerr once again as she closed with a scintillating 67 at the Aviara Golf Club in Carlsbad, Calif., to capture the Kia Classic by two strokes over Kerr and Lizette Salas at 16-under par 272, three better than Kim, Jane Park and Kris Tamulis.
Beginning the final round tied for the lead at 11 under par with Salas and Kim, Ji birdied Nos. 4, 6, 7, 8, 10 and then made a hole-in-one on the 14th hole to put the tournament away, extending her lead from one stroke to three. The ace also earned Ji a Kia Sorento. She then coasted home, cautiously – and wisely – protecting her lead.
On Sunday, Ji was simply sensational as she hit 13 of 14 fairways and all 18 greens. “I hit it pretty well,” she said, in what was somewhat of an understatement. “I drove the ball very well and putted great.” In fact, her only two bogeys came after her ace when she was driving her Kia on cruise control.
Salas, who had fans from her Southern California hometown of Azusa on hand, hung in well on Sunday. “I'm really pleased, “ she said about her closing 69. “You know, things just went Eun-Hee's way today. I kept fighting and I woke up a little late, started making birdies on the back nine. Overall, I putted a lot better than I did yesterday. Didn't miss any short ones. Four rounds in the 60s I think is a pretty good thing for me. Bogey-free on a Sunday? I couldn't ask for anything better.”
That will make Salas a factor to consider as we go to the first major championship of the year – the ANA Inspirational – with a bunch of players well on their game. Brittany Lincicome, who has already won this year, is a two-time-winner at the ANA and was 11-under at the Kia. Lexi Thompson, who took the ANA in 2014 and will be looking to erase her painful runner-up finish last year, was two-under.
Michelle Wie, with five top-six finishes at Mission Hills, and a winner earlier this year in Singapore, was eight-under at Kia along with Brooke Henderson. Last year’s winner at the ANA winner, So Yeon Ryu, was six under in Carlsbad. And now Ji has to be considered a factor as well.
“I feel really confident now,” she said, “And I’ll try to feel that same way next week.”
Ji has been a steady but unspectacular player since winning the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open, finishing inside the top-56 on the money list every year. But she went 203 tournaments between her second and third LPGA victory. Now she has won two of her last eight starts.
Kerr, who grabbed a five-stroke lead with a 64 on Friday, let about a dozen players back into the tournament when she stumbled to a 75 in the third round as Ji shot 67 to pick up eight strokes on her. The 40-year-old Kerr proved she could very well be a factor at the ANA by closing with a 68.
“I just had to give myself a chance,” Kerr said about her Sunday punch back. “Eun-Hee is playing some great golf. Seems like she's going to get two cars today from Kia: hole-in-one and then another one (for winning),” Kerr said.
“I did my best,” Kerr added. “I had a tough day yesterday. It would've taken a super low round today to catch Eun-Hee. I'm happy with my first good tournament of the year. Just got to be a little bit more consistent mentally; maybe everything happens for a reason.”
Ah, the words of wisdom that come with age. When Ji won that U.S. Women’s Open in 2009, Kerr had already been on the LPGA for more than a decade and had won the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open. Now, as Ji seems to be getting back into the mix, Kerr is still there. It all sets the stage nicely for what should be a compelling first major of the year at the ANA Inspiration.