Sometimes a player just has to take a shot on, and that’s what Na Yeon Choi did from thick, high rough on the 12 hole at the Blackwolf Run course in Kohler, Wisc., en route to winning the U.S. Women’s Open Sunday. She was only doing what Padraig Harrington said he had to do on the 12th hole in the last round of the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich. He won the major. More on that in a moment.
Choi was in trouble after taking a six-shot lead into the final round of the biggest championship in women’s golf. The 24-year-old South Korean had triple-bogied the par-five 10 hole, which reduced her lead to two shots over Amy Yang, with whom she was playing. Choi, a winner already of five LPGA Tour events, had come right back with a birdie on the 11, but then pulled her approach shot on the 12 into the hillside left of the green.
She and her caddy discussed the merits of taking a penalty drop. The lie was so poor that it was possible she’d leave the ball in the rough. If she took the drop, the ball might sink into a similar lie. What to do?
There comes a time to act. She decided to take on the shot. Golf observers who pay close attention to such matters might have thought back to Harrington on that final day at Oakland Hills. The Irishman had won the 2007 Open Championship, and he won the Open a year later again, only three weeks before going to Oakland Hills for the season’s last major. He’d shown he knew what to do when a tournament was there for the taking.
Of course, missing the shot at the critical moment could also mean he would give away the championship. Harrington was aware that a major truly begins on the back nine on Sunday. Now he had driven into the trees left of the fairway on the par-five 12 hole. What to do?
“I took the shot on,” Harrington said later. “I knew I had to from in the trees. It was a tight second shot. I had to -- it's awkward when you're trying to hit a shot around a tree. But you can't, the tree was actually blocking where I was aiming because it was -- so I literally had to hit like I was hitting through the tree for my second shot; which is an intimidating shot, but I knew I needed to take on the shot at this stage and there was no backing off. Hit a nice shot over the green and played a nice pitch shot. Unlucky to go three feet by. Holed the putt. Actually thought I might hole that chip.”
Nearly two years later, Phil Mickelson also took on a shot. This was on the par-five 13 hole on Masters Sunday. His tee shot had settled on top of pine needles right of the fairway. He saw a small opening between trees just ahead of him. He had to carry the creek 187 yards away, just in front of the green. He was leading the Masters by two shots. What to do?
Mickelson took the shot on. He hit a six-iron that split the restricted air space between the trees. The ball carried the water, and settled four feet from the hole. He missed the eagle putt but his birdie helped carry him home to his third green jacket.
“I kept saying that if I trust my swing, I’ll pull it off,” Mickelson said later of the perilous shot.
To Choi, then. She somehow made a smooth, unforced swing that sent her club face through the thick rough. The club face remained stable. The ball popped out and rolled within about 20-feet of the hole. She had taken on the shot and now she had a par putt.
She made the putt. Choi had seized the moment, and went on to become the fifth golfer from South Korea in the last eight U.S. Women’s Opens to win. She had taken the shot on, and she had come through at the moment it mattered so much.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein