NAPLES, Fla. – This was a million-dollar moment. Actually, make that a $1.5 million moment.
After leading the CME Group Tour Championship for four days, it came down to this for Sei Young Kim. She needed to two-putt from 25 feet on the final hole at the Tiburón Golf Club to get into a playoff with Charley Hull for the record $1.5 million first prize.
The tension of the moment hung heavy in the humid Florida air. No woman had ever had one putt for so much money.
But instead of two-putting, Kim’s ball found the bottom of the cup for the most important birdie she’s ever made – and one of the more consequential in the history of women’s golf.
For the record – and this was a record for the largest first prize in women’s golf – that 25-foot putt earned Kim $60,000 for each foot it traveled to the cup.
Everything about this final round was remarkable, unfolding with a drama that matched the sense of history surrounding the tournament.
Hull birdied the final three holes and five of the last seven to get into the clubhouse at 17 under par 261 to put the pressure on Kim, who had led after each of the first three rounds. Danielle Kang made a charge with a 31 on the front nine and an eagle on No. 17.
But Kim was up to the task, closing with a 70 to be at 18-under par 270 – one stroke better and more than $1 million richer than Hull, who collected $480,000 for her runner-up effort. Kang tied for third with Nelly Korda, who started the day one stroke behind Kim.
It was the tenth career LPGA victory for Kim, a 26-year-old South Korean who has notched at least one win on Tour every year since 2015, including the LPGA Mediheal Championship and the Marathon Classic this year. With three wins in 2019, Kim was second only to the four by Rolex Player of the Year Jin Young Ko.
Brooke Henderson was fourth at 273 with Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda and Su Oh at 275. Brittany Altomare and So Yeon Ryu were at 276 while Jin Young Ko, Rookie of the Year Jeongeun Lee6, Ally McDonald, Georgia Hall, Ariya Jutanugarn, Marina Alex and Caroline Masson finished seven strokes back at 277.
“To be honest, I was only aware of Nelly’s position, I didn’t know about Charley,” Kim said about her thoughts over the winning putt.
“I was just trying to two-putt to beat Nelly," Kim said. "I knew it was on a good line, but I didn’t know it was going in. Then I heard the crowd yell. Just knowing that I won the greatest prize in the history of women’s golf is a great honor.”
Perhaps as an example of the kind of pressure exerted by a $1.5 million first prize, Kim, who had made only one bogey through the first 56 holes, made her third of the final round on No. 14 yet still had a two-stroke lead with four holes to play. That’s when Kang and Hull made their charges.
Kang, who opened the back nine with seven consecutive pars after her 31 on the front nine, pulled within one stroke of the lead with an eagle on No. 17 that put her at 16-under par. She hit her approach to 15 feet on the final hole but her putt for birdie to get to 17-under par kissed the low lip.
Hull, who won the 2016 CME Group Tour Championship, hit a stellar approach shot to the 18th green and made an 8-foot putt for birdie, putting all the pressure on Kim. But, like Suzann Pettersen’s dramatics at the Solheim Cup, this tournament was decided by a made putt, not a missed one, just another way in which the tournament lived up to its advance billing.
For Kim, who has quietly compiled an impressive resume, this could be the stepping-stone to the one thing missing on her record. She has the most wins of any active LPGA player without a major championship. But this sure felt like winning a major.
“She’ll think a little too much at times,” says Paul Fusco, Kim’s caddie for five years. “But she bounces back quickly. She’s just got it. She’s awesome. She does special things.”
There is still a long way to go in the crusade to achieve pay equity between female and male athletes, but the CME Group Tour Championship was a significant step in the right direction. When future eyes look back across the plain of history this last year of the second decade of the 21st century may well be viewed as an important turning point.
The U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team, with its victory in the World Cup, placed the issue of comparable compensation for female and male athletes on a front burner and the sponsors of the LPGA took a leadership role this year by increasing prize money significantly in the major championships and many other events as well.
There are more than 1.5 million reasons why the 2019 CME Group Tour Championship was historic. But there are many reasons why it will be long remembered: Fairness is always the right thing to do; the pursuit of equality is the proper path to follow. And great performances always make memorable moments.
This tournament will be remembered for the way it ended, with Danielle Kang and Charley Hull applying the kind of pressure that defines a champion – and Sei Young Kim meeting that definition. She was truly the Tour champion in more than a million ways.