February 16, 2024
Seventy-three golfers played the Sunday final round at the 2023 ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer.
The field split into twosomes beginning at 7:00 a.m. This way the last pair would reach the 18th hole just in time for the planned 5:00 p.m. finish on The Golf Channel.
A single player among those who finished at one over par on Saturday had to play the last round Sunday by herself – the dew sweeper.
Haeji Kang, a tour veteran with a T-3 finish at the 2014 ShopRite, joined her Swedish caddie, Joakim Hilton, on the first tee. Her parents, Joan and Pedro, stood nearby.
Dozens of ShopRite volunteers were still scrambling to reach their designated spots throughout the course when Kang’s opening tee shot landed in the left fringe about 100 yards from the hole, about 5 yards from where I stood.
The second shot stopped 20 feet below the hole, leading to a one-foot par putt.
With no breeze, the 421-yard par 4 second played easier than normal. Kang’s approach finished 15 feet away and she made birdie.
The short par-5 third hole was also simple. Her chip shot to 4 feet led to a second birdie.
I chatted with Kang’s parents as we kept up with the brisk-walking pro and her caddie. Dad said he caddied for her on the Symetra tour but stopped after one year. “It was too hard. I’m not strong,” he said with a smile. His wife said, “She knows.”
Kang kept making easy pars and nice birdies. The pars usually included one- or two-foot putts to finish. She birdied the par-4 5th hole and repeated her chip shot/short putt birdie on the par-5 ninth.
She shot 4-under on nine holes in less than 90 minutes.
As the wind began to make its presence felt, Kang made two more 2-putt pars on 10 and 11. She had 80 yards for her approach to the narrow 12th green. Unfortunately, the ball ricocheted off the front green edge to the right.
Her chip shot stopped 4 feet short. Kang missed the par putt, making her first bogey of the day.
It was also her last.
Kang’s par putt on 13 was from 6 feet. She two-putted for par on 14, with the second one from 3 inches.
She saved her best tee shot for the uphill 205-yard par-3 fifteenth. It finished hole-high two feet away for a tap-in birdie.
Meanwhile, Dad whooped at everything. Mom offered me a water bottle, which I gratefully accepted. I don’t normally walk this quickly.
Kang wasn’t finished. She birdied 16 from 6 feet below the hole, made another two-putt par on 17, and made yet another great chip shot to 6 feet on 18. The small crowd in the adjacent stands applauded her final birdie.
Kang and her playing partners needed five hours to play the second round Saturday afternoon. On Sunday she finished at 9:28 a.m., just short of two and a half hours since her 7:00 a.m. start.
With her 6-under par 65 Kang leaped past a few dozen competitors, finishing the tournament tied for 22d and earning $16,624.
When I suggested playing very fast and by herself must agree with her, Kang quickly said “Yes! I have played on the tour for 15 years and it was definitely my first experience playing on my own as the first group on Sunday.”
Kang added, “I knew that I was going to be having fun because I didn’t have to wait for anybody or making the turn, so I could just play with my own pace and see what I could do. Plus, I had a good round of golf so there’s that!”
I asked what happened on her single bogey. Kang said, “I think since I knew I was playing well, I tried to be a little more cute. And the greens are firm, so it bounces off. I tried to land it at the perfect spot and missed it a little bit.”
Kang did not dwell on her single miscue, however. “I would say this is my best round here. I have played here many times, pretty much every year. I really enjoy coming to this golf course. I used to stay with a host family. They were always welcoming me. I think all that helped with the atmosphere, making me feel like it’s home. And also, the course, it just suits my eye and I really enjoy playing it,” she said.
I asked about the Bay Course’s famous fescue mounds and if she had ever landed in them. She laughed and said, “No. Maybe a few times in the rookie year but not since.”
Kang played well through mid-July at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Michigan. Unfortunately, that was the end of her 2023 season. She began 2024 with a medical exemption to make up for six tournaments she missed in late summer and fall. With any luck, Kang will quickly earn enough to improve her playing status for the rest of this year.