On Thursday night at the gala Rolex LPGA Awards, Sung Hyun Park claimed the only 2017 honor that’s been decided – Rolex Rookie of the Year.
On Friday the 24-year-old South Korean took a big step toward securing all the other major titles as she climbed to the top of the leaderboard at the CME Group Tour Championship.
With a second round 65 at the Tiburón Golf Club, Park finished 36 holes at 12-under-par 132, three strokes ahead of Caroline Masson and Sarah Jane Smith and four clear of Nelly Korda, Pernilla Lindberg and Madelene Sagstrom.
But for a three-putt bogey on the final hole, Park would have set the tournament 36-hole scoring record, settling instead for a share of the mark with Lydia Ko, who was 12-under last year at the midway point.
Ha Na Jang with a 66 and In-Kyung with a 67 also climbed into the mix for the $500,000 first prize, entering the weekend five-strokes behind Park at 137 along with Jessica Korda, Sei Young Kim and Suzann Pettersen.
Lexi Thompson, who has a crack at Player of the Year and entered the tournament leading Park by 0.112 strokes per round in the chase for the Vare Trophy, played her way into contention with a 67 that got her to six under par.
“I'm not really focusing on it at all,” Thompson said about all the titles up for grabs this week. “I just really wanted to play solid golf. Whatever happens, happens. I know I practiced so much in my off weeks and off-season. I'm trying my best, so whatever happens, I'll be proud of myself no matter what.”
Two others in the Player of the Year mix enter the weekend with a lot of work to do. So Yeon Ryu and Shanshan Feng are both 11-strokes back at one-under par.
Just as she did on Thursday, Park began her round slowly and then caught fire, reeling off five consecutive birdies to finish the front nine. “I didn’t know I had made five in a row,” she said. “I got behind in writing down my score and when I did and realized what I had done it felt good.”
She added another birdie on No. 12 and then rolled in a 30-footer for eagle on No. 17 to get to 13-under par before she missed a 5-foot par putt on the last hole for her only bogey of the day.
“I just try to focus on each shot and once I’m in the game I don’t think about that other stuff,” Park said about dealing with the pressure of what’s on the line. “I don’t feel quite as nervous as I thought I would. I can go into the weekend feeling a little more comfortable.”
She can also know that she goes into the weekend hitting on all cylinders when it comes to her game. Park hit 17 of 18 greens in the second round and averaged an eye-popping 303 yards on the measured driving holes and is averaging 281.75 for the tournament. She’s also needed only 57 putts the first 36 holes.
If the tournament ended the way the leaderboard stands right now, Park would be Player of the Year and secure the money title as well as the Race to the CME Globe $1 million bonus. She’d also likely climb to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings.
As for the Vare Trophy, if Thompson finishes 72 holes at six under par, Park would need to get to 15-under to claim the title. If Lexi gets to 10 under par or better, Park would need to beat her by 10 strokes to win the scoring title.
Park, who admits to being nervous on the first hole of every competitive round she plays as well to being afraid of spiders, also has something else going for her as she enters the weekend: An amazingly under-control attitude. She has the kind of perspective major champions are made of. Nothing bothers her. She seemingly has learned how to embrace the pressure rather than let it consume her.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a lead,” she said about her three-stroke advantage with two rounds left to play. “It can change at any moment. If I can keep the momentum going I will be good.”
If she can keep the momentum going she will be better than good – she will be great. In fact, she will be historically great, sweeping every honor the LPGA has to offer.
That’s going to make for some awesome must-see TV this weekend.
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