After an almost mistake-free first 25 holes in the Georgia Women’s Open,. Ji Eun Baik was cruising with a 6-stroke lead when she suddenly started hitting tee shots on par 3s, 4s and 5s alike in the direction of out of bounds stakes rather than fairways or greens.
In the span of seven holes, Baik hit three shots that came to rest within a few feet of being out of bounds and a fourth she never found but was headed for OB when it was last visible. She also hit a tee shot into the trees during that stretch and clipped a tree on another hole, and was fortunate to play those seven holes in 3-over and retain her lead.
Baik’s ability to limit the damage during her bout with inaccuracy kept her in front, and she rebounded from her spell of wayward tee shots with a solid stretch of golf that included a clutch par putt to retain her lead late in the final round and a birdie at the 18th to wrap up a two-stroke margin of victory.
An opening 6-under 66 at Brookfield Country Club gave Baik a three-shot lead going to the final round, and she wound up winning by two at 138 after matching par with a 72 on Tuesday. Baik, who grew up in Newnan, played her college golf at Mississippi State and now lives in Cumming, held off a late charge from recent Clemson golfer Sydney Legacy, who made a run at becoming the second out-of-state winner in the last three years.
Baik finished first at 138, followed by Legacy at 140. UGA golfer Bailey Tardy of Peachtree Corners claimed low amateur honors and was third overall at 142, with Vanderbilt golfer Louise Yu of Duluth fourth overall at 143.
Her opening 66 gave Baik some margin for error in the second round, ands she credited her ball striking for the three-shot lead she held going to the final round.
“I hit the ball really well yesterday,” Baik said after her victory. “I was close to the pin all day.”
Baik carded five birdies and an eagle in the opening round, and said all her successful birdie putts came from 12 feet or closer.
“Yesterday was one of those great days. Today, my long game was off.”
Baik extended her lead in the final round with back-to-back birdies at holes 4 and 5, hitting it close on the par-4 fourth and holing out from a greenside bunker for birdie at the parallel fifth hole.
Leading by six shots as she stood on the tee at the par-3 eighth, Baik seemed headed for an easy victory after playing her first 25 holes with just one bogey.
Baik pulled her tee shot on the par-3 eighth, with the ball stopping on a down slope uncomfortably close to OB stakes, leading to a bogey. She almost drove iout of bounds on the par-4 ninth, but again was fortunate her ball stayed in, and she saved par with a pitch out and a deft chip shot.
After two straight shots that sailed left, Baik drove it right at the short, par-4 10th into the trees, but had a clear line to the green and punched a low shot into birdie position, settling for par.
For the second par 3 in a row, she pulled her tee shot well left on the 11th, and again was very fortunate to stay in bounds. After hitting her second shot over a greenside bunker into rough just off the green, she got up and down for bogey.
“I got some pretty good breaks,” she admitted. “Luck was with me today.”
The last of her good breaks came at the par-4 13th, where she flared her drive to the right and clipped a tree branch, with her ball dropping back toward the fairway. She came up a little short with her longer-than-anticipated approach, but again saved par with a chip that came to rest with a few feet of the cup.
Bail’s luck ran out at the 14th, a par 5 that begins with a perilous tee shot over water that tempts players to take overly risky lines off the tee. Baik played safe and aimed farther right than she ordinarily would, and when she flushed her drive, the ball sailed through the fairway, across the cart path and apparently beyond the OB stakes.
She never found the ball, and had to return to the tee for an intimidating third shot. This time she took a much more dangerous line, barely landing in the left edge of the fairway. That put her in position to go for the green, and she launched a beautifully-struck fairway wood that landed in the middle of the green, finishing pin high to a back hole location. She two-putted for a well-earned bogey, and followed up with four straight holes of fairways and greens to collect the victory.
“I tried so hard not to let my bad shots get to me,” Baik said. “I didn’t get angry or frustrated. My short game was so good today that I didn’t care if I missed a green.”
Playing with a lead, Baik wanted to make sure that she did not make worse than bogey on a hole, and accomplished that objective, although she came close more than once of making double or worse.
Baik had a chance to extend her lead after hitting her tee shot on the par-3 15th inside six feet, but missed the putt. She faced an even longer par putt at the lengthy par-4 17th after misjudging the speed of her downhill birdie try, not knowing that she needed to hole it to retain her lead.
Legacy, playing two groups in front of Baik, finished birdie-birdie to post 4-under, and even though Baik said she had “no idea” how she stood, she felt comfortable finishing on the vulnerable par-5 18th.
An eagle on the 18th (her ninth of the day) in the first round helped propel Baik to her 66, and she again hit the green in two the next day, leaving herself a long eagle try down the slope from the back of the green. Her perfectly judged lag putt left her a near tap-in for a birdie and a two-stroke margin of victory.
The win was Baik’s second as a pro this year, the first coming on a Florida-based mini-tour that used to be known as the Sun Coast Tour. Baik turned pro a year ago after starting for four seasons at Mississippi State, and will take another shot at qualifying for the LPGA or Symetra Tour after coming up short last year in her first attempt.
The only player other than Legacy to have a chance at catching Baik on the back nine was Tardy, who has returned to competition after an injury-plagued junior season at Georgia.
After earning first team All-American honors as a freshman at UGA and being selected to the Curtis Cup team later in 2016, Tardy enjoyed a respectable but not quite as impressive sophomore season before injuring a foot the fall of her junior season.
After being cleared to play, Tardy suffered more serious injuries in a training accident, breaking a wrist and suffering damage to one of her fingers. While the wrist has healed, she still has problems with the finger, and will likely have to deal with pain from the injury for another year or so.
Tardy began her comeback in a GSGA Women’s event in late May, and played a national amateur tournament in June. She opened the Georgia Women’s Open with a 72, playing the par 5s at Brookfield in 4-under including an eagle at the sixth, but a double bogey at the 12th derailed her hopes of a lower score.
After turning the front nine in the final round in 2-under 33 with three birdies, and leaving a few birdie opportunities on the table, Tardy got to 3-under with a birdie at the 14th with two par 5s remaining. But she played the three back nine par 5s in 1-over, with a bogey at the 16th taking her out of contention. She shot 70 Tuesday for a 142 total
Tardy said she “struck the ball really well,” in the tournament, and is encouraged by the progress she’s been making in her comeback.
“I still have a little ways to go, but I can always see the positives. My short game has improved drastically.”
Tardy will begin her senior year at Georgia soon, and has the option of requesting a hardship season after barely playing as a junior. She expects to graduate on time next spring, and if she can return to the level she displayed as a freshman, may elect to turn pro after her senior season, foregoing a possible fifth year of eligibility.
The only other player to break par for 36 holes was Yu who shot 70-73—143, scoring an eagle t the 18th to finish second among the amateurs and fourth overall.
Tying for fifth at 144 was Mercer golfer Payton Schanen of Johns Creek (73-71), former Mercer golfer Lacey Fears, now an instructor ay Idle Hour (69-75), and Ole Miss golfer Diane Lim of Suwanee (71-73).
Atlanta area teaching pro Abigale Schepperle was eight h at 145 (70-75), with pros Amira Alexander of Alpharetta (69-77), Esther Park of Duluth (73-73) and Melissa Siviter of Alpharetta (74-72) tying for ninth at 146.
Tying for 13th at 147 were recent college golfers Katy Harris of St. Simons and Ole Miss (71-76)), Eunice Yi of Evans and Augusta State (78-69) and Kayla Jones of Milton and Florida State (75-72). Jones is still an amateur, with Harris and Yi having turned pro.
Kendall Wright of Peachtree Corners, the only former Georgia Women’s Open champion in the field, was tied for second at 69 after the opening round, but struggled the next day and tied for 16th at 148 with Auburn golfer Kayley Marschke of Suwanee (71-77). Wright competed as a tour pro for a number of years, and is currently working at Top Golf in the Atlanta area.