By DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press
NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — If nothing else, Na Yeon Choi proved to be a big-money player this year on the LPGA Tour.
Choi captured her first major this summer at the U.S. Women's Open, the biggest purse of the year. She turned a great season into her best one yet Sunday by winning the Titleholders and a $500,000 check, the second-biggest prize on tour.
For someone who has an appointment Monday in Orlando to buy a new house, the timing couldn't have been better.
"I think I can buy bigger than I thought," Choi said.
She earned it at The TwinEagles Club in the final LPGA Tour event of the year by following good advice from her caddie on how to play the short par-4 16th, and delivering an exquisite shot with a 52-degree wedge to a deep, three-tiered green for a birdie that sent Choi on her way.
She closed with two pars for a 2-under 70 and a two-shot victory over So Yeon Ryu.
"I feel really great, and I'm really satisfied how I played — not just this week, but this season," said Choi, who finished at 14-under 274.
Ryu, honored this week as the LPGA Rookie of the Year, hit 3-wood into about 25 feet for a two-putt birdie on the 13th to tie for the lead. But on the next hole, she didn't account for the wind making her 30-foot birdie putt faster than it looked. The putt went some 6 feet by the hole, and a three-putt bogey cost her a share of the lead. She never caught up the rest of the way.
"I learn one more thing," Ryu said. "I have to think about the wind strength at the green."
Choi took it from there, and seized control on the 16th, which can be reached off the tee with a big drive. Her caddie, Jason Hamilton, didn't think it was worth the risk. Anything short leaves an awkward pitch, which is what Ryu ended up facing. Anything too close to the green and to the left leaves a blind pitch to the back of the three-tiered green, and par becomes a good score.
Choi hit 3-wood to the left side of the fairway and a 52-wedge to a tiny spot on an elevated green she couldn't see.
"Left side of the fairway is a better angle to the second shot," Choi said. "I think the pin was at 79 yards, but I just landed it almost at the pin. I tried to land it almost to the pin. There's not a lot of room."
It checked up and trickled to 3 feet, and she was on her way.
Brittany Lincicome also closed with a 70 to finish alone in third. Karrie Webb had a 69 to finish another shot behind.
Inbee Park was never in the hunt, though she still felt plenty of pressure in the final LPGA Tour event of the year. She needed to make sure she didn't stumble in the final round to capture the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average, and she handled that with ease. Park had a 70, while Stacy Lewis had a 74.
Lewis is the first American since 1994 to be LPGA Player of the Year. Park took the Vare Trophy and money title, the only woman to earn more than $2 million this year.
Sunday, however, belonged to Choi.
"I'm really happy with how I played this season," Choi said. "I won my first major and even this tournament is very big for me. I think I can have even bigger expectations now and think I deserve it."
She is becoming known as "Big Apple" because of her initials — NYC — and she sure knows how to pick the right tournaments to win. The 25-year-old South Korean finished with a career high in earnings at $1,981,834, with nearly 55 percent of that coming from two tournaments — $585,000 from the U.S. Women's Open and $500,000 from the Titleholders in a high-stakes end to the season. Ryu, who closed with a 70, earned $106,000.
It capped off another banner year for South Koreans. They won three of the four majors and finished 1-2 on the money list.
There were a few nervous moments early, particularly on the third hole, that put the tournament up for grabs.
Choi pulled her approach some 30 yards left of the green, surrounded by steep slopes. Her chip failed to reach the green, and she two-putted for double bogey. There was a four-way tie for the lead among Choi, Ryu, Lincicome and Ai Miyazato, with Webb only one shot out of the lead.
Moments later, Choi seized regained the lead with a 3-wood from 240 yards that landed some 20 yards short of the green and bounced onto the putting surface, rolled next to the flag and stopped just inside 10 feet away. She holed that for eagle and never trailed again.
Ryu took on a front bunker with a tee shot to 10 feet for birdie on the 12th, but Choi followed her with a 9-iron into 3 feet. Choi struggled with her irons, particularly wedges into the par 5s on the back nine, but she came up big with the toughest one of all.
"I was very nervous last night," Choi said. "I told people that leading the tournament, there's always extra pressure. Even on front nine, when I had the double bogey and tie for first place, I felt more comfortable than leading. Maybe that sounds a little weird. I like chasing somebody, and then I can play more aggressive."
She was aggressive until she tapped in for par on the final hole for the win, the third time in four seasons that she has had at least two victories. It put a smile on her face as she heads to Orlando for some house-hunting.
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