06 March 17 The Business Times by GODFREY ROBERT
A FOUR-WAY tie just before the turn, down to three with only one shot separating them, and a possible straight fight while on the 17th green.
With such shifting scenario, the excitement was always building up, reaching a crescendo at the home stretch on the final day of the US$1.5 million HSBC Women's Champions at the New Tanjong course at Sentosa.
Amid the din and silence from a huge crowd of almost 8,000 spectators, one woman remained calm, composed and confident to claim the 10th edition and the US$225,000 winner's cheque of the prestigious event by one shot after a course record eight-under 64 and a 19-under 269 total.
South Korean Park Inbee, the 28-year-old winner of seven Majors, has fought many exciting battles before since she turned pro in 2006.
And yesterday was no different for the cherubic lass in blue and white, who played scintillating golf to win the title, of which, she said last Thursday: "I was dreaming all week."
Park had the right to dream, for she had "been there, done it" before: wiping the field in 2015 at Serapong with a majestic bogey-free four rounds that mesmerised the crowd at the tougher and more challenging adjacent course.
So when she crept up the leaderboard from joint-fifth overnight - three shots behind third-day leader Michelle Wie - with nine birdies after 17 holes, the crowd were eager to see a challenger emerge from the reputable pack.
Wie fell out of contention after four-putting the par-five fifth for a double-bogey, world No 1 Lydia Ko had a poor outing by her high standards, Park Sung Hyun and defending champion Jang Ha Na rued several missed putts and teenage sensation Brooke Henderson faltered on the second nine after a sensational start.
So it was left to world No 2 Ariya Jutanugarn to stage a fight, and the charming Thai did cause a flutter with her challenge, even raising a few yells from the neutrals who took the opportunity to practise their smattering knowledge of Thai words in appreciation of what the lady in black was doing.
And so at the par-three 150-metre 17th, Ariya sent her shot to 4 feet (1.22 metres) short of the pin, and Park's tee-shot veered right to about 25 feet. Many in the crowd raised hopes of a play-off as Park's two-shot advantage looked set to be reduced to one.
But no. Park, after consultation with her caddie of 11 years, Australian Brad Beecher, sank the difficult putt for birdie, leaving Ariya with a birdie formality, before they trudged up the par-four 18th with the two-shot gap remaining.
And on the par-four final hole, when Park sent her second shot into the bunker, probably affected by some mud in her ball, said Beecher, Ariya's hopes rose.
But the Thai, who found the green with her approach, left herself too much to do with the 15-feet winding putt and made just a par while Park enjoyed the luxury of a bogey to win by one stroke.
The two women of the moment were lucky to finish their round as the last flight, headed by Wie, suffered the frustration of a 40-minute halt on the last fairway because of a lightning warning.
Park, who returned to competition only after five months since her Olympic success in Rio because of injury, said: "My putting (27 putts) was amazing. Everything I looked at, wanted to drop in. It was very consistent ball-striking all week."
Ariya said: "I have so much fun playing with Inbee, she's awesome. She's the best player now."
No-one can argue with Ariya's assessment.
Final leading scores:
269: Park Inbee 67-67-71-64.
270: Ariya Jutanugarn 67-68-69-66.
272: Park Sung Hyun 68-68-68-68.
274: Brooke Henderson 67-70-71-66, Jang Ha Na 70-67-68-69, Michelle Wie 66-69-67-72.
275: Anna Nordqvist 67-70-70-68.
Selected: 276: Lydia Ko 69-68-67-72.
301: Amanda Tan 76-73-79-73 (US$3,663).