Lost amidst the attention being paid to South Korean golfer Inbee Park’s near-inevitable march toward her third consecutive major of the 2013 LPGA season, a tight race for Low Amateur honors at the U. S. Women’s Open packed more drama into a smaller field than did the race for the Open Championship title. There were nineteen amateurs in the starting field of 156 players. Six amateurs made the cut to play the weekend; among them was highly-ranked junior golfer Casie Cathrea, 17, of Livermore.
While the third round ended with eventual winner Inbee Park sitting on a four-stroke lead over second-place I.K. Kim, and Kim three strokes ahead of England’s Jodi Ewart-Shadoff, with a full nine strokes separating the first- and sixth-place positions, the race for Low Amateur honors had a much tighter spread. Three strokes separated the six amateurs after 54 holes, and the top three were tied, with one stroke between each of the remaining three.
At the top of the field, Sunday’s final round was a metronomic progression of pars, a smattering of birdies, and a few more bogeys exchanged between Park and Kim, reminiscent of a pair of equally-matched boxers exchanging ineffective blows with neither gaining an advantage. The round marched toward its inevitable conclusion with little drama – the only excitement attached to it being the increasing clamor over Park’s impressive three-straight run of LPGA major championship titles.
In the race for low amateur honors, on the other hand, the competitors came out swinging. Cathrea, a rising freshman who will attend Oklahoma State University in the fall, racked up five birdies against one bogey on the front nine, making the turn at 4-under on the day – the best opening nine in the final round.
In pursuit of the orange-clad future OSU Cowgirl was the #1-ranked female amateur in the world, 16-year-old Lydia Ko of New Zealand. Ko, Cathrea, and Doris Chen, a rising junior at USC, were tied after 54 holes. Playing in the pairing just behind Cathrea, Ko got off to a slower start, with two bogeys in the first five holes, but put together a string of three birdies to close out the front nine, making the turn at one under on the day.
By the midpoint of the round, the race for Low Amateur was down to Cathrea and Ko, with Cathrea at a decided advantage, three strokes ahead of Ko. Doris Chen, who was paired with Cathrea in the final round, was within one stroke of Ko at the turn, but none of the other three amateurs – Yueer Feng, of the People’s Republic of China, Canada’s Brooke Mackenzie Henderson, or 14-year-old Nelly Korda – ever figured in the contest.
Both Ko and Cathrea cooled off on the closing nine, opening with strings of pars. The three-stroke gap grew to five when Ko stumbled to a double-bogey six at the 14th hole, while Cathrea extended her string of pars to the 16th hole. A bogey-bogey finish put a little tarnish on Cathrea’s final-round effort, but even Ko’s birdie on the par-3 seventeenth hole wasn’t enough to do more than narrow the gap between the two elite amateurs from five strokes to two, which was the final margin of victory.
Cathrea’s final-round 70, which bested winner Inbee Park’s final-round score by four strokes, was one of two such scores posted today – the other was carded by China’s Shanshan Feng. A pair of 71s, carded by Taiwan’s Meena Lee and American Austin Ernst, were the only other below-par rounds on the day.
Cathrea attributed the turnaround in her performance, from Saturday’s 7-over 79 to her final-round 70, to a lesson learned. When asked in a post-round interview what adjustments she had had to make, she replied, “Just not firing at the pins. I tried to do that yesterday and I shot a lovely 7-over. So I figured today just to go out and play the sections of the green and act like the pin wasn’t there.”
Looking at the numbers for Cathrea’s final round, the stat which stands out is “Greens In Regulation”, where she improved from 12, 10, and 10, in the first three rounds, to 16. Her final-round putting performance was an improvement, by three strokes, over Saturday’s high of 35 putts.
The remainder of Cathrea’s final summer before becoming a college golfer will see her playing in her last U. S. Girls Junior Championship, at Sycamore Hills Golf Club in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in late July, and also the Women’s Trans-National Golf Association Amateur Championship, just over two weeks from now, at Schaffer’s Mill Golf and Lake Club in Truckee, California. Her performance in the U.S. Women’s Open should have cemented her spot on this year’s Junior Solheim Cup Team. That competition, at Inverness Golf Club in Denver, Colorado in mid-August, will be her last as a junior golfer.