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(LEAD) Nervous and excited, Lee Jeong-eun set for title defense at LPGA's oldest major

All News 10:45 December 09, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 15-20)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korean LPGA star Lee Jeong-eun hasn't found the winner's circle all year. This week would be a good time to end the drought, as she enters the oldest major championship in women's golf as the defending champion.

The 75th U.S. Women's Open will begin at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas, on Thursday (local time), with Lee looking to become just the eighth golfer to win consecutive championships. This is the second-to-last tournament of the truncated, coronavirus-plagued 2020 season. It was originally scheduled for May 30-June 2.

In this Getty Images file photo from June 2, 2019, Lee Jeong-eun of South Korea holds the championship trophy after winning the U.S. Women's Open at the Country Club of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. (Yonhap)

Lee won last year's U.S. Women's Open in South Carolina for her maiden LPGA victory. She went on to capture the LPGA Rookie of the Year award, too.

The 24-year-old hasn't won since, though. She played in two LPGA events in February before the tour went into a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee spent most of the year playing on the Korea Ladies Professional Golf Association (KLPGA) Tour, where she recorded five top-10s, including two runner-up finishes, in 14 tournaments.

Lee has played in two LPGA events since rejoining the tour last month. Most recently, Lee tied for 16th at last week's Volunteers of America Classic.

In this Associated Press photo, Lee Jeong-eun of South Korea watches her tee shot on the third hole at Champions Golf Club in Houston during the practice round for the U.S. Women's Open on Dec. 8, 2020. (Yonhap)

The last golfer to defend the U.S. Women's Open title is Karrie Webb from 2001.

At her pretournament press conference, Lee said she was at once nervous and excited about the opportunity to win her second straight U.S. Women's Open.

"I'm a bit nervous, but I'm just trying not to think about it too much," she said. "I just want to feel kind of loosened when I play on the course so I don't feel super tense and then feel nervous all the time. So I'm just going to try the best I can on the course."

Lee is one of nine South Koreans to have captured the U.S. national championship. In that group, Park In-bee, the 2008 and 2013 champion, is the only one with multiple titles.

In this file photo from Oct. 9, 2020, Lee Jeong-eun of South Korea watches her tee shot on the first hole during the second round of the Autech Carrier Championship on the Korea Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour at Sejong Field Golf Club in Sejong, 120 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Of the former champions, Park, Ji Eun-hee, Ryu So-yeon, Chun In-gee and Park Sung-hyun will be in the field this week. Park In-bee and Ryu tied for second at the Volunteers of America Classic.

Park and Kim Sei-young are taking their individual title battles to the wire. Kim holds the slim lead over Park in the Player of the Year points, 106 to 102. Players are awarded points for top-10 finishes, and a major title is worth 60 points, followed by 24 points for a runner-up finish, 18 points for third place, and so forth.

In this Associated Press photo, Ko Jin-young of South Korea watches her tee shot on the 18th hole at Champions Golf Club in Houston during the practice round for the U.S. Women's Open on Dec. 8, 2020. (Yonhap)

Park is the money leader with US$1,187,229, with Kim trailing at $1,133,219. The U.S. Women's Open champion will take home $1 million.

Kim is also closing in on the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, currently occupied by countrywoman Ko Jin-young.

Ko, who has only played in two LPGA events this year, is sitting at 7.69 points. Kim, who broke through with her first major title in October and added another victory in November, has 7.38 points.

In this Associated Press file photo from Nov. 22, 2020, Kim Sei-young of South Korea tees off on the 16th hole during the final round of the Pelican Women's Championship at Pelican Golf Club in Belleair, Florida. (Yonhap)

Kim said reaching the top of the rankings "would feel incredible."

"Since I was young, I dreamt of being No. 1 in the world one day," she said. "And I'm glad that I have a chance to do that."

Kim captured her first career major title in October at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship. She acknowledged coming into a major tournament as a recent major champion brings added pressure with it but added, "Nothing is going to change with my preparation. I'm going to try to stay composed and try to finish strong."

Ko won two majors in 2019 en route to being named the Player of the Year, but winning the U.S. Women's Open would be the ultimate, Ko said.

She recalled watching the 1998 tournament on her father's laps, as the Korean star Pak Se-ri won the championship with a dramatic birdie on the 20th playoff hole. It was a seminal moment in Korean women's golf that inspired a new generation of players, including the 25-year-old Ko.

"I saw that (tournament), and I decided I wanted to play golf," Ko said. "I want to get the U.S. Open trophy."

In this Nov. 15, 2020, file photo provided by the Korea Ladies Professional Golf Association, Choi Hye-jin of South Korea celebrates her victory at the SK Telecom-ADT CAPS Championship at La Vie est Belle Country Club in Chuncheon, 85 kilometers east of Seoul. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

The field will feature 27 South Korean players, including KLPGA stars like Choi Hye-jin and An Na-rin.

Choi was the surprise runner-up at the 2017 U.S. Women's Open as a teenage amateur and the 21-year-old has since become the face of KLPGA, with three consecutive Player of the Year awards dating back to 2018.

An, 24, won twice on the Korean tour this year and will make her U.S. Women's Open debut.

In this Getty Images photo, Park In-bee of South Korea hits a shot to the 18th green during the third round of the Volunteers of America Classic at the Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, on Dec. 5, 2020. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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