DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., In 18 events on the Duramed FUTURES Tour over the last two years, Misun Cho had never cracked a top-10 finish. Until today, and then, she won.
The petite South Korean, whose English is laced with an Australian accent, tied for the lead of the $100,000 iMPACT Invitational on her third hole and never trailed for the rest of today's final round. Cho carded rounds of 71-69-70 to win her first Duramed FUTURES Tour title by four shots at 210 (-6).
"I worked hard for this and I feel like I deserved it," said Cho, 21, a second-year professional of Cheongju, South Korea, who jumped from 32nd on the Tour's 2009 season money list to No. 2. "Knowing that I'm on the right track makes me feel confident and comfortable that I've improved my game."
Rookie Mina Harigae (71) of Monterey, Calif., finished in solo second at 214 (-2), followed by veteran Nicole Jeray (69) of Berwyn, Ill., and first-round leader Paola Moreno (75) of Cali, Colombia, who tied for third at 215 (-1).
Second-round leader Christi Cano of San Antonio never got on track today, enabling Cho to draw even with a bogey on the third hole, and then surge ahead when the Texan took bogey over the next three consecutive holes. Cano carded an uncharacteristically rocky final round of 79 on a day that produced eight bogeys and a single birdie. She dropped into a tie for seventh at one-over 217.
But the Legends Course at LPGA International played tough all week. On Friday, the wind blew and scoring soared on the 6,464-yard course that also serves as the site for the annual LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament.
Still, Cho, who spent four months in the off-season working with Orlando-based teaching legend Phil Ritson at Orange County National, played under par each day. She stayed steady and waited for opportunities on the course that demands precision shot making. Last year on this course, she drove home from the Daytona tournament with a tie for 40th at seven-over-par 223. Today, with a completely rebuilt swing, Cho was a different player.
"She has made a lot of progress, but she's only 60 percent where she can be," said Ritson, who also revamped the game of Cho's Australian friend, Sarah-Jane (Kenyon) Smith, who earned her 2009 LPGA Tour card through the Duramed FUTURES Tour last season.
The two women knew each other in Australia and Cho watched her friend's remarkable transformation into a more powerful and effective player last year. So as soon as the 2008 Duramed FUTURES Tour season was over, Cho went knocking at Ritson's door. Ritson had never heard of Misun Cho, but her friendship with Kenyon opened the door, and when the veteran swing coach took one look at Cho's stroke on the practice tee, he knew he was getting ready to embark on his next swing overhaul with a young professional who would benefit from change.
"I saw real athletic movement in her swing and I thought, this girl can be a star," said Ritson, who has coached the PGA's K.J. Choi and LPGA players Mi Hyun Kim, Gloria Kim and U.S. Women's Open champion Birdie Kim.
At just under 5-foot-3, and tipping the scales at 125 pounds, Cho came to Ritson hitting her drives a mere 220 yards. In four months, she has added between 28-35 yards off the tee and transformed her swing into a more predictable stroke. Her fitness level also improved, making the small-framed player a pro with giant potential.
In today's final round, she drained a birdie on the second hole from three feet and rolled in a 15-footer for birdie on the fourth hole. After that, the rest of the field could only chase Cho as she built a four-shot lead with nine holes to play.
Cho gave back a shot to the field with a bogey on the 13th, but rolled in a two-footer for birdie on the 16th. At that point, only Harigae and Alison Walshe (73) of Westford, Mass., had time to chase, but Walshe gave up two bogeys on her last six holes to tie Sophia Sheridan (72) of Guadalajara, Mexico for fifth at even-par 216. Conversely, Harigae, playing with Walshe, birdied two of her last six holes to grab sole possession of second.
"I was so worried about making mistakes on the front nine and I was playing really tentatively, so on the back nine, I told myself to just let go and let my game take over," said Harigae, a rookie who left Duke University after a half season to turn pro. "It helped me to relax playing with Alison because I played on the [U.S.] Curtis Cup team with her."
But nobody was able to catch Cho today. She hit 13 greens and 13 fairways in regulation and used 29 putts in today's final round. For most of the day, the field was playing for second place.
"No, I didn't win today with a [history of a] lot of top 10s," said Cho, who played collegiately for one year at Pepperdine University. "I didn't have a swing that could handle it under pressure."
But after many hours on the range with Ritson and a small mountain of practice balls - hoping to repeat what her Australian pal did last year -- now, she does.
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