DECATUR, Ill., June 19, 2010 - Jennifer Song wasted little time in making her mark as a first-week professional. Song won her pro debut and crashed the tournament record books, leaving the field six shots back at the $125,000 Tate & Lyle Players Championship.
The former University of Southern California All-American carded rounds of 68-67-65-61 to smash the tournament's 72-hole record at 19-under 261 at Hickory Point Golf Club. She also tied the previous 18-hole mark with her sizzling 9-under-par score of 61 in today's final round of the 26th annual event.
"This win means a lot," said Song, 20, of Ann Arbor, Mich., who pocketed $17,500 for her first professional payday. "Turning professional and stepping into the real world is special, but it's also scary. Honestly, I don't know what was going through my head today. It was like magic."
Esther Choe of Scottsdale, Ariz., who is staging her own professional revival this season, grabbed sole possession of second place at 13-under 267 with rounds of 66-68-69-64.
Tied for third at 9-under 271 was the trio of Tzu-Chi Lin (68) of Taichung, Taiwan, Pornanong Phatlum (69) of Chaiyaphum, Thailand, and Mo Martin (70) of Altadena, Calif.
But from start to finish in today's final round, Song was untouchable. Try as they might, no one could catch her.
"Jennifer's a great player and she kept going lower and lower," said Choe, 20, who hit 16 greens in regulation today to post her career-low professional round of 64. "She was just on fire and there wasn't much I could do."
"She played this round pretty flawlessly," added Martin, a two-time Tour winner who was paired with Song for the second day. "Jennifer definitely kept her foot on the pedal all day."
Song's magical final round put an exclamation point on her week. She hammered her first drive uphill on the 371-yard opening hole and had a 52-degree wedge in her hands for her second shot.
"I was standing there with a wedge and I said, 'It's time to attack,'" said Song, who hit her approach to 10 feet for a birdie on the first hole.
That attack continued for 18 holes with birdies from 15 feet on both holes 5 and 6. She added six more birdies for a back-nine score of 30 in her bogey-free round. Song's back nine featured a string of four consecutive birdies on holes 13 through16.
On the 18th, she flirted with a left fairway bunker off the tee and discovered that she had left herself a tricky lie on her second shot. With one foot on the ground and her left foot in the bunker, Song did what she did so many times in college golf: She "fiddled" with her swing and club selection to create a shot.
"Since my lie was horrible, I decided to take one more club and hit a choke-down, three-quarter 9-iron," said Song, acknowledging that she was often the butt of her college team's jokes when it came to manufacturing shots, and then trying to explain them.
But that 119-yard, play-by-feel approach shot landed three feet from the hole to set up her final birdie of the day and her first win as a professional. As Song tapped in, an appreciative gallery who has watched past champions Tammie Green (1985, 1986), Lorena Ochoa (2002), and most recently Vicky Hurst (2008) and Mina Harigae (2009) pass through Decatur, rose from their seats to applaud the young pro.
The feeling was that next year, they would be driving over to neighboring Springfield to watch Song play at the LPGA's State Farm Classic. And just as it had been with Ochoa, Hurst and Harigae, this week was yet another glimpse of a young professional on her way in a hurry to the LPGA.
With her victory, Song joins at least three other Duramed FUTURES Tour alums now on the LPGA Tour who won their professional debuts. Angela Stanford of Texas won her first FUTURES event as a pro in 2000 in Lakeland, Fla., while Jimin Kang of South Korea won her pro debut in 2002 in Syracuse, N.Y. Australian Katherine Hull also came out of Pepperdine University in 2003 and made the Aurora Health Care FUTURES Charity Golf Classic her first win in Sussex, Wis.
Song's final-round score of 9-under 61 tied the new record set earlier in the week by rookie Rachel Connor of Manchester, England, who posted a 61 in the first round. And Song's 19-under 261 eclipsed the mark of 272 (-16) set by 2006 champion Salimah Mussani of Burlington, Ontario (as a par 72) and the 8-under 272 mark posted by Hurst in 2008 (as a par 70).
"It was cool to watch," said Mussani, who missed the cut, but walked the course this weekend and watched Song play her last two rounds. "It was pretty impressive."
When this week began, a torrential rainstorm swept through on Tuesday and brought the creek out of its banks that bisects the Hickory Point course. Nobody, least of all the rookie unfamiliar with the ebb and flow of Midwestern flash floods, knew if this tournament could even be played over 72 holes.
Normally played as a par-72 course at 6,594 yards, the flooded par-5 sixth hole became a par 3, making the course play at par 70, with a water-adjusted measurement of 6,219 yards. And with the help of a flood-experienced grounds crew and Mother Nature's mercy, the floodwaters that overtook the No. 1 and No. 9 fairways miraculously receded into its banks with only a 90-minute delay for Thursday's opening round.
That was the only green light that Song needed. Arriving in Decatur fresh off her last amateur event as a member of the winning 2010 U.S. Curtis Cup team, Song had a lot of thoughts buzzing in her head. She had actually met Mussani at the Curtis Cup and the Canadian told the soon-to-be rookie pro that she owned the Decatur 72-hole record. Mussani's number was in Song's head today as she hit 16 under and kept going. And when she won the Decatur tournament that was also Lorena Ochoa's first professional victory, that milestone also resonated with Song.
"Lorena is my role model," said Song, who became only the second woman and seventh player in history to hold two U.S. Golf Association titles in one year when she won the 2009 U.S. Women's Amateur Championship and 2009 U.S. Women's Public Links title. "Following in Lorena's path is the greatest path I could ever follow."
But Song wasn't done yet. As she stood on the 18th green at the awards ceremony, the rookie pro made a veteran decision when she announced that she would give one-third of her prize money to a children's charity in Decatur.
"I want to do that for the rest of my professional career when I win," she said. "I made a promise with my parents to try to help people who need help."
Song fought back tears of emotion as she held a microphone in her hands for her first champion's speech. And when she was done, this time, the golf fans in the stands rose from their seats again. Their first standing ovation was for her golf shots. This time, it was for her heart.
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FRANK UIJLENBROEK WORLDSPORTPICS