KPMG Women's PGA Championship

Yang's major dream just one round away at KPMG Women's PGA Championship

June 22, 2024


Jeff Babineau

By Jeff Babineau, PGA of America Pool Reporter

SAMMAMISH, Wash. – Amy Yang won as an amateur on the Ladies European Tour when she was 16 years old, which was a long, long time ago. She still plays on the LPGA into her mid-30s for one main reason: She wants to stand on the 18th green after winning a major championship. She can almost see it.

She may never get a better opportunity than this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club, where three days of steady play have given the 34-year-old Yang a two-shot cushion heading into Sunday’s final round.

Yang, a five-time LPGA champion from Korea and the winner of the season-ending CME Group Tour Championsip in 2023, moved to 7-under 209 after a third-round 71 on Saturday. She will have an interesting cast trying to catch her in the final round at Sahalee, a venue that has proven both true and punishing to the best female players in golf.

Playing alongside Yang on Sunday will be two players seeking to win their first LPGA title of any kind, let alone a major championship, in Japan’s Miyu Yamashita (70), an 11-time winner in Japan, and Kentuckian Lauren Hartlage, who displayed quiet confidence in shooting 69 Saturday.

Sarah Schmelzel, who took a share of the lead with Yang into the weekend, shot 74, but still has a shot on Sunday, starting just three shots back. She will have to take better advantage of having short clubs into the greens at Sahalee. A group at 3-under 213 features five players, three of whom have won majors before.

Korea’s Jin Young Ko (73), Japan’s Hinako Shibuno (73) and Americans Lexi Thompson (73) and Lilia Vu (68) all know what it takes to win a major; and Washington native Caroline Inglis, looking to improve upon her previous top LPGA finish (T-10), sure would like to find out.

As would Yang, no doubt. She has been thinking about winning majors since she was a little girl inspired by the accomplishments of trailblazer Se Ri Pak, a fellow Korean who started winning majors and did not stop until she was in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

“I dreamed about playing here because of them,” Yang said. “I work hard for this. It’ll mean a lot, but we still got 18 more holes out there, and that’s a lot of golf left for major championship.”

Yang, who went bogey-free on Friday, shooting 68, had a more tumultuous walk on Saturday while playing in the final group, but weathered the storm better than most. She scrambled for a terrific par from under Sahalee’s tall trees left of the par-4 7th, bogeyed the 8th, and answered with a birdie at the difficult 168-yard 9th, where her tee shot settled 8 feet from the hole.

She birdied the par-5 11th, and at 17, another par-3 hole, bounced back strongly again after making bogey, this time making birdie from 36 feet. A bonus. She leads the field in several key statistical categories, including Strokes Gained: Tee to Green (+3.98), Scrambling (86.7 percent) and Strokes Gained: Around the Green (+1.93). On a course where bogeys lurk everywhere, Yang has made just three in as many rounds.

She said as the holes are dwindling down toward the finish, she continues to get nervous. But she will deal with it.

“I try not to think about it, but it does get into my head, and I get nervous, really nervous out there,” Yang said. “It’s nothing I can do but just embrace it. Embrace the feeling and just enjoy being out there.”

The Americans that will try to make up the difference on Sunday against Yang all have taken interesting paths to get there. Vu, 26, won two majors a year ago, and is just returning after two months off due to a back injury. In her return to tournament golf a week ago in Michigan, she won. At Sahalee this week, she has added to her repertoire, shaping shots both ways around trees and corners instead of sticking to her regular “push draw.”

“I think my goal was to get better every single day this week,” said Vu, ranked second in the Rolex Rankings. “I know it’s really demanding. You can’t ask for too much at a major.”

Thompson, 29, announced at the U.S. Women’s Open that this season will be her final one as a competitor. She found something in her game a week ago at the Meijer LPGA, where she lost in a playoff, and continues to play with freedom. She has won one major, the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship (now Chevron Championship).

She made four bogeys in Saturday’s 73, but kept fighting to give herself a chance on Sunday.

“It's a great golf course,” Thompson said. “It's definitely a challenge, and that's how a major should be. You just have to stay patient knowing it's going to happen, and hopefully make the birdies when you do have the opportunities.”

Hartlage, 26, likely is the biggest unknown among the contenders. She earned an LPGA card for 2022 through the Q-Series and has gone back to regain it after each of her first two seasons. But she is learning all the time, and this week she’s been able to keep her tee shots in play, producing scoring opportunities.

“Yeah, I'm super excited,” she said regarding Sunday. “I've never been in this position before and this is something that I dreamed about growing up as a kid.”

Her coach, Grant Waite, is a former PGA Tour player who competed in the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee. He said Hartlage is a hard worker who is progressing quite nicely.

Will the moment be too big for her? Waite has no doubt she has everything she will need to meet it.

“Anyone who shoots 63 in the final round of a Qualifying School tells me that they can play under pressure,” Waite said. “This is pressure, yes. But when your whole livelihood is on the line in one round, and you go out and shoot something like that to pass others and get your card, it tells me that she can rise to the occasion.

“Now, I’m not saying that she is going to win ... but I know that it’s in her.”