SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- Just when you thought the pipeline might be exhausted, South Korea delivered yet another young female golf prodigy into majors prominence Friday at the U.S. Women's Open.
With just four tournaments of LPGA Tour experience to her credit, 22-year-old Sung Hyun Park impressively conquered CordeValle Golf Club for a second straight day. Park looked every bit a player to be reckoned with after a 6-under par 66 that made her the leader by two strokes at the tournament's halfway point.
South Koreans have won seven of the past 11 Opens, and even with world No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand now very much back in contention after a 5-under 66 that left her three shots out of the lead, Park could challenge to become the latest surprise winner, following up 20-year-old In Gee Chun a year ago.
While shy on an LPGA resume, what little there is to go on about Park suggests she is very much the real deal. Of the 16 previous rounds she's played in tour events, she's shot under par in 14 of them. Now she's added two more sub-par efforts with her 2-under 70 Thursday under difficult conditions followed by her one-bogey, seven-birdie performance in Round 2 that left her two strokes up on fellow South Koreans Amy Yang and Mirim Lee.
Ko is tied for fourth with Japan's Haru Nomura, three strokes behind, and four players are tied for sixth four shots back, among them the highest-placing Americans, Danielle Kang and Jessica Korda.
It should be added that of Park's four LPGA starts, she's finished tied for second, 13th, fourth and sixth, and has soared to No. 18 in the Rolex world rankings as a result. She was also Rookie of the Year on the Korean LPGA Tour in 2014 and won three times on that circuit last year. So she's not exactly a secret or a novice, even though she sounded like one after her latest scintillating score.
"This is my first time in a USGA tournament," Park said through an interpreter. "And coming to the tournament, I didn't even think about winning because this is the first time for me. I would like more experience with the USGA, LPGA. I'm just trying to enjoy this tournament. That's why I am more comfortable. I don't even think about the winning, I just enjoy the play."
It's possible she may have started thinking about her position near the end of her round. After playing flawlessly over the first 16 holes, carding nine pars and birdies to reach 9 under and move ahead of first-day leader Lee, she had a bogey at the 17th and then drove her tee shot on the par-5 18th right and underneath a footbridge. But hitting three, she managed to save par by laying up perfectly in front of the green, hitting her approach past the hole but on line, then sinking a 15-foot downhill putt from the back edge.
So much for nerves getting the best of her.
Lee, meanwhile, who shot a first-round 64 with a U.S. Open record 10 birdies, hadn't even started her round as Park finished tied with her at 8-under. Playing the unpredictable winds and harder greens in the afternoon, Lee hung tough and actually made the turn at 1-under for the round and still had a one-shot lead at 9-under. But she faltered with a double bogey on the 10th and two more bogeys at the 12th and 14th, leaving Park in sole possession of the lead. Lee's playing partner, American Christie Kerr, fell from a tie for second to a tie for 19th after a 76.
Yang, tied for second, has had two unusual days. She carved out a 5-under 67 on the first day, playing under the more difficult afternoon conditions, when stroke average was 1.84 higher than those teeing off in the morning. Playing more favorable conditions Friday morning, she had a decent round -- 1-under 71 -- but she admitted it could have been a lot better, particularly after making four straight birdies to get to 8-under at one point.
As for Ko, who has two major victories but is looking for her first U.S. Open triumph, she didn't even want to talk about possibly winning the tournament at the midway stage.
"It would be a tournament that I would love to win," she said. "But it takes a lot of great golf, a lot of patience to win this championship, and there's a lot of golf to be played. So I don't really want to get ahead of myself."
Notable players failing to make the cut included popular 2014 champion Michelle Wie and South Korean legend Se Ri Pak.
Defending champion Chun also missed the cut with a triple bogey on her final hole of the day.
This article was written by Carl Steward from East Bay Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.