NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — As Ai Miyazato confidently walked down the 18th fairway, serenaded by a loud collection of supportive cheers and applause, Cristie Kerr’s head was pointed directly downward.
Miyazato still had three more shots remaining Sunday during the final round of the LPGA Safeway Classic at Pumpkin Ridge’s Ghost Creek Course.
But Kerr knew the tournament was over. Her chance to force a playoff had drowned when an approach shot at the par-4 18th hole had sliced right, disappearing into a pond that borders the green. And Kerr had lost more than an opportunity to push Miyazato to the brink — the No. 1 ranked player in the sport was no longer on top.
While Kerr bogeyed the hole, Miyazato won the Classic by two shots.
The Japanese native finished at 11-under par for a three-round total of 205 on the par-72 course. In turn, she captured her fifth victory of the season. And the premier position in the LPGA again belongs to the physically small but psychologically enormous Miyazato.
“My goal before the start of this year was to become player of the year,” said Miyazato, who claimed $225,000 as part of the $1,500,000 overall purse. “So, I’m aiming towards that.”
She is on her way.
Miyazato has now been ranked No. 1 three times this year. And after taking a three-stroke lead into the third and final round of the Classic, she overcame a slow start — highlighted by a second-hole bogey — to outlast Kerr and a field of late-surging competitors.
“Today was a really tough day,” Miyazato said. “I was pretty nervous on the front nine.”
Miyazato’s rough early going opened the door for Kerr, the 2008 Classic champion who began the day four strokes off the lead.
But Kerr recorded five birdies Sunday between holes 6 through 12, quickly climbing up the scoreboard and drawing Miyazato’s eye.
“I put pressure on her, so that she didn’t run away from the field,” said Kerr, who shot 2 under during the final round. “Unfortunately, the last five holes I wasn’t able to get a couple birdies to pull ahead.”
Kerr was not the only one to press Miyazato.
Song-Hee Kim, who vaulted into final-round contention after shooting 8 under Saturday to tie a course record, held par Sunday on holes 2 through 6, then birdied four of the next five.
An impressive birdie at the par-3 11th hole — during which Kim chipped in a 30-foot shot from the rough — temporarily pulled her even with Miyazato. It also kicked off a brief three-way race, as Kim, Miyazato and Kerr traded a series of well-placed strokes and stayed within one stroke of each other.
But Kim faltered at 13, and proceeded to bogey three of the next four holes.
Her slide then set up a late back-nine duel between Miyazato and Kerr, who came into the tournament as the Nos. 2 and 1 ranked players in the sport.
“I watch the scoreboard almost every time,” Miyazato said. “I played every hole knowing where I stood in the tournament.”
While Miyazato stayed steady, shooting par over the final eight holes, Kerr remained one stroke behind through 17.
A strong tee shot by Kerr at 18 appeared to set up a possible playoff. But as soon as Kerr struck her approach shot, she knew it was off.
She had spent the entire week working with a coach to perfect her coil — the amount a golfer rotates their body before they strike the ball. But during Kerr’s most important shot of the tournament, bad luck unexpectedly trumped skill and technique.
“I just said to myself, ‘How can you do that? You have a perfect club. Seriously,’ ” Kerr said.
Kerr refused to allow her pond drop at 18 to negatively color what had otherwise been a strong run, though. She finished tied with Na Yeon Choi for second place at 9 under. And the No. 2 ranked female golfer in the world knows that No. 1 is not far away.
“I was aggressive and I just didn’t pull it off,” Kerr said.