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Mamiko Higa falls short as Jeongeun Lee6 rises to win U.S. Women's Open

AP, Kyodo

Six is certainly a magic number for U.S. Women’s Open champion Jeongeun Lee6.

The 23-year-old South Korean won her first major title Sunday, the first $1 million women’s winner’s check ever handed out by the USGA and her first victory as an LPGA Tour rookie. And she did it by shooting 1-under 70 at the Country Club of Charleston to finish at, naturally, 6-under 278.

“This is kind of really interesting how I finished 6 under at an LPGA tournament,” Lee6 said through an interpreter. “So, this is really lucky number to me.”

Lee6 has the number in her name because she was the sixth player with the name on the Korean LPGA. She has embraced the number, answering to it and writing a large “6” on her balls. Her South Korean fan club is called “Lucky 6.” Jeongeun Lee5 tied for 34th at 4 over, 10 shots behind Lee6.

Mamiko Higa, who began the round one shot behind the leaders, finished fifth. Higa shot a 65 for the lowest round ever by a player making her U.S. Women’s Open debut to take the lead after the tournament’s opening day. But on Sunday, she failed to recover from a poor start which saw her rack up five bogeys in the first 13 holes.

Higa finally got her first birdie of the day on No. 14, but it was too late as before that, Lee6, her playing partner, had opened up a six-shot gap on her.

“There’s no point talking about ifs and buts, but if I had gotten that (birdie) on the front nine, the momentum might have changed,” Higa said.

“I’m not happy with my score. I wanted to do better, but I gained a lot from this experience and it was a learning week. What I learned here I want to download into my body, so that I can keep playing with passion and enthusiasm,” she said.

Higa closed with a 74 to finish at 3-under, tied with four others.

Hisako Higuchi, winner of the LPGA Championship in 1977, remains the only Japanese woman to have won an LPGA major.

Lee6 opened up a three-shot lead at the top with three holes to play before facing some nerves with bogeys on the 16th and 18th holes. But when third-round co-leader Celine Boutier’s blast from a greenside bunker on the 72nd hole rolled off the green, Lee6 had the biggest win of her life.

“I didn’t even expect to win the tournament this fast,” Lee6 said. “I think this is very lucky that I won this major championship tournament.”

Lee6, playing two groups ahead of Boutier, was practicing putts when the Frenchwoman could not make the sand shot and bent down in joy when her victory was secure.

“I felt pretty nervous starting on the holes 16, 17, and 18 after opening the large lead,” Lee6 said. “But I tried the best that I can.”

The victory came a few days after Tiger Woods’ former swing coach, Hank Haney, made disparaging remarks about women’s golf by predicting a “Korean” would win and “I’d go with Lee.”

Haney sent Tweets on Sunday night congratulating Lee6 and saying his prediction was based on statistics and facts. “Korean women are absolutely dominating the LPGA Tour. If you asked me again, my answer would be the same but worded more carefully.”

Lee6 said her focus had been fully on the tournament. Because she hasn’t mastered English, “I didn’t really understand him that much, so I didn’t really think about it,” she said.