To make sense of Birdie Kim's ascent from sand and obscurity to the pinnacle of women's golf in America - with one shot out of nowhere - you have to begin with a confession. It made no sense.
Other than that, it was wonderful, electrifying, and altogether loony.
There she stood Sunday, Kim of South Korea, up to her ankles in sand in a bunker on the 18th hole. It was a landscape so intimidating that nobody among the world's best women golfers had birdied the hole on the tournament's climactic day. She was surrounded by impetuous teenage prodigies of women's golf, so much so that there were times when the leader board of the US Women's Open at Cherry Hills Village in Colorado resembled a dance card at the junior prom.
Her playing partner of the moment, 15-year-old Michelle Wie, hits a golf ball so powerfully that she prefers competing with men. In front of her, in the clubhouse, fidgeted Brittany Lang, also of the adolescent brigade, with a score good enough to win. Behind Kim, charging up the course with her ponytail swinging in rhythm with her dangling earrings, was Morgan Pressel of Florida, a month past her 17th birthday. There were more of these super children of golf on the premises, but like Annika Sorenstam, the grand duchess of the women's tour, they had shot themselves out of the running on one of the most demoralizing golf courses in America.
Finally there were Kim and Pressel. You could not have blamed Kim, at the musty old age of 23, for feeling like some kind of golfing nanny in a crowd of high schoolers. It's the way women's golf has evolved at the highest tiers, and the young stars' surge into prominence lifted this tournament in its final hours into one of the year's most absorbing hours of sports television.
Did they behave like hard-core competitors? Skilled shotmakers? Impulsive in the accredited style of teenagers?
All of the above. A few cried, a few shrieked, and mercifully none of them hauled out a cellphone. It was rare theater. Sorenstam, from another generation, receded into a cameo role. Seeking her third grand slam and in her prime at 34 as the best women's golfer in the world, she seemed oddly misplaced. She finished nine strokes over par but hardly appeared crushed. Wie, lanky, confident, and hugely gifted, mysteriously crumbled on the last day and shot an 82.
The door was open for the agreeably brash Pressel, who swept toward the finish with her bagful of dramatics, swatting a misbehaving putter, closing her fist combatively when she scored, pleased with her extraordinary talent.
In the meantime, Kim was fading, botching some of the final holes, looking supremely short of confidence. She is the Korean Kim who began life as Ju-Yun Kim, but the family name is so common in Korea that six Kims now compete in US golf. To establish an identity, Kim chose a nickname - Birdie - certain to be unfailingly unique in competitive golf. Until Sunday, though, she had set off no skyrockets as a force on the women's tour. She'd finished only once in the top 10 in two years as a pro.
But Sunday she fought her way into the championship mix, dropping the critical putts when she had to, playing under control, but never seeming completely sure. And finally she and Pressel were even, 4 over par for the tournament, and Lang was in the clubhouse at 5 over. The 18th at Cherry Hills is long, hard, and forbidding. Birdie's second flopped into the bunker. From there, a par 4 to beat Lang and to match Pressel seemed unlikely. A bogey 5 was more probable. "I was never a good bunker player," she said later.
She swung her sand wedge, the ball popped out of the bunker and rolled toward the hole. It could have been flagged for speeding. And then it hit the flagstick and cuddled itself in the hole. Kim lifted her arms, overcome. Back on the fairway Pressel put her hands to her head, startled and crushed. Her second shot landed in the fringe rough. She ended up with a bogey 5.
Kim offered no fairy-tale explanation. She said she was just trying to get the ball close to hole. The fairy tale came later, in the form of a check for $580,000.