[PHOTO: Ezra Shaw]

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship turned, in a moment, from a neck-and-neck race to the makings of a runaway. On the par-4 eighth at Sahalee Country Club, the hardest hole on the course, veteran Amy Yang stuck her approach to seven feet, closest of anyone in the field on the final day. Yang, holding a one-shot lead in her 75th major appearance, then watched her inexperienced groupmates buckle.

World No.276 Lauren Hartlage, playing in her first major of 2024, chunked her chip from the front of the green and made double-bogey. Miyu Yamashita, who plays on the Japan LPGA Tour, had to lay up with her approach from an awkward lie, then hit her third into the greenside bunker. She two-putted for a double bogey.

Yang’s birdie turned her one-stroke lead into four, a three-shot swing that started the march to a three-stroke victory, only made close by late, self-inflicted wobbling, for her first career major title.

“I always want to win a major and I came close several times, and I started doubting myself if I ever going to win a major before I retire because I’ve been or tour quite a while,” Yang said. “I am so grateful and very, very happy to win a major.”

Yang, 34, has spent nearly half of her life on the LPGA. She is familiar to Australians as she was schooled on the Gold Coast, won the 2005 Queensland Amateur Championship – the youngest-ever winner – and in 2006 claimed the ANZ Ladies Masters while still an amateur.

Despite her longevity on tour, the five-time winner only earned her first title in the US last November at the CME Group Tour Championship. Her other four all came in South-East Asia.

A steady career notwithstanding, Yang began in recent seasons to re-emphasise her focus on golf. She started working with mental coach Paul Dewland three years ago, who encouraged her to accept the negative, to figure out what she can and cannot control.

Yang’s scrambling over four rounds was impressive; she got up and down 76.2 percent of the time to lead the field. Her short-game magic was on display today with a 67-foot chip-in birdie on the fifth hole. With the rest of the field stuck in neutral, Yang’s birdies on the 11th and 13th ballooned her lead to seven.

Her finish was bumpy, including a three-putt bogey at 16 and a double-bogey on the par-3 17th, cutting her lead to three. She closed with two-putt par, concluding what Yang told her caddie, Jan Meierling, was the longest 18 holes of her life.

The even-par 72 secured her sixth career victory and place in the Olympics, her second time representing South Korea. Initial Rolex projections have her moving inside the top 15.

“I really wanted to represent South Korea and that was one of my biggest goals for this year,” Yang said. “Missing cuts past few tournaments and I saw my world ranking went down. So I wasn’t sure if this winning is enough to make the team, but I made it, so I’m very grateful for that.”

Hartlage, 26, appeared up to the task of hanging with Yang early on. She had played 28 consecutive holes bogey-free to charge from four-over-par to two off the lead going into the final round, and Hartlage kept a clean card through her first six holes. But she briefly crashed afterwards, regained her equilibrium, and finished with a 74, finishing T-5 for a career-changing wee. The $US378,447 pay cheque is more than six times her previous high of $58,483, which she earned with a T-6 at last year’s Lotte Championship.

“It’s a really big accomplishment,” Hartlage said. “It’s my best finish on tour and in a major, so really good for your confidence. And kind of getting that momentum of bringing it into the rest of the year will help. Now I have some more starts for some of the other major tournaments.”

Past major champions loomed if Yang faltered, but none applied pressure. Lilia Vu, after her victorious return to the LPGA in the Meijer LPGA Classic from a back injury, pushed up the leaderboard, though she eventually finished with a 71 and tied Yamashita and Jin Young Ko for second.

“It’s just high stakes, high pressure, and wasn’t able to do anything about it,” Vu said. “Pretty proud of my first major back coming out of an injury.”

Yang pointed to South Korean legend Se Ri Pak’s name on the championship trophy from Pak’s 2006 victory in the Women’s PGA. Yang’s major victory cements her as a fellow South Korean all-time LPGA great, with her first-place cheque of $US1.56 million moving her to sixth in career money in LPGA history ($US15,555,362), passing Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa ($US14,863,331).

Even with accomplishing her career bucket-list goal of winning a major, Yang’s love of the game keeps her wanting to compete.

“Some days golf feels so easy and feels so fun; other days it feels like I want to retire very soon,” Yang said. “But I’ve been through this so many years now, and, yeah, I remember told [my caddie] I lose motivation here and there but that’s a lie. I still do enjoy playing a lot.”