By Kang Seung-woo
Seo Hee-kyung cruised to her maiden LPGA Tour title at the inaugural Kia Classic Monday (KST).
The 23-year-old South Korean shot a 2-under 70 on the final day for a 12-under 276 total to clinch a six-stroke victory over compatriot Park In-bee in the $1.7 million tournament in Carlsbad, Calif.
Clinching the title, also the first of the season by a South Korean, Seo, an 11-time champion on the Korea LPGA who played on a sponsor's exemption, has become the 15th non-LPGA member to win an event.
``It is amazing. I had only dreamed about this, but it came true,'' said Seo, whose best finishes were a pair of ties for 15th at last year's SBS Open and Hana Bank-Kolon Championship, held in February and October, respectively.
``I just feel so good and happy. I really appreciate J Golf and Kia giving me this great opportunity to play here.''
With the victory, she has earned the option of accepting LPGA membership now for the rest of the season or for 2011.
But she is still deliberating.
``I have not decided yet. I just want to finish this season well, and then I will think about it. My goal is the KLPGA this year, and then the season after that I will see,'' said Seo.
``I don't know, there are lots of things to do now, so I haven't been able to think about that yet.''
Seol opened the final round with a five-shot advantage and carded a 1-under on the front nine.
After the turn, she made back-to-back birdies at Nos. 13 and 14 to seal the win.
Michelle Wie trailed Seo by two until the 10th, but she was penalized two strokes for grounding her club in a hazard after hitting out of the water near the 11th green.
``I knew I grounded the club. At the same time I knew that I felt off-balance. I closed my eyes and hit the shot and grounded my club so I wouldn't fall into the water while wearing a white skirt,'' Wie said.
``I accept the fact that it was a penalty stroke if you ground a club. But the fact is I felt like I was off balance. That's why I grounded the club. That's a rule so there's nothing I can do about it.''
Seo will compete at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the season's first major, next week in Rancho Mirage, Calif. thanks to her first place in last year's money rankings of the KLPGA.
She played in the tournament last year but failed to make the cut.
Along with the top two golfers on the leaderboard, South Korea had three more in the top 10.
Shin Ji-yai and Lee Jee-young tied for third at 283 and Kim Song-hee placed 10th at 3-under.