GLADSTONE — Azahara Munoz is never going to forget her first LPGA Tour win. It was as emotional as it was controversial and possibly tainted.
Munoz beat Candie Kung 2 and 1 on Sunday to win the Sybase Match Play Championship, a title that was set up when Morgan Pressel was penalized for slow play while in control of their semifinal match.
Pressel was one of the first to hug and congratulate Munoz, her good friend, but she also had to be feeling this could have been her first win since 2008 just as easily.
It all reverted to the morning semifinal in which Munoz and Pressel were both slow, although Munoz was admittedly a little slower. They were warned about slow play after nine holes and put on the clock after No. 11.
The 12th hole changed everything. Pressel won it with a par to seemingly take a 3-up lead.
However, before she could tee off on No. 13, tour official Doug Brecht informed her that she was being penalized for slow play. She had taken 2 minutes, 9 seconds to play her three shots, 39 seconds over the 30-second limit per shot.
In match play, a time penalty is the loss of the previous hole and that handed the admittedly slow-playing Munoz the hole. She was 1-down and back in the match.
“It was tough timing because it was a really big, I think, turning point in the match, going from 2-up to 3-up, and then all of a sudden back to 1-up,” said Pressel, who was on the verge of tears several times in a news conference after she beat Vicky Hurst 2 and 1 in the consolation match. “You know, it was — I mean, it was really unfortunate.”
The time penalty was the first for Pressel in seven years on the tour and it left a very bad taste in her mouth, knowing Munoz was the slower player.
“I think that slow play is one of our biggest problems on tour,” Pressel said. “You know, I think that what bothers me the most is that we were given sufficient warning and she really didn’t do anything to speed up and then I was penalized for it.”
Munoz said was apologetic, adding she was surprised Pressel was penalized.
“I know I was slow and I really apologized for that and I told her, but I do feel both of us were slow and she was the only one getting penalized, and that was not fair and I know that,” Munoz said. “I would never make her lose a hole.”
The Syabase is the first of two New Jersey stops on the LPGA Tour this spring. Pressel, Munoz and nearly all of the other 64 players who competed here also will be in the field at the Shoprite LPGA Classic in Galloway Township from June 1-3.
The slow-play penalty didn’t end the controversy in the semifinal match.
Munoz evened the match with a birdie at No. 15, a stroke that was delayed when Pressel contended the Spaniard touched the line of her putt before striking the ball.
Match referee Marty Robinson had two committee officials away from the 15th review the videotape of the one camera angle they had of the hole. Robinson said they could not see any evidence of a rule being broken. Munoz then made her putt.
Pressel lost the match when she bogeyed the next two holes, missing a 3-foot par putt at No. 17.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, the senior vice president of tour operations. “This is one of those days where it is very tough to be an LPGA official. It’s not an easy thing to deliver a pace of play penalty to a player in a situation like this.”
Daly-Donofrio said two other players have been penalized for slow play this year and five were penalized last year. Pressel was the only one disciplined in the tournament, although two others face fines for slow play.
When asked about officials deciding events instead of the players, Daly-Donofrio said that USGA rules have to be upheld. Rule 6-7 says players must play without such delays and it’s up to the tour to apply its policy.
Daly-Donofrio said slow play is a concern throughout golf, which was evident on the PGA Tour last week when Kevin Na was very slow at The Players Championship. However the PGA Tour has not handed out a slow play stroke penalty in more than a decade.
The afternoon matches were almost anticlimactic.
Munoz, an NCAA champion at Arizona State, took a 2-up lead at Nos. 11 and 12 when Kung ran into problems and never lost it.
Munoz was defensive when asked about the win being controversial and arguably tainted.
“I don’t care what — you guys are the ones that are going to say that, not people,” said Munoz, who earned $375,000. “You guys can say whatever you want to. You know, I didn’t do anything wrong. She lost the hole because she was slow, I wasn’t. I was slow before, but not when the clock was on and that’s when you can’t be slow.”
Kung, who beat top-ranked Yani Tseng in the third round and topped Hurst 2 and 1 in the semifinals, earned $225,000 in just missing her chance to win for the first time since 2008.
Pressel played a bogey-free 5 under for 17 holes in beating Hurst in the third-place match.
“It was extremely difficult,' said Pressel, who made $150,000. “It’s certainly, the last place I wanted to be was on the golf course.”
Hurst, who was looking for her first tour win, earned $112,500.