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Piller's surprising charge takes unexpected turn ; Second-year pro's hopes of winning LPGA Championship dashed by double bogey on No. 17

Gerina Piller was charging up the leader board, looking like she might just author a thoroughly unexpected ending to the Wegmans LPGA Championship.

But on a hole which demands birdie at Locust Hill Country Club, the par-5 17th, she collapsed with a double-bogey seven that dropped her out of a share of the lead.

The trouble started off the tee when Piller committed the cardinal sin of the week -- missing the fairway. Her tee shot was way left in the trees, forcing her to chip out with her second. The chip, however, ran through the fairway and forced another shot from the rough.

"I kind of knew I had a chance on 16 when I made a birdie," Piller said. "We kind of had to wait on the [17th] tee. I kept telling myself, 'just keep doing what I'm doing.' There's no reason to change it. I just got up there and swung. I wouldn't have done it any other way."

Piller's third shot came up short left of the green, once again forcing her to play from the rough.

"It was very difficult," she said of her fourth shot, an attempted flop that advanced the ball just a couple yards. "Some of them I hit a little long and some I hit short. I really worked before the round on hitting those chip shots. It was tough not getting on the green, but some of those shots can easily get away from you."

The damage wasn't done. Piller's fifth shot from the fringe left about a 6-foot bogey putt, which she rolled by. The double bogey dropped her from 5-under to 3-under, which is where she finished. That was good for a tie for sixth place, a career best for the second-year LPGA Tour player.

On the way to the 18th green, Piller pulled out her yardage book. In it, she keeps several Bible verses. She read one of her favorites, Matthew 14:30, before she played the final hole.

"I tried to put things in perspective," she said. "I'm just glad to be here and I'm very thankful for the grace that I've been given in my life."

Piller gutted out a par on No. 18 despite missing the fairway and putting her second shot over the green.

"That was huge," she said. "It definitely boosted my confidence."

Piller was an unlikely contender. She came into the tournament ranked No. 189 in the world, with just one top-10 finish in her career. Her $73,285 prize Sunday more than doubled the $30,000 she had earned for the entire season.

A season-best 23rd-place finish in New Jersey last week gave her confidence her game was turning around.

It was at its best during a 19-hole stretch spanning the third and fourth rounds. Beginning Saturday in the third round when she went birdie-eagle-par to finish the round, Piller went from 4-over to 5-under.

"I told my caddy at the beginning of the week, hitting fairways and hitting greens is key out here," she said. "When you do miss a fairway, you've just got to get yourself back into position. It was very comforting to know that once I missed a fairway I knew I could get up and down for par."

That was, of course, until the 17th, which with a stroke average of 4.858 was the easiest hole of the tournament. Piller's chance to win had come to an emotional end.

"I'm just glad to be done. I'm exhausted," she said after the round.

***

Yani Tseng's title defense did not go as planned.

Not even close.

The world's No. 1 player was finishing her round as the leaders were starting Sunday, a much different position than the one she found herself in last year, when she dominated the field for a 10-shot victory.

Tseng finished at 19-under in 2011, an astounding 32 shots better than the 13-over she shot this year. Tseng concluded a miserable week with a 4-over 76 in the final round.

"It's hard to get your confidence back when you lose it," she told the Golf Channel after her round. "My confidence is at zero right now."

***

Na Yeon Choi failed to sign her scorecard after Sunday's final round and was disqualified. Just 13 players finished under par, down from 29 a year ago. With this year's tournament in the books, attention shifts to 2013. The contract between Wegmans, the LPGA and Locust Hill has expired, meaning it's up in the air whether the Rochester area will continue to host the major championship. LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan told Rochester reporters he thinks the sides will sit down at some point in July to discuss their options.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com