It’s early April, and that means it’s time once again for the Korean LPGA season to start in earnest. As in past years, there were previous events that counted towards this season contested in December of the previous year. But unlike in the past, there were two events in that special ‘pre-season’ timeframe, one more than previously: the Swinging Skirts in Taiwan, and the Hyundai Ladies China Open in China.
Here now is a preview of what to expect as the action heats up!
This season, no major stars from the tour are leaving to play on other tours. In most years, the KLPGA loses a few name players, but for whatever reason, the top players on tour decided to stay put this time. The following are the players who look to be big names on the tour in 2013.
Ha Neul Kim – Money List Queen
Without any question, Ha Neul Kim comes into the 2013 season as the Queen of the KLPGA tour. She repeated for the second straight year as top money earner in 2012, and also grabbed the title for low scoring average. She just narrowly missed out on the trifecta by finishing second in Player of the Year, and only managed a single win in 2012 compared to three in 2011, but otherwise it was another stellar year for the fashionable star.
Kim has stated that she has no interest in going to a Qualifying School for another tour, and hopes to win membership on the LPGA or JLPGA by winning a tournament. Former KLPGA stars Jiyai Shin, So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo all earned LPGA membership in just this way. To this end, Kim played in several international tournaments in 2012. She didn’t win, but did achieve a career best international finish (a tie for second at the Australian Ladies Masters), a best Major result when she finished tied for 11th at the Kraft Nabisco, and a best ever finish on the LPGA, a tie for 7th at the Hana Bank Championship. If Kim continues to play internationally in 2013, she might just be able to earn that tour card as she is planning.
Meanwhile, she was extremely consistent on the KLPGA. Though she had only one win, she finished outside the top 20 in only three tour events, with 10 top tens. This total included the win, two seconds and three thirds. She started the 2013 season with a 9th at the Swinging Skirts and a 10th in China, and nearly made a top ten in the first LPGA event she played, the Kia Classic, where she finished tied for 13th. She added a tie for 52nd at the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco.
Kim will definitely face big challenges on the KLPGA in 2013 (see below!), but still looks good to be one of the big names in Korean golf in the coming year.
Char Young Kim – Most Popular and Most Wins
One of the breakout stars of the 2012 season was Char Young Kim. Before last year, Kim was primarily known for her looks and style. She had been featured in several magazine articles and layouts in Korea. Her game was not bad by any means (she finished 19th on the tour money list in 2011), but she was hardly one of the top names on tour.
That all changed in a big way in 2012. Kim notched three KLPGA wins that season, the most of any player on tour. Included among those victories were back-to-back titles at the Woori Investment & Securities Ladies Championship and the Doosan Match Play. Winning the Match Play event on tour is particularly tough, because it involves playing so many rounds of golf, and she wound up defeating a tough opponent, 2011 Rookie of the Year Yeon Jun Jung, 2 & 1 in the final. Kim was also voted the Most Popular player by the tour fans in 2012.
The biggest knock on Kim is that she has not yet achieved a lot of consistency. She finished third on the tour money list largely because of those three wins. She did have four other top tens, but generally was well out of the other events she played. If she can find a way to grab more high finishes even when her game is not on track, she could definitely challenge for the top spot on tour in 2013. But regardless, expect her to attract a lot of attention in 2013.
Je Yoon Yang – The Player of the Year Surprise
Je Yoon Yang was probably the biggest surprise of all on the 2012 KLPGA tour. She joined the tour in 2011 as an unheralded 18-year-old, and had a decent but unspectacular year, finishing 44th on the money list with three top tens.
But in 2012, she broke out in a big way. She had a couple of top fives in the first half of the season, but it was in the late summer and fall that she really climbed into the stratosphere. She had her first career win at the Nefs Masterpiece, and found herself atop the Player of the Year standings soon thereafter. Ha Neul Kim rallied and recaptured the lead, but Yang continued to hang in with one great finish after another. She managed a third at the year’s third Major and a second at the final one. Thus, with one event to go in the season, she was only a few points behind Kim. She just needed to finish ahead of Kim in the year’s final event, the ADT-CAPS, and she would be Player of the Year. She did more than that: she won the event to become POY with an exclamation point.
So what’s next for the 20-year-old? The KLPGA has seen players have great years before only to fade the following season. Hyun Hwa Shim, for instance, was second on the tour money list in 2011, but last year she missed a ton of cuts and did not even finish in the top 50. Time will tell if Yang is a one hit wonder, but for the moment she is definitely one of the players to watch for 2013.
Soo Jin Yang – the Sleeper
Year after year, one of the most consistent stars on the KLPGA tour is Soo Jin Yang. Still only 21, Yang has been a tour member for four years, and finished in the top five on the money list the past three seasons. In 2012, she had one win and 8 other top tens, including a second and a third. She finished fifth on the tour money list. She has also started making waves in international competition. She finished tied for third at the year-ending Swinging Skirts event in Taiwan, facing a field of most of the top women golfers in the world. Just a few weeks ago, she played in the field at the Ladies European Tour’s China event, the Mission Hills World Championship, and notched a tie for 4th.
Yang hasn’t won any year-ending awards, but her consistency and length off the tee – she has been one of the longest drivers on the KLPGA for several years – makes her a constant threat to become the top player on tour. She seems to just be reaching the age where she might take her game to the next level. With all the focus on Ha Neul Kim the past few years, Yang sometimes gets forgotten, but she has all the ingredients to be a big star, perhaps even this season.
Hyo Joo Kim – The Rookie Sensation
Like a freight train coming, Hyo Joo Kim has been making an increasing amount of noise in the world of women’s golf over the past few seasons. Still just 17 years old (she turns 18 this July), Kim has been contending at KLPGA events since she was 14. Meanwhile, she had quietly become one of the top amateurs in the world, leading the Korean national team to all sorts of impressive international victories in the process.
In 2012, however, Kim took her game to an all new level. As a 16-year-old, she played at the KLPGA’s LotteMart Ladies Open and absolutely destroyed the field. She ended up winning the event by a staggering 9 shots, the second largest win an amateur had ever managed on that tour (the largest was ten shots by none other than Se Ri Pak back in 1995). She beat Ha Neul Kim that week by 13 shots; and Ha Neul finished THIRD.
A few months later, Kim played her first ever Japanese tour event. In the final round, she shot a league record 61 to come from behind and capture a four-shot win. She became the youngest girl to ever win on the JLPGA, breaking the record held by the legendary Ai Miyazato. Kim would go on to capture another pro event in Taiwan and finish fourth on the LPGA tour at the Evian Masters in France, all before turning pro in October. Lydia Ko, the New Zealand sensation, got far more press, but Kim actually won MORE pro events last year in a shorter time span than even Ko did, and she was only a year and a half older than the Kiwi.
Kim joined the KLPGA as a rookie in December, and wasted no time making her mark. She won her second event as a member, the Hyundai China Ladies Open. Thus, she became the quickest to ever grab a win on the KLPGA after turning pro.
Hyo Joo Kim has all the makings of a superstar. She signed the largest sponsorship deal (with Lotte) for a Rookie on the KLPGA since Se Ri Pak. She already has two career KLPGA wins and is months away from her 18th birthday. She notched an 8th place at the LET’s Mission Hills event a few weeks ago. She not only is the prohibitive favorite for Rookie of the Year in 2013, she should contend for all the top awards on tour. Watch out for Hyo Joo Kim in 2013!
Other Rookies who could challenge Hyo Joo Kim
It’s difficult to find a list of KLPGA Rookies on the internet or on their website. Some players who turned pro in 2013 in fact will play on a developmental tour and not be true rookies. Among the players who look likely to be tour rookies this year:
Jung Min Cho was the #1 ranked amateur in the world just a few years ago. Playing as Cecilia Cho, she was based in New Zealand and broke all sorts of records as youngest player to accomplish various things, before she ran into an even younger and better Korean-born player named Lydia Ko. Now a pro, Cho played last year on the KLPGA’s Dream Tour. She’s in the field for the LotteMart Ladies Open and looks likely to be a full-time KLPGA rookie this year. If so, she would definitely be someone who could challenge Hyo Joo Kim. Kim, for all her accomplishments, never managed to reach #1 in the amateur ranks (her highest ranking was #2).
Jung Eun Han was one of Hyo Joo Kim’s teammates on the Korean National team a few years ago. Like Kim, Han contended in multiple KLPGA tournaments as a teenager. When she turned pro, she joined the Dream Tour, where in 2012 she won three times, finished second three other times, and topped the money list. If she can get anywhere near to the form she had as an amateur, she could be a big star in the pro ranks.
Seon Woo Bae played on the Jump Tour last year, where she was a dominant presence. She has a great record there: four wins, one second, and two other top tens in 12 tournaments (only two finishes outside the top 20). Earlier this year she shot a 64 at the LET’s New Zealand Ladies Open and finished fourth.
Last year’s Breakthroughs
Two players broke through on tour last year after having been touted as potential stars in previous seasons only to underperform.
Jung Min Lee won a tournament back in her rookie year of 2010, and, with her long driving, seemed like a potential superstar in the making. But after that, she struggled mightily. In 2011, she only finished 66th on the money list with just a single top ten. In 2012, she bounced back at last, capturing her second win at the Seokyung Ladies Open after having several other top fives. She finished 6th on the money list.
Ha Na Jang received even more hype than Lee when she turned pro back in 2010. She had already contended in two KLPGA Majors in 2009 as a teenage amateur, coming within a shot of winning the second of these. She played a mini tour in Korea after turning pro, then joined the KLPGA in 2011. She never really challenged the Rookie of the Year, Yeon Ju Jung, that season, and finished 32nd on the money list.
But in 2012 she at last arrived as a full-fledged star on tour. She started the year missing five of her first six cuts, and did not make her first top ten until September. But after that, she notched two top fives, then won the year’s final Major for her first tour victory. She was 10th on the 2012 money list. Jang is a proven winner at the amateur level, and like Lee, she hits the ball a long way.
Some other names to watch:
Hye Youn Kim
Kim has won at least once in each of the past few seasons, and looks ready for another top ten caliber season on tour. Could this be the year she breaks out and gets to the next level?
Hong is perpetually a top ten player without ever becoming one of the very best. Her 2012 season was typical: no wins, but 9 top tens, including a third, two fourths and a fifth. She certainly has the capability to take it to the next level at pretty much any time.
Yoon Kyeong Heo
Heo had a great season on the KLPGA tour in 2012, even though she was not able to win. She did manage four runner-up finishes, ending up second behind both So Yeon Ryu and Se Ri Pak when the two LPGA stars visited the tour to play different events. She also had a second place finish at the year’s final Major. All those great results allowed her to finish second on the money list behind only Ha Neul Kim. Will she finally get her first career win in 2013?
Ji Hee Kim
The 2012 KLPGA Rookie of the Year did not have a really great year, but she has a lot of potential to break out in 2013.
Get ready for the 2013 KLPGA season to start at this week’s LotteMart Ladies Open!