Over the past few years, a new wave of Korean female golf superstars has been gaining momentum. They started with impressive performances while still amateurs, and this season have taken over the KLPGA. Now they are moving their act to the world stage. Get ready for the coming of… the Class of 1995!
Many western golf fans first became aware of this new wave when unheralded teen golfer Hyo Joo Kim shot a 61 in the opening round of the year’s final Major, the Evian Championship. It was the lowest score ever achieved in the history of Major golf for either a man or a woman. Kim would go on to stun the world (and seven-time Major winner Karrie Webb) by winning the event with a birdie on the final hole. But though Kim’s win came at her first ever Major, she had already played multiple LPGA events before then, notching several top tens in the process, including a tie for fourth at the Evian itself (before it was a Major) in 2012. The group of prodigies of which she is a part has been building on their success in Asia and the amateur ranks for several years leading up to that explosive Major victory.
The Korean press has dubbed these ladies the Class of ‘95, as many of them were born in 1995. On the Korean pro circuit, there are currently five pros who are considered the core of the wave. They are Hyo Joo Kim, Kyu Jung Baek, Min Sun Kim and Jin Young Ko (all 19); and In Gee Chun (20. Chun was actually born in 1994, but why quibble?). Sometimes the press adds teenage Korean-Australian stars Minjee Lee and Su Hyun Oh and Korean-New Zealander Lydia Ko to the list, but though they are all roughly the correct age, for our purposes we’ll focus on the first five, all of whom were born in and grew up in Korea.
This new batch of kids has trained from a young age to be great at golf, and as a result started to show world class potential by the time they were in their mid-teens. All five ladies did some time playing on the Korean national team, representing their country in international amateur competitions.
Evian champ Hyo Joo Kim is without question the biggest star in this galaxy, at least so far. She started to make noise playing KLPGA events when she was as young as 14 in 2009. But it was 2012 when the young guns, and Kim in particular, made their first big splash on the international stage. Kim had risen to being one of the top amateurs in the world, and found herself frequently pitted against Lydia Ko and Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn in both amateur and professional tournaments. Kim did well in all the fields she tackled. She managed her first KLPGA win that summer as a 16-year-old amateur, absolutely trouncing the field at the LotteMart Women’s Open. She won that week by a mind bending nine shots and was 13 shots ahead of the top player on the KLPGA tour, Ha Neul Kim, who finished third! Winning an event as a 16-year-old was fairly rare on the KLPGA; but to annihilate a field of top players like she did? Almost unthinkable.
Kim was not done yet, for just a few months later she did the same thing to the Japanese tour. Playing in the Suntory Ladies Open, she shot a tour record 61 in the final round to capture a four shot win. She also became the youngest winner in the history of that tour, beating the record held by Japanese legend Ai Miyazato.
Not long after that, Kim played at the Evian Masters on the LPGA tour and found herself contending for the title. She finished tied for fourth.
Kim ended her amateur career in style: she led a phenomenal Korean team to an overwhelming victory at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship (aka the Espirito Santo Cup). At the time, Kim was without doubt the most familiar name on that team, but the squad also featured Kyu Jung Baek and Min Sun Kim, who were on their own trajectories to the top of the game.
Kim turned pro in late 2012, signing the biggest sponsorship deal for a rookie since Se Ri Pak in the 90s. It took her almost no time to win her first event on tour, collecting a trophy in just her second event. She seemed on an unstoppable trajectory to the Rookie of the Year award.
That’s when another teen prodigy stepped in and made things very interesting. In Gee Chun, like Kim, was a veteran of the Korean National team with a phenomenal swing and a ton of promise. At nearly 5’ 10” tall, she had size, but it was her finesse and strategy that made her a tough player. Her nickname is ‘Dumbo’, given to her not because of her intelligence (in fact, she has a 150 IQ and is a member of Mensa), but because, like an elephant, she always keeps her ears open, absorbing all around here. To her credit, she seems to get a kick out of the somewhat embarrassing nickname.
Also like Kim, Chun made a splash on the pro tour while still in high school. At the 2011 Hite Cup, the KLPGA’s third Major, Chun seized the lead in the third round and held onto it tenuously most of Sunday. Alas, she made a big mistake late and handed the tournament to veteran star Ha Neul Kim, but she still showed that she had more going for her than the average teenage amateur. And in fact, Hite remembered her heroics, and signed her to a sponsorship deal when she turned pro the following Spring!
After turning pro, Chun played Korean minor leagues. In 2013, she joined the KLPGA, where she faced off against Hyo Joo as a rookie. Chun quickly made a name for herself, nearly winning the Match Play Championship (she lost in the final).
Chun’s only win of 2013 came at the most important event the KLPGA has: the Korean Women’s Open. More than any other moment, this might have been when the Class of 1995 had their Coming Out party. After three rounds, the leader was a young player who had only just turned professional weeks earlier: Kyu Jung Baek. In Gee Chun and Hyo Joo Kim were right near the top with her. Three members of the Class of 1995 in the final group at a Major! Chun wound up winning by making birdie on the final four holes, with Baek finishing third and Kim sixth.
Chun and Kim finished third and fourth on the year ending money list, with Kim beating Chun for Rookie of the Year and winning the scoring title as well. The kids had successfully made their first attack on the old guard; but the best was yet to come.
2014 saw three new teenage prodigies join the KLPGA, and all three have proved to be stars-in-the-making. Coupled with Kim and Chun, these three have helped decisively turn the tide on tour towards the young guns.
The most heralded of the three is the aforementioned Kyu Jung Baek. After the Korean Women’s Open near miss in 2013, Baek played on the Korean pro mini-tours, and was ready for the big league when she started on the KLPGA in 2014. It took her only a few events to capture her first win at the Nexen Saint Nine Ladies Masters. But after that she stalled, missing several cuts. This allowed the other two stars to make a move.
Jin Young Ko was a dominant player on the Jump Tour, one of the KLPGA’s developmental tours (the other is the Dream Tour). Ko won three events there in 2013. In 2014, it took her quite a while to get that first win, but while she waited she notched top ten after top ten. Min Sun Kim, another 18-year-old phenom, did basically the same thing.
Beak was almost caught in the rookie standings before she snapped out of her funk and won a second tournament, the Lotte Cantata Ladies Open. But Ko and Kim kept coming at her, and eventually Ko caught and passed Baek. When Ko finally won her first tour event, the Nefs Masterpiece in August, Baek suddenly faced a sizable deficit to make up in the Rookie of the Year race.
Meanwhile, Chun and Hyo Joo Kim continued to rack up wins themselves. Chun won her first of 2014 at the S-OIL Champions in June. Hyo Joo snapped out of a long winless streak at exactly the right time, collecting a triumph at the Korean Women’s Open, then following that up with two more wins in rapid succession.
The round robin continued, with the young stars taking turns picking off trophies. Baek won the year’s second Major, the KLPGA Championship, but still trailed Ko in the Rookie race. Chun beat Ha Neul Kim at the KDB. Min Sun Kim came oh so close to finally getting her first win, but lost in a playoff at the Se Ri Pak Invitational to Min Young Lee.
At the year’s third Major, the Hite Cup, the teens were all over the leaderboard (Chun by then was actually 20). But once again, it was Hyo Joo Kim who won, taking her second Major of the season in a playoff over Jung Min Lee.
During that period, Hyo Joo also won the Evian, becoming the first of the Class of ’95 to win on the LPGA tour.
So going into the Hana Bank Championship, the annual event featuring the LPGA vs. the KLPGA, the tally stood at: 4 KLPGA wins for Hyo Joo Kim (2 Majors); three wins for Baek (1 Major); two wins for Chun and one win for Ko. Hyo Joo Kim had also become the first player in history to break 1 billion won earned in a single season, shattering the old record by more than 200 million won.
Interestingly, though several top KLPGA players have played the Hana Bank through the years, a KLPGA player had not won it since 2006. The Class of 1995 were playing so well, however, it looked like they might have a chance to end that long winless drought.
The first round was rocked by high winds, and none of the KLPGA teen stars played all that well. But in the second round, two of them made a move. In Gee Chun shot a 5 under par 67, which ended up being the lowest round of the entire day, while Kyu Jung Baek shot a 69. In round three, the two stars were paired together and continued their torrid pace. By the end of Saturday, Baek was tied for the lead at 5 under total, while Chun was one shot back.
That might sound promising, but in fact the leaderboard was jammed with top players. Seventeen golfers were within two shots of the lead, 25 within three. For any player to win, she would probably have to go low on Sunday.
Chun started her Sunday very, very well. By the turn, she had moved into the lead, with several top players right on her tail. One group behind her, World #2 Inbee Park, the top player in the field, was not far back. Baek was also in that group, but she had stalled at 5 under, and by that point had dropped five shots behind her longtime friend and rival.
Kyu Jung had been feeling the pressure on the front nine, but on the back nine she relaxed and concentrated on playing her game one shot at a time. And that’s when she caught fire in a major way. In fact, she made five straight birdies at that point, and when Chun made a bogey in the middle of her back nine, Baek found herself tied for the lead with her.
Meanwhile, American Brittany Lincicome made a birdie on the final hole to post a score of ten under total. The final hole was a par 5, and Chun reached it next. A birdie would put her at 11 under and give her the outright lead. But she barely missed her ten foot birdie try and had to settle for a tap-in par. She was tied at 10 under and had to wait to see what Baek’s group would do.
The situation was this: Baek was also tied at 10 under and could win the event with a birdie. Inbee Park was at 9 under, and a birdie would tie her for the lead. Park had the longer birdie try, but just missed and was eliminated. Now the tournament rode on the putt of the teenage sensation. But she narrowly missed her own eight foot birdie try. She was completely annoyed, and though she tried to collect herself, it was obvious that she was deeply upset by missing her great chance to win her first LPGA event. Instead, there would be a three way playoff between herself, Chun and Lincicome.
On the playoff hole (they again played hole 18), all three were in the fairway after two shots, but Chun dunked her approach in the water on the third shot. She would have to wait another day for her chance to win an LPGA event, but she had still played wonderfully and shown what great talent and potential she has. Lincicome then put her approach to about five feet.
Now it was Baek’s turn. Still somewhat bothered by the miss on the previous hole, she had finally gotten over it by the time she hit this wedge. And so, her shot was a great one, getting even inside the American’s shot.
Amazingly, Lincicome missed the short birdie, and now Baek had that rarest of things: a second chance. This time, she did not miss, and as the birdie fell, the 19-year-old, who had just celebrated her birthday the previous Wednesday, was an LPGA winner in her first ever LPGA event. In Gee Chun was the first to give her a congratulatory soaking on the 18th green.
And so, in the space of just two months, two members of the Class of 95 notched wins on the LPGA tour. Hyo Joo Kim has said she will split her time between the LPGA and KLPGA in 2015. She intends to play 15 LPGA events, focusing on the Majors and events near to Korea (such as the Asian events, Hawaii and Australia), while also playing 10 KLPGA events. Baek has still not said what she will do. She is still just a rookie on the KLPGA, so she might choose to stay another year to get more experience before she tries the big tour. But she has also said that she is inspired by her friend Kim, and the thought of going to America to challenge her for rookie of the year might be too tempting to resist.
Regardless, we can expect that the Class of 1995 is only starting to take over the world. Keep an eye on these five talented youngsters to see what they do next!