And the Winner Is: Lydia Ko
There are some great young talents in the game right now, but 16-year-old Lydia Ko continues to be the trailblazer. Just this year she added three more professional wins to her resume, maintained her #1 status as an amateur until she turned pro, upon which time she quickly amassed several lucrative sponsorship deals.
Among the highlights of her year:
- Lydia played her final event as an amateur back in January, where she bowed out in the second round in defense of her title at the Australian Women’s Amateur.
- She won the New Zealand Women’ Open for her third pro title the week after she finished second in defense of her title at the New South Wales Open.
- She shot a first round 63 at the LPGA’s Australian Women’s Open and finished third there behind Jiyai Shin.
- She was low amateur in four of the five Majors she played this year.
- She defended her title at the CN Canadian Women’s Open, winning by five shots. It was her fourth career pro win. The event was played on a different course than the one she won on in 2012.
- She notched a top ten in Hawaii at the LotteMart, where she met her fellow teen phenoms Hyo Joo Kim and Ariya Jutanugarn (all of whom made top tens).
- She turned pro via a Youtube video announcement late in the year.
- She was given an exemption to the age restriction, allowing her to play on the LPGA tour in 2014.
- She played her first event as a pro at the CME Titleholders, where she finished top 20.
- She won her second event as a pro, the Swinging Skirts, facing down So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park in the final round. It was her third pro win of the year.
Next year promises to be a massive one for the young Kiwi star!
Honorable Mention: Hyo Joo Kim
Hyo Joo Kim did not have the incredible year Ko had, but her year was nothing to sneeze at, either. In her first year on the KLPGA tour, she won the tour’s Rookie of the Year award and title for lowest scoring average while winning once. She finished fourth on the money list and second in Player of the Year points. She notched 14 KLPGA top tens during the year and six additional top 20s. All in all, Hyo Joo Kim really lived up to her billing as one of the most promising rookies to come down the pike in many years.
Minjee Lee is a 17-year-old Australian Korean amateur who has been one of the top five best amateurs in the world for some time. She had a banner year in 2013. She won the Australian Women’s Amateur early in the season, and followed that by winning the Australian Girls title by eight strokes. She became the first woman to hold both titles at once since 1975.
Minjee also led Australia to a win at the Queen Sirikit Cup, an annual tournament that pits the Pacific Rim countries against one another in women’s amateur golf team competition. She also won the Renee Erichsen Salver Cup by twenty shots (!!). She also finished third in the New South Wales Open just behind fellow amateur Lydia Ko.
In Gee Chun
In Gee Chun had a fabulous rookie year on the KLPGA tour. The 19-year-old did not miss a cut all season, notching tons of top tens and a Major win at the Korean Women’s Open, the tour’s most important event. She notched 9 total top tens, coming close to winning several more times. Most notably, she finished runner-up to Ha Na Jang at the Doosan Match Play and the Rush and Cash Classic, and runner-up to Sei Young Kim at the KLPGA Championship (since that was the year’s second Major, she came one missed putt away from possibly winning the first two Majors of the season on the KLPGA). She did not miss a cut all year, her worst finish a tie for 33rd. She wound up finishing in the top five in Rookie of the Year, Scoring Average, money list and Player of the Year. Not bad for a teen in her first year on tour!
Rookie to Watch in 2014
And the Winner Is: Mirim Lee on the LPGA
In last year’s Rookie to Watch award, I predicted the following:
But without any question, the rookie who looks poised to make the most noise in 2013 will not be playing full-time on the LPGA, but rather will be starting her professional career on the KLPGA. That golfer is Hyo Joo Kim.
As I’ve already mentioned several times, Hyo Joo had a sensational rookie year on the KLPGA, and I suspect we’ll be hearing from her again shortly when I talk about the Rookie of the Year award… But to be honest, that prediction was a bit easy. Hyo Joo really looked like the only Korean golfer coming into the pro ranks last year with real star potential, and that she lived up to that potential does not show my Nostradamus-like abilities at their finest.
In 2014, there is little doubt that the rookie to beat on the LPGA tour will be world #4 Lydia Ko. Ko already has two wins on tour as an amateur, and nearly won the Evian Championship for her first Major victory. She is simply in a class by herself among rookies, and unless the stress of playing golf full-time proves harder for her to deal with than it should, it would be a real upset for her not to be next year’s star rookie.
Expanding our eyes beyond Ko, however, Mirim Lee is a talented rookie who should not be ignored, and is my choice for Rookie to Watch in 2014. Lee earned her tour card by finishing second at Q-School, carding an 11 under par 61 in one of her rounds. She has a strong history on the KLPGA tour, having won three events in her time there, including the 2012 Korean Women’s Open. She finished 7th on the 2012 KLPGA money list, and managed a win at the 2013 KLPGA EDaily Ladies Open, where she outlasted star players Ha Na Jang and Hyo Joo Kim for the title. She also scored a fourth place finish at the Korean Women’s Open in defense of her title. Mirim spent much of the second half of the season away from Korea focusing on LPGA Q-School, but based on the ease with which she earned her card, it was time well spent.
Like many KLPGA stars that join the LPGA, she has a lot of experience winning in a professional environment against tough opposition. But the big question will be how she responds to playing internationally, since she has relatively little experience doing that. If she comes up to speed quickly (and I believe she will), expect her to make some noise before the end of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Kyu Jung Baek, Min Sun Kim, Ji Hyun Oh on the KLPGA
The KLPGA will have three talented rookies joining the tour in 2014, and any or all of them could prove to be breakout stars by year’s end.
18-year-old Kyu Jung Baek is being hyped right now as the next great rookie on the KLPGA tour. She has lived up to her billing so far by notching a tie for 4th at the Swinging Skirts in December. She spent 2013 playing on the KLPGA’s developmental tour, the Dream Tour. But she still managed to play several events on the KLPGA tour, most notably the Korean Women’s Open, where she led after three rounds, played in the final group on Sunday and finished third.
Baek is 5′ 8″ tall and averages 260+ yards off the tee.
Min Sun Kim was a member of the same Korean National squad as Hyo Joo Kim and Kyu Jung Baek. Kim is slightly taller than Baek (5’9”) and slightly longer off the tee (270+ yards). Like Baek, she spent her time focusing on the Dream Tour in 2013, although she did not do as well as Baek when she tried her hand at KLPGA events.
Then there’s 17-year-old Ji Hyun Oh. Oh was the low am at last year’s Korean Women’s Open and was 13th at the KLPGA’s Kumho Tire event a little after that. I believe she also won the Korean Women’s Amateur in 2013, and played on the Dream Tour in the Fall. She notched a win on that tour in mid-October.
Oh is already being called the ‘Yuna Kim of Women’s Golf’, presumably because she kind of looks like the Figure Skating star.
Rookie of the Year
And the Winner Is: Hyo Joo Kim
At the start of the year, everyone expected Hyo Joo Kim to run away with this title on the KLPGA tour. She did in fact win it, but it turned out to be a season-long battle with In Gee Chun before she did it. Chun in many ways deserves this title as much as Kim. She did not miss a cut all year (Kim missed one), she notched a lot of top tens, beat Kim on the money list, and won a Major while Kim did not. And Chun did not get to play as many events as Kim thanks to injury, so it’s possible the official KLPGA Rookie standings might have been very different had Chun been healthy for the final two events.
But Kim had more top tens than Chun, beat her in Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year points, and won the overall scoring title on the KLPGA to boot. As well, Kim had better finishes when playing LPGA events.
Kim won one title on tour, the second event she played as a pro: the Hyundai China Ladies Open. She notched 14 KLPGA top tens and six additional top 20s while missing just one cut. And she had a top ten in Hawaii on the LPGA tour, plus another top five at the Swinging Skirts in December.
Honorable Mention: In Gee Chun
Most Improved Player
And the Winner Is: Sei Young Kim
I was tempted to give this award to Inbee Park. As great as her 2012 season was, she made an enormous improvement in her game in 2013. She went from 2 to 6 wins, 0 to 3 Majors, made more money, won the Player of the Year, and in general was much improved.
But instead, I’m giving this award to a player who was barely on anyone’s radar in 2012, but became one of the most talked about KLPGA golfers in 2013: Sei Young Kim.
Sei Young Kim is a 20-year-old player who managed three wins on the KLPGA in 2013, tying her for most wins on tour. Included in that total was a win at the year’s second Major, the KLPGA Championship, which was the second of back-to-back wins. She also finished tied for third at the LPGA’s Hana Bank Championship, but nearly had much more to be happy about. She came into the final hole tied for the lead, but wound up with bogey to just miss out on the playoff between countrywomen Amy Yang and Hee Kyung Seo.
Prior to 2013, however, Kim was pretty far off the radar. She finished 32nd on the money list in 2012, managing a few top tens here and there, but even her best finish was only a sixth place. In 2011, her rookie year, she finished 40th on the money list, with, again, her best result a sixth place.
But Kim established herself right out of the chute in 2013. In the very first KLPGA event played during the calendar year, Kim collected the win by making an eagle on the final hole she played. She cooled down for most of the rest of the first half of the season, but when action started up in the late summer, she was back to her winning ways, collecting those back-to-back wins to vault to the top of the tour’s money list. She sat in that position for most of the rest of the season before Ha Na Jang rallied to take that title from her near the end of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Inbee Park, Chella Choi, Ha Na Jang