It’s April, meaning it’s time for the 2014 Korean LPGA season to start in earnest. The KLPGA season is generally divided into three parts. In late December there are one or two events which count towards the following year. The season really starts in April, with many events from then until mid-June. Then, after a several week summer break, the season resumes with a bunch more events until November.
What can the fans expect to see on the KLPGA tour in 2014? Below is the annual SeoulSisters.com KLPGA Primer, all you need to know to understand the players likely to be the prime movers on tour this season. Away we go!
The Big Bombers
The two players who dominated the winner’s circle and the money list last year were Ha Na Jang and Sei Young Kim. Both about the same age, they also were the two longest drivers on tour in 2013, tied for most wins on tour in 2013, and finished 1-2 on the money list.
Ha Na Jang
Ha Na Jang finally started to fulfill the promise she has shown ever since she was a teen amateur star at the end of the last decade. As a 15-year-old, she contended in several American US amateur tournaments. She did particularly well at the 2007 US Women’s Amateur, where among her match play victims were an up-and-coming teen named Lexi Thompson, college star and future LPGA player Tiffany Joh, and a future LPGA winner, MJ Hur. She eventually lost in the semifinals to Mariajo Uribe, who would go on to win the title.
Her first big splash, still as a high school student, came on the KLPGA in 2009, which was the year Hee Kyung Seo dominated the Majors, winning three of them and finishing second in the fourth one. But Seo had all she could handle from Jang in two of those Majors. The teen star contended right until the end both times, barely losing to the elegant superstar in the end.
With all that early success and her incredible length off the tee, Jang looked like she had a superstar career in the offing. She played mostly mini-tour events in 2010, her first year as a pro, and underwhelmed in her KLPGA rookie season of 2011. 2012 did not start much better, with Jang missing five of her first six cuts. Finally, towards the end of 2012, she won her first event, the year’s final Major to boot. She ended up 10th on the money list and looked poised to at last become the star she always seemed to be.
And that’s exactly what happened! Jang was dominant in 2013, winning another Major, the Hite Cup, and two other events beside. She won Player of the Year and led the tour money list, coming close to beating Jiyai Shin’s all time record for most money earned in a season. Without question, she was the top player on tour last year.
She has continued to excel in limited action since then. There have been two 2014 KLPGA events already, both taking place last December, and Jang won the second of these, the Hyundai China Ladies Open, while finishing 6th at the other one, the Swinging Skirts in Taiwan. That event featured a field of many of the top golfers in the world. By the end of the year, Jang had risen to 14th in the world rankings, the highest ranking for any player outside the LPGA tour.
Jang has also finished tied for 7th at the LET event in China and tied for 14th on a sponsor’s invite at this year’s HSBC Women’s Champions, an LPGA event in Singapore. For awhile she pushed IK Kim for the fourth and final spot on the International Cup squad, but came up just short to the LPGA star in the end.
Jang had the most professional wins of any Korean in the world last year outside of Inbee Park. She will be the player to beat on the KLPGA in 2014!
Sei Young Kim
Sei Young Kim’s road to stardom was very different from Jang’s. Like Jang, she is a very long hitter, and won three times on the KLPGA tour in 2013, including her first Major. Indeed, she is the defending champion at this week’s LotteMart Ladies Open. But unlike Jang, before 2013, Kim was a relatively obscure golfer who had not accomplished much professionally.
Kim was not nearly as consistent as Jang in 2013, but she won two of the most important events, which allowed her to amass a staggering 670 million won for the year. That total kept her atop the money list for much of the season. Her biggest win came at the Hanwha Classic. Six shots behind LPGA superstar So Yeon Ryu with 10 to play, Kim managed not one but two hole-outs for eagle (including a hole-in-one) to reel Ryu in and win in a playoff. The winner’s check for that event is the biggest on the KLPGA tour. The next week she beat rookie star In Gee Chun to capture the year’s second Major, the KLPGA Championship.
Kim had one more amazing highlight. At the LPGA’s Hana Bank, she led coming into the final hole, a par 5. Alas, she made bogey there and missed the playoff won by Amy Yang.
Because she had been so obscure before her breakout year, there are still some questions surrounding Kim. Is she really a big star with a long career ahead of her, or a flash in the plan? The KLPGA has seen several one season wonders of late, including the Player of the Year from 2011, Hyun Hwa Shim, who has never lived up to that great season since. Kim is the biggest question mark among all the players in this primer, and it will be interesting to see how she follows up her career best year.
The Sophomore Superstars
Last year, two rookies had a brilliant year-long battle for top Rookie honors. They will be back in 2014, doubtless ready to continue their rivalry for the fans to enjoy!
Hyo Joo Kim
Hyo Joo Kim came into 2013 as undoubtedly the most hyped new player in years. As a 16-year-old amateur she had already won on the KLPGA and JLPGA tours, in both cases producing dominating performances. It didn’t take long for Kim to get it done as a pro: in just her second event of her Rookie season, she outlasted defending champion Hye Youn Kim to win in China.
Needless to say, Kim had a huge lead in the Rookie of the Year race as the year started in earnest. But her rival In Gee Chun made sure that Kim never got even a minute’s rest all year. Kim proved up for the challenge. Although she would not win again in 2013, she did notch 14 top tens, coming up just shy of winning multiple times. Among her best near misses were a one shot loss to LPGA rookie Mirim Lee at the KG Edaily Ladies Open, a runner-up to Bo Kyung Kim at the E1 Charity Open, a final round tussle with In Gee Chun (which Chun won) at the Korean Women’s Open (Hyo Joo finished 6th), another runner-up to Ha Neul Kim at the MBN Kim Young Joo Golf Women’s Open, a 4th at the year’s second Major, the KLPGA Championship, and a 3rd at the year’s 4th Major.
Kim ended up winning the Rookie of the Year race when Chun was injured and missed the final two events of the year. She also claimed the low scoring title and finished fourth on the money list, while also coming within a couple of putts of stealing the Player of the Year award from Ha Na Jang.
Kim also notched a top ten at the LPGA event in Hawaii and a tie for fourth at the year ending Swinging Skirts tournament. Still only 18-years-old, expect Kim to continue to challenge for all the top awards on tour in 2014.
In Gee Chun
The tall, super talented In Gee Chun, a year older than Kim, started her rookie season with nowhere near the preseason hype Kim received. But after a few events, Chun established herself as a great player in her own right.
Chun turned pro in 2012 and played on the KLPGA’s minor league her first professional year. In 2013, her breakout came at the Doosan Match Play, where she went all the way to the final before losing to Ha Na Jang. Chun would not have to wait long for her winning moment, however. Matched in the final round of the year’s first Major, the Korean Women’s Open, with Kim and another teen star, Kyu Jung Baek, Chun seized the win with four straight birdies to finish the tournament. From that moment to the end of the year, Kim and Chun waged one of the most memorable Rookie battles in tour history.
Chun wound up the season with nine total top tens and no missed cuts (her worst finish was a tie for 33rd). She came within a putt of winning the year’s second Major, the KLPGA Championship, and also finished second to Ha Na Jang shortly after that at the Rush and Cash Classic. She ended the year third on the Money list.
Chun has continued to excel in limited action since. She missed the rest of the year due to injury, but returned to golf at the LET’s 2014 Mission Hills China Ladies World Championship, where she ended up tied with Ha Na Jang for 7th. Given this was an event featuring many top players, including four of the world’s top seven, it was an impressive result for her indeed.
Chun has quickly become a popular player with the fans in Korea. She is known over there as Dumbo, not because of her intelligence or the size of her ears, but because, like an elephant, her ears are always open as she absorbs everything that goes on around her. Expect the tall, quiet star with the big smile to keep her rise going in 2014!
The Other Returning Stars
Ha Neul Kim
Ha Neul Kim was the undisputed top player on the KLPGA tour in 2011 and 2012. In fact, she has been a star, perhaps the biggest of her generation, since she won the Rookie of the Year award back in 2007. She struggled quite a bit in 2013, especially at first, although in the end she still had a below average but not bad season.
Last year, her KLPGA campaign started terribly. During the first half of the season, she missed several cuts and did not make so much as a single top ten. It was a huge fall for a player who had been so dominant previously. She played in the US Women’s Open in the summer, however, and that turned her entire year around. She shot a first round 66 and stunned everyone by capturing the lead by the end of the day. It was not to last, but she still finished tied for 25th, a fairly good result.
Her performance at the Open renewed her confidence, and the second half of her year was much better. She won the MBN Kim Young Joo Golf Women’s Open by shooting a final round 63. Although that was her only win all year, she also finished second twice and wound up 11th on the money list.
Kim is a star in every sense of the word, and more than any other player is the face of the KLPGA tour. She is very attractive and fashionable, with a bubbly personality that makes her extremely popular with fans. She also has the most wins of any active player, and has played on the tour far longer than most stars of her caliber would. Her success at the Open, however, motivated her to finally enter LPGA Q-School for the 2014 season. Alas, fate intervened. She was forced by KLPGA rules to be present at a title defense, and this clashed with the only LPGA qualifying event she could enter. So, Ha Neul will be on the KLPGA tour at least one more year, but this seems likely to be her final year in Korea.
Soo Jin Yang
Other than Ha Neul Kim, the longest standing and most successful star on the KLPGA tour is Soo Jin Yang. Yang was a rookie in 2009, and has won multiple events since then. She has been a fixture in the KLPGA top five since her second year on tour. Last year was a bit of an off year for her, but she still wound up 8th on the money list with one win and four third place finishes.
Like Kim, Yang is charismatic, attractive, and known for her fashion sense, although in Yang’s case the fashion tends towards the wilder extremes (the fans nonetheless rewarded her with the Most Fashionable Player award last season). Yang has stated that she hopes to play on the Japanese tour in the future, although exactly when she did not make clear. But it’s quite possible this will be her final year on the KLPGA, so enjoy it while it lasts!
Yoon Kyung Heo
In 2012, Yoon Kyung Heo established herself as one of the top players on tour with four second place finishes (but alas no wins!). She finally broke through with her first career win in 2013 at the Woori Ladies Championship. She also notched a second place and four other top tens and ended up tenth on the money list. Heo seems like a player who could make a big breakthrough in 2014.
This year there seems to be a particularly big crop of promising rookies coming into the league. Here are a few of the more notable ones:
Kyu Jung Baek
Baek, like many of the other Korean young guns, is a veteran of the Korean national team. Still a teenager and not yet a member of the league, she took the third round lead at the 2013 Korean Women’s Open, eventually finishing third. Her other memorable highlight of 2013 came at the Swinging Skirts in December, where she finished tied for fourth with Hyo Joo Kim, behind only three of the top women golfers in the world: Lydia Ko, Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu.
Having now joined the tour full time, she is already being hyped as the favorite for the Rookie of the Year award in 2014. She has already played a few international events this year, finishing 11th at the New Zealand Women’s Open and t-29th at the Volvik RACV Australian Ladies Masters.
Min Sun Kim
Kim was a teammate of Baek’s on the Korean national squad. She is long off the tee and is being tipped as another possible star of the future. Kim scored a top five finish at the RACV Australian Ladies Masters this year.
Ji Hyun Oh
Oh was a big amateur star last year, having won a national Korean Women’s Amateur title among other things. She was also low amateur at the 2013 Korean Women’s Open. A little younger than the other mentioned rookies at barely 18, she has already been labeled Korean golf’s answer to figure skating star Yuna Kim. She’s signed several big endorsements and has the potential to become an important figure for the KLPGA on and off the golf course.
Jin Young Ko
Ko is another 18-year-old with a ton of potential. She turned pro last July, and promptly won three events on the Jump tour, the KLPGA’s third tier developmental tour. She led the money list for that tour as well.
Earlier this year she signed a big sponsorship deal with Nefs and will be duking it out with the big girls in 2014.
Other names to watch:
Shin Ae Ahn
Shin Ae ‘Sharon’ Ahn was the KLPGA Rookie of the Year in 2009, beating Soo Jin Yang among others. She had a great season in 2010, winning twice. But since then she has struggled to regain the form she showed in her first two seasons. Although she is not one of the top players on tour in terms of results, her looks and fashion style have made her consistently one of the most popular players over there. It remains to be seen whether she can return to the heights she once reached on the fairway, but she will be sure to garner a lot of attention while she tries!
Hye Youn Kim
Hye Youn Kim is perennially one of the best players on tour. Though not as consistent as the very top ladies, she usually manages to contend a few times a year, sometimes grabbing a win or two in the process. She has already finished second at the Hyundai China event this season.
Char Young Kim
Char Young Kim won three times in 2012, establishing herself as one of the top players at the time. But her follow-up year was not nearly as good. Not only did she not win, she barely even contended, with only one top ten all year. Kim, like Ahn, is a player who gets a lot of attention for her style and looks. She will be looking to bounce back from 2013 and prove she was not a one hit wonder in 2012.
Je Yoon Yang
Je Yoon Yang was the KLPGA Player of the Year in 2012, edging out Ha Neul Kim for that honor. But her 2013 season, like Char Young Kim’s, was fairly weak. She finished only 60th on the money list, although it seems like she missed a few events here and there and might have been injured. Yang is another player who will be looking to return to her former glory in 2014.
Shi Hyun Ahn
Speaking of a comeback kid, perhaps no dark horse will be darker in 2014 than Shi Hyun Ahn. Ahn became a Cinderella at age 19 when she won the CJ 9 Bridges Classic to earn a tour card on the LPGA tour. She played in America for several years, winning the 2004 LPGA Rookie of the Year award in the process. But eventually she tired of life in the States and returned to Korea. She did not play on the KLPGA long before meeting a fashion model/TV personality named Marco (yes, he has one name). Ahn and Marco, a Korean from South America, fell madly in love and married. Ahn was already pregnant and had a baby soon thereafter. She retired for a while from golf.
The marriage did not go well, there were rumors of violence, and they seem to have separated. Ahn was given a sponsor’s exemption to a KLPGA tournament late last year, and surprised everyone by notching a top ten in her first golf action in nearly two years. The divorced 29-year-old mother quickly found an agent, and through him grabbed several lucrative endorsement deals. She will be back on tour full-time in 2014. No story would be sweeter than to see this hard luck star return to the top. But it will be just one of many intriguing storylines to follow as the KLPGA season kicks into high gear!