And the Winner is: Hyo Joo Kim
Several players this year could have won this award (I’ll get to them next), but I chose Hyo Joo Kim because her breakthrough turned her from a promising young amateur to a player many see as the next big Korean superstar. In other words, it was the win that most thoroughly changed the way people thought about her, and the one which most changed the direction her career took after that.
Before 2012, Kim had already managed several impressive feats. In 2009, as a 14-year-old, she contended at two KLPGA Majors, even leading one of them for a round. She led Korea to a win at the 2010 Queen Sirikit Cup and clobbered the competition in the individual honors, winning by eight shots. Later that year, she finished tied for 3rd at the KLPGA’s Rush and Cash Classic.
In 2011, she only finished second at the Queen Sirikit, but captured the gold medal at the Callaway Junior World Golf Championship and had several more KLPGA top tens. So, it’s clear that by the start of 2012, she was one of the top junior players in the world. Sponsors were interested in her as a result, but there was nothing she had done before to prepare for what was to come.
Her breakthrough moment came in April, when Kim was in the field at the KLPGA’s Lotte Mart Ladies Open. Kim started the week by shooting a 66 to take a share of the first round lead. She didn’t let up in round 2, shooting a 67, the best round of the day, to cruise to a staggering 7 shot lead by sundown. She increased that lead to 10 strokes (!!) in the third round before she stumbled for the first time all week. Despite her late round struggles, however, she still ended that day with a six stroke lead.
There were only a few players within double digits of Kim. She cemented her historic, mind-boggling accomplishment easily on Sunday by shooting another 66 to win the tournament by 9 shots. She was *thirteen* shots ahead of the third place player, 2011 KLPGA Player of the Year Ha Neul Kim. This wasn’t just an impressive victory; this was total domination. Domination against a field of most of the top players on the KLPGA tour. Amateurs had won on the KLPGA tour before; 16-year-olds had managed wins there in the past. But one had to go all the way back to Se Ri Pak herself to find another teen amateur who had so thoroughly demolished the field in a KLPGA victory (only Pak as an amateur had a larger margin of victory in a KLPGA event when she won an event in 1995 by ten shots). In just one event, Kim had established herself as a potential superstar.
Kim’s win elevated her to another level in 2012. She would go on to win pro events in Japan and Taiwan and come close at the Evian Masters in France. Kim turned pro in September, signing with Lotte for the largest deal for a rookie golfer since the heyday of Se Ri. It didn’t take her long to pay dividends: just two months later, she won the KLPGA’s Hyundai China Ladies Open, her second event as a KLPGA pro. She beat two-time defending champion Hye Youn Kim in a mano-a-mano Sunday battle to do it. In so doing, she broke the record for winning her first KLPGA event the fastest after turning pro. Kim’s breakthrough year, with four pro wins on three tours, had become one of the most amazing starts to a career ever.
Ko had not one but two massive breakthroughs in 2012, and she did both of them when she was nearly two years younger than Hyo Joo Kim. First, she became the youngest person, male or female, to ever win a professional event when she won the New South Wales Open on the Australian LPG tour. She was still several months away from her fifteenth birthday when she achieved this incredible win. Then, in August, she trumped even that victory by winning the LPGA’s CN Canadian Women’s Open. Against a field containing almost every one of the top women golfers in the world, she produced a brilliant back nine on Sunday to hold off several strong challengers and win by three shots. Not only did she become the youngest to win an LPGA event, she was also the first amateur in more than 40 years to accomplish that trick.
The reason she doesn’t get this award, however, is that these wins were not as much of a breakthrough for Ko as her wins were for Kim. For one thing, Ko had been the undisputed #1 amateur in the women’s game for many months before 2012 even started. As a 13-year-old, she came one agonizing three putt away from winning the same ALPG tournament that she did win as a 14-year-old. And she had already won multiple major amateur tournaments in 2011. So, while her 2012 victories were a huge step forward in her career, they were not as unexpected as the wins from Kim, who was not even in the top 20 in the amateur ranks at the start of 2012.
Char Young Kim, Woori Investment and Securities Ladies Championship
At the start of 2012, Char Young Kim was a promising young player on the KLPGA better known for her looks and fashion sense than her game. All that changed in May, when she won her first career victory at the Woori event. And she did it by making several late birdies to catch Korean Women’s Open champion Mirim Lee, then beating Lee in a one hole playoff.
Kim’s win was followed by two more KLPGA triumphs, including one the following week at the Doosan Match Play. For a time, she led the tour’s money list, but though she was eventually caught and passed by Ha Neul Kim, Char Young Kim still had a great breakthrough season in 2012.
Je Yoon Yang, KLPGA Player of the Year
Je Yoon Yang started the year far more obscure than Char Young Kim. She had had a few top tens in her rookie year of 2011, but only finished 44th on that year’s money list. But in 2012, she was brilliant most of the season, especially in the second half. She notched ten top tens on the year and achieved two late season wins, which led to her winning the Player of the Year award. Her first breakthrough win came at the Nefs Masterpiece in August, when she grabbed a huge lead, nearly lost it, then rallied to capture the victory by two shots.
Cinderella of the Year
And the Winner Is: Hee Won Jung, KLPGA Championship
Talk about obscure winners, the player who won the year’s second Major on the KLPGA tour really came out of nowhere to capture that crown. Hee Won Jung joined the KLPGA in 2009, but had only three top tens (no finish better than 9th) in her first three seasons on tour. She had an 8th at the Nefs Masterpiece in August for her only top ten of 2012 previous to this Major.
But for whatever reason, something clicked for Jung at the KLPGA Championship. By the end of the second round, she had a 4 shot lead. No one was able to stop Cinderella as she stormed to the win by 6 shots. She was never seriously threatened the last three days.
Interestingly, Jung had three more top tens in 2012, and two of those came at the final two Majors of the year. Included in those results was the second best finish of her career, a third place at the Hite Cup. It’s too early to tell whether Jung’s win has birthed a star or if she will return to her more mediocre status in 2013, but there’s little doubt that her unexpected victory at the year’s second Major made her the Cinderella of the KLPGA tour in 2012.
Great Performance that came up short
And the Winner Is: Inbee Park, umpteen runner-up finishes
Inbee Park without any question established herself as a superstar in 2012. But even as she put together one great tournament after another, one problem seemed to nag at her: she repeatedly got herself within range of winning titles only to fall just short.
On the LPGA, she was practically good as gold from June to the end of the year. Starting with a tie for 9th at the year’s second Major, Park put together 10 straight top tens including two wins. But even more impressive than that was the sheer number of times she might have won tournaments had things gone her way just a little more. Most of her top tens were top threes during that stretch. Among the really close calls were a second place in Portland, another second in Canada (where she lost to the amateur Lydia Ko), a second place in Taiwan after leading most of the week, and another second place in Mexico at Lorena Ochoa’s tournament. The Mexican tournament was yet another event where Inbee had a two shot lead going into the final round only to slip up and let Cristie Kerr in for the win.
As if all those runner-up finishes weren’t enough, she had the same kind of results when she played on the Japanese tour in 2012. Among her close calls there were the CyberAgent Ladies in April, the Salonpas Cup in May ( a Major: lost in a playoff to Sun Ju Ahn), the Konica Minolta Cup (another Major: she started the last day 8 shots back, but almost caught and beat Chie Arimura; alas, she finished second), and the Japan Women’s Open (yet another Major that Park had the lead in, but two late bogies gave the win to Shanshan Feng). She did get one JLPGA win, though: the Fundokin Ladies .
No player in 2012 played so many great tournaments where she just missed the trophy as did Inbee Park.
So Yeon Ryu, Australian Ladies Masters + Australian Women’s Open
See ‘Best Start to the Season’ for more details about those events!
So Yeon Ryu, Safeway Classic and CME Titleholders
Ryu had her shares of near misses in 2012. You could also throw in the Manulife Classic, where she shot a final round 64 but just barely missed the four-way playoff. At the Safeway, she was matched against old rival Mika Miyazato, whom she had beaten by nine strokes to win the Asian Games gold medal back in 2006. But in Portland, it seemed like nothing was going Ryu’s way. In the final round, she had two lipouts and a few bad bounces, while Miyazato managed a couple of clutch long par saves. A great week for Ryu, but not enough for the win.
At the TitleHolders, she caught final round leader Na Yeon Choi at the turn, but made a crucial putting error on the 14th hole, then a strategic error when she went for the green on the par 4 16th and came up short. Choi’s birdie there put the tournament away. But other than the finish, it was another superlative display for the Rookie of the Year Ryu.
Amy Yang, US Women’s Open
Na Yeon Choi was sensational at the US Women’s Open, winning her first Major by a comfortable margin. Lost in the glare from that result was a fantastic performance by Amy Yang. Yang finished in second place, the only player besides Choi to finish under par for the week, four shots ahead of the third place golfer. Most years, Yang’s score and margin over her nearest chaser would have been good enough for her to grab the title, but this was alas not such a year.
Hee Kyung Seo, Kraft Nabisco
Other than In Kyung Kim (we’ll get to her later), last year no other Korean player came so close to grabbing a huge win only to falter at the 1 yard line as Hee Kyung Seo did at the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco. Seo played well enough to get to within three shots of the lead going into the final round. Playing in the same group as Inky, Seo charged into the lead on the back nine, at one point holding a three shot advantage over the field. Had she been able to hang onto that score, she would have taken the victory dive in Poppy’s Pond.
Alas, it was not to be. Seo proceeded to collapse, bogeying her final four holes to finish tied for 4th. The irony was that, after Kim missed her short putt to win it, she only finished two shots ahead of Seo. Had Seo been able to birdie the final par 5 instead of bogeying, she would have been in the playoff with the shell-shocked Kim and Sun Young Yoo, the eventual winner. It goes to show that you should never give up, even if things are going badly against you!
Jenny Shin, HSBC Women’s Champions
Young Jenny Shin seemed to have destiny on her side at the HSBC Champions event in Singapore back in February. She took the lead on Sunday, and though she struggled a bit, managed to make every par save she needed in order to maintain her slim lead. On the 17th, she drained an 8 foot par save to keep her lead at a single stroke over Angela Stanford.
But as she reached the 18th tee, the rains came, and play was halted for 90 minutes. Poor Jenny had to sit in the clubhouse thinking about her situation. When she returned to the course, now thoroughly out of sync with her previous form, she hit her tee shot into the woods and had to take an unplayable penalty. She wound up making double bogey on the hole, sinking into a tie with three other golfers. Although she outlasted two of them, she could not beat Stanford, and wound up tied for second.