Rookie of the Year
And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu
Without any question, the top rookie of 2012 was KLPGA star turned LPGA rookie So Yeon Ryu. Ryu earned her card for the 2012 LPGA tour in the most audacious way imaginable: by winning the biggest women’s golf tournament in the world, the US Women’s Open. Only one other Korean had ever earned a tour card by winning a Major before, and that golfer, Jiyai Shin, not only easily won Rookie of the Year the following season, she very nearly won Player of the Year as well.
Ryu accomplished a lot in her four seasons on the Korean tour: she chalked up seven wins and finished inside the top five on the money list several times. But interestingly, she had never won a KLPGA Major, nor so much as a single post-season award (other than the fan-chosen ‘Most Popular’ award). She had not even been able to claim the Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA, finishing second in 2008 to fellow teen star He Yong Choi. Shin, by contrast, had been a dominating presence on the Korean tour, winning over twenty times including multiple Majors, and bagging the KLPGA Player of the Year award every year she was eligible. So there was a question about how Ryu might do on the LPGA in 2012. No doubt talented, capable of great things, but would it be enough to see her win the Rookie of the Year against some decent competition, including among others teen wunderkind Lexi Thompson and two-time US Women’s Amateur champ Danielle Kang?
Last year, I had this to say about Ryu and her chances:
“With a pedigree like that, the expectations on Ryu will be high. But she should be able to meet them if she can acclimate to the rigors of living and traveling on the LPGA tour… her consistency should make her tough to beat for the LPGA’s top award nonetheless.”
And indeed, it was her consistency that stood out the most in her amazing rookie season.
What we perhaps didn’t realize was just how much losing the Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA in 2008 still bothered her. She spent some time discussing this during her Rookie of the Year acceptance speech in November. She talked about how she obsessed about what small missed opportunities might have cost her the prize: what if she had made that extra birdie putt, or one or two more par saves? Amazingly, she even began to doubt her overall excellence as a golfer. Granted, she was only an 18-year-old, so it’s not so hard to believe she would overdramatize what had happened. But even as a 21-year-old several years later, her near miss still haunted her. Realizing that the LPGA would be her last chance to claim a Rookie prize, she dedicated herself as fully as ever before to attaining her goal. Perhaps this uber-motivation led to the incredible results she achieved.
Simply put, Ryu was sensational from the moment she laced her golf shoes up in January to the time she took them off for the final time in 2012 in December. She started her year with two straight runner-up finishes. Indeed, she came within a missed three-foot putt of winning her very first event as an LPGA member, the Australian Women’s Open. She also shot an eleven under par 61 during that stretch. And that was just the first two events she played.
The great play continued and continued. After narrowly missing a top ten at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore, she grabbed a tie for 4th at the weather challenged RR Donnelly, her first event played in America in 2012. In April, she notched two more 4th places, and added a 5th place at the Sybase, narrowly missing the final four in this match play event.
Some of her other highlights include shooting a final round 64 to narrowly miss making a four-way playoff at the Manulife Financial in June; a fifth place in Taiwan and another in Malaysia; and finishing her year with 6 straight top tens after missing her only cut of the year at the Canadian Women’s Open (alas, the only time I saw her live!).
Interestingly, she did not have a great year in the Majors, at least to start. She did make all four cuts, however, and her Major performances got progressively better. She managed a tie for 14th in her title defense at the US Women’s Open, followed by her only top five finish in a Major in 2012, a fifth at the British Open.
Ryu had a number of good chances to win on tour, but only grabbed one trophy. That came at the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic in August. Ryu was tied for the lead going into the final round, but shot a blistering 9 under par 62 to obliterate the field by 7 strokes. She thus became only the fifth LPGA golfer in history to shoot that low a final round to win a tournament; the other four who did it all later became Hall-of-Famers.
Besides the Australian Open, her best chances to win in 2012 came at the Safeway Classic and the CME Titleholders. At the Safeway, she engaged in a mano-a-mano battle with Japanese star Mika Miyazato for much of the back nine, but just couldn’t catch a break when she needed it and wound up tied for 4th. At the CME, she caught third round leader Na Yeon Choi and was tied with her for a while on the back nine, but made a couple of critical mistakes coming in, allowing the rock-steady Choi to grab the two shot win.
In all, So Yeon had a staggering 16 top tens on the LPGA tour in 2012, 12 of which were top fives, in 24 events played. That tied for the most top tens on tour in 2012. To put this in perspective, only a couple of Koreans have ever managed more top tens in a single season (the record is 20 by Se Ri Pak), and none of them beat her total as a rookie, not even Pak. She was 6th on the money list with $1.2 million earned and second in scoring average with a 70.30 average (only Vare Trophy winner Inbee Park was better). She was top ten in several other statistical categories, including
- Putting: 29.25 (9th)
- Putts / GIR at 1.75 (2nd)
- Rounds under par: 57/86, 66.3% (3rd)
- Birdies: 356, 4.14 average (2nd)
- Player of the Year: 131 (5th)
Her final score in the Rookie of the Year race was an astounding 1,448 points, which gave her a 631 point margin of victory over Thompson and more than a thousand point gap over the third ranked rookie.
And as if that weren’t enough, she also found the time to return to Korea to play in her sponsor’s event, the Hanwha Finance Classic, which she won for her eighth career KLPGA victory. In December, she won both of her matches at the Korea-Japan Team competition to help lead Korea to a rout in that event, and she finished tied for third at the Swinging Skirts event in Taiwan, which pitted her against most of the top women golfers in the world. She ended the year ranked 7th in the world according to the Rolex Rankings, a big improvement over where she was at the start of the year, when she was outside the top 20. Oh yeah, and she did all this while completing her college degree at Yonsei University!
In every measurable way, So Yeon Ryu more than made up for falling short of the KLPGA Rookie award with her scintillating performance in 2012, on both the LPGA and elsewhere. Congratulations to her!
Rookie to Watch in 2013
And the Winner Is: Hyo Joo Kim
The collection of Korean and Korean American players who will be rookies on the LPGA in 2013 is not a particularly large, impressive or deep one. There is one exception, and we’ll get to her in a moment. 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.
I’ve already talked about Kim and her amazing 2012 achievements in the ‘Best Breakthrough’ and ‘Best Teen’ awards, so I won’t repeat them here. But as far as the Korean tour goes, remember that she already won one event as a 16-year-old amateur and contended as long ago as when she was 14. Based on that alone, she looks ready to become a top player on the KLPGA.
Add on to that the fact that she has already won in her rookie season, capturing just her second event as a tour member (and her second career KLPGA win) when she won the Hyundai China Ladies Open in December (this event counts towards the 2013 season).
In my opinion, it will not be so much a question of whether Kim will win Rookie of the Year. I honestly expect, barring injury, she will do that easily. The real questions are: how many wins will she achieve? Will she win Player of the Year, becoming the first rookie to do that since Jiyai Shin? And will she win or seriously contend in one of the LPGA events she will doubtless play in 2013? Whatever happens, it ought to be seriously fun to watch this major talent develop throughout the year!
Esther Choe is a Korean American golfer who looked primed to become a star when she turned pro in 2007. But she accomplished almost nothing out of the gate, and it took her until last year to start showing signs of the great golfer many thought she could become. She won twice on the 2012 Futures Tour and finished atop the tour money list and earned Player of the Year despite only playing 6 events. Choe also played on the Ladies European Tour, where she managed four top 20s and one top five. Of all the Koreans and Korean Americans joining the tour this year, she seems the most likely to take the LPGA’s top Rookie honor.
Most Improved Player
And the Winner Is: Je Yoon Yang
In 2010, Je Yoon Yang was an 18-year-old newly minted professional playing on one of the KLPGA’s developmental tours. She graduated to the big leagues in 2011, where she had an unexceptional first year, finishing 44th on the money list with three top tens.
In other words, there was little reason to expect that Yang was about to become one of the best players on the KLPGA tour. Yet in 2012, she won the Player of the Year award, topping stars such as Soo Jin Yang (who has yet to win it) and Ha Neul Kim (2011’s top player).
The first sign that this was going to be a special year for Yang happened in mid-May, when she notched a fifth place finish at the Woori Investment Championship. The next week, she made it all the way to the final four at the Doosan Match Play and finished fourth. A very good couple of weeks for Yang, but it still left her far away from the big names on tour.
When she got back to the tour from the summer break, Yang really started the fireworks. First came the Nefs Masterpiece, where she took a huge lead and, despite a final day struggle, held on for her first career win. With her third top five finish in her pocket in 2012, she now found herself among the top players on tour.
She finished 7th the next week, 11th after that, and notched a 9th at the year’s second Major, the KLPGA Championship. For the rest of the year, she never finished outside the top 15, and more often than not was in the top ten. She moved to the top of the Player of the Year standings, and it was not until Ha Neul Kim, the 2011 Player of the Year, put on a strong run after winning the Rush & Cash Charity Championship that Yang was knocked from the top spot.
Still, Yang was tenacious, notching a third at the Hite Cup, the year’s third Major, and a second place at the year’s final Major. The pitched battle between her and Kim continued when she made yet another top ten, her ninth of the season, at the year’s penultimate event. As they entered the final tournament, the ADT-Caps, only a few points separated Kim from Yang for Player of the Year. Basically, whoever finished ahead of the other one at the ADT would probably win the top prize.
Yang not only finished ahead of Ha Neul, she won the tournament, her second of the season, to capture the Player of the Year crown in style. She also finished fourth on the money list with over 400 million won in earnings, and third in the scoring average race with a 71.74 average.
Almost no one knew Je Yoon Yang’s name at the start of the KLPGA season. But going into 2013, she will be one of the names to watch. Whether she can duplicate her performance remains to be seen, but no doubt she was the Most Improved golfer of 2012.
Inbee Park had a career year, winning twice on the LPGA, once on the JLPGA, leading the LPGA money list and winning the Vare Trophy. Park had always been one of the better Korean golfers in the world, but without question, 2012 was her best year ever. In 2009, the year after she won the US Women’s Open, Park finished 50th on the money list. She improved to 11th in 2010, and was 31st in 2011. So, she has never been exactly bad, and in some years she was very good.
Still, the improvement in every facet of her game in 2012 was something to behold. She ended the year with 12 top tens, her career best, and became the first Korean to ever earn more than $2 million in a single season. She had multiple wins in a single season for the first time in her career, and had 6 additional second places. And she did that while having the lowest scoring average of her career and playing a decent schedule in Japan, where she also won once in 2012.
Indeed, Inbee without question asserted herself as a proto-superstar with her brilliance, particularly with the putter, where she was easily the best in the league. If it weren’t for the fact that she had already had some brilliant seasons in the past, and even in 2011 was a fairly good golfer, she might have been more than just a runner-up in this category.
Bo Mee Lee
Bo Mee Lee had somewhat of a strange season in 2011. She had just graduated from the KLPGA and planned on playing full-time on the JLPGA. But the tsunami in March changed her plans, and she found herself gravitating towards the KLPGA again. She did manage to win the low Scoring Average on tour, but did not have a win in 2011.
In 2012, particularly the end of the season, Lee returned with a vengeance. She won her first career Japanese title at the Daikin Orchid Ladies in March, beating no less than two-time money list leader Sun Ju Ahn in a playoff.
Jump to November, and Lee was playing in the LPGA’s Mizuno Classic, the lone LPGA event taking place in Japan. Lee shot a blistering second round 64 to take the lead, and held onto that lead much of the final round. Alas, she was not able to win, as Stacy Lewis made up a seven stroke deficit to take the crown. But Lee finished second in a tough field, just a stroke behind Lewis. It was a good omen for the rest of the season.
The very next week, Lee won again, taking the Ito En Ladies tournament for her second win of the season. And she wasn’t done yet, for a few weeks later, she won the season ending Ricoh Cup, the year’s final Major, to move to second on the year ending money list.
Bo Mee’s improvement from 2011 was impressive, but she misses out on the award because, after all, she is Smile Candy, the 2010 KLPGA Player of the Year, and not exactly a player unused to being near the top. It was a great step up from 2011, but nothing like the one Yang accomplished.
Char Young Kim
Char Young Kim finished in the top 20 on the KLPGA money list with five top tens. Certainly not a bad performance. But in 2012, she won three times, the most of anyone on tour, with seven total top tens. She finished third on the money list as well. It was a giant step up for the player who was named ‘Most Popular’ by the fans. But she was certainly a better player in 2011 than Yang was, so she was not the Most Improved.