This week marks the “start” of the Korean LPGA’s 2011 season, and so that means it’s time once again for our annual look at the tour: what to expect in the coming season, who are the players to watch, and who might be ready to bust out as a new star. (I say “start” because, in fact, there has been one event already counting towards this year, back in December. But boy, that was a long time ago, and April is the time when things get going for real).
Several of the tour’s biggest stars are no longer full time players in Korea. Bo Mee Lee swept the major awards last year, including the Player of the Year. This season, she is a rookie on the Japanese LPGA tour. But owing to the tsunami, that tour has not played an event in weeks; so expect that Lee and some other Korean names over there might play in Korea instead (Lee, in fact, is scheduled to take part in this week’s event, the LotteMart Women’s Open).
Also leaving the KLPGA in 2011 is Hee Kyung Seo, who was the 2009 KLPGA Player of the Year. Seo had an off year in 2010, not managing so much as a single win on tour. This year she is a rookie on the LPGA tour, but like Lee, she’ll play the occasional KLPGA tournament when time permits (she, too, is in this week’s field).
It might seem at first glance that losing two big names like Lee and Seo would put a damper on the KLPGA for 2011, but nothing could be further from the truth. While those players will be missed, 2010 saw the rise of two more charismatic young stars who should be major factors on tour in 2011. In addition, a whole raft of promising new rookies are joining the tour this year, several old time stars have returned to play full time, and the other big names are still there to keep their fans happy. Let’s take a look at what’s in store!
The New Young Stars (Shin Ae Ahn, Soo Jin Yang)
2010 was a breakout season for two young second year professionals. Shin Ae Ahn was the Rookie of the Year in 2009, while Soo Jin Yang was right behind her in those standings. In 2010, both players won multiple times and finished near the top of the tour money list, just behind Bo Mee Lee.
Soo Jin Yang was second on the KLPGA money list thanks to two wins during the season and 13 total top tens. Her breakthrough moment came when she won last year’s Korean Women’s Open for her first and so far only Major victory. In addition to her two wins, she accumulated three seconds and three third place finishes. She was also third in the league in scoring with an average of 71.07 strokes. At just 19 years of age, Yang has quickly become one of the darlings of the tour. Though she is just a wisp of a girl, she is one of the longer hitters out there. She is very popular with the fans and has several lucrative endorsement deals, her most important being with Nefs, her primary sponsor, who also pay for one of the tournaments each year on tour. Yang had a great 2010, no doubt, but toiled somewhat in the shadow of Bo Mee Lee. With Lee out of the picture, this might be Yang’s chance to take over as the dominant force on tour.
But if Soo Jin wants to do that, she’ll have to go through another third year player who made a big splash last year. Shin Ae Ahn’s record was almost as impressive in 2010 as Yang’s. She also earned 2 wins (though no Majors) and three second place finishes, with a total of 8 top tens. She finished third on the money list. More recently, Ahn missed the cut at this year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship a few weeks ago. Though not as consistent as Yang, she has a tendency to rise up leaderboards at important events. If she can harness her talents even at the events where she is not at her best, she could certainly challenge for Player of the Year in 2011.
Interestingly, the KLPGA has not seemed to glom onto this fascinating rivalry in their marketing efforts. In the past they have been quick to discover rivalries that could be exploited for marketing purposes: Hee Kyung Seo vs. Ha Neul Kim (the battle of the models); So Yeon Ryu vs. He Yong Choi (the teen prodigies); Seo vs. Ryu last season. But Yang and Ahn are two similar golfers, both charismatic and popular, both at the same point in their professional development, and two of the three top players on the KLPGA in 2010. It would seem natural to pit them against each other as the rivalry to watch, but that hasn’t happened yet. Stay tuned, though; the KLPGA doesn’t tend to miss these opportunities for very long!
So Yeon Ryu
At the start of 2010, everybody was expecting that the rivalry to watch that season would be between the two top golfers of the 2009 season, So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo. The two of them lent credence to that by ending up in a playoff at last season’s first tournament (Ryu won). But amazingly, neither player would win again the rest of the year. This is especially incredible when you consider that the two of them amassed 9 wins in 2009.
Ryu did not have a poor season. She finished fourth on the money list, and besides the win had multiple top ten finishes. But that second 2010 win was elusive. Even at the first event this year, Ryu entered the final round in a great position to win only to be surpassed in the end by Hye Youn Kim.
This year, Seo has moved on, but Ryu remains. Can she live up to her potential and become the dominant player on the KLPGA in 2011? She has the most career wins of any of the top full-time players on tour and is still only 21. Most likely she will look to move on to the LPGA or JLPGA at the end of the year, so this is her best chance to shine. If she can get some early momentum, and perhaps even capture one of the Majors (she has yet to win one), this could be her season to dominate at last.
Some Other Names
Here are a few of the other returning players who might make a big splash in 2011.
Hye Youn Kim
Hye Youn Kim has flown a bit under the radar ever since her rookie year in 2008. That season, she was overshadowed by Ryu and Rookie of the Year He Yong Choi despite the fact that she, too, won a tournament. Since then she has collected several more victories. In 2010 she finished fifth on the money list, with a win, a second and 8 total top tens. She announced that she may be here to stay by beating Ryu and Ha Neul Kim at this year’s first event back in December. For the moment, anyway, she is the top player on the season money list; will she be there at the end of the season as well?
Ha Neul Kim
Ha Neul Kim has never been able to recapture the form she briefly had in the 2008 season, when she won three times and seemed to be on her way to the top of the league. In 2010 she only finished 21st on the money list. But she rallied at the end of the year, and in this year’s first event narrowly lost to Hye Youn Kim. Could a renaissance be in the offing for the fashionable star?
Ran Hong is a consistent top ten golfer who has never quite taken her game to that next level. She won a tournament in 2010, had another second place and five total top tens. She finished 9th on the money list. With Hong, the talent is there, but is she capable of becoming more consistently a factor on leaderboards?
Starting in 2010 and continuing this year, a number of familiar names have been returning to play on the Korean tour full time. Il Mi Chung was once upon a time the top player on the KLPGA tour. After spending several years on the LPGA, she returns to the KLPGA in 2011. Joining her is Gloria Park, who has never played on the KLPGA before (she went straight from being an amateur to the LPGA tour way back when). Sarah Lee is also making the KLPGA her full time home this year.
Last year saw the return of Jin Joo Hong and Sung Ah Yim, both LPGA tour winners. And there is a rumor that Joo Mi Kim, another tour winner, will also be joining them.
Among all of these name players, are there any who could potentially dominate the domestic tour? Gloria Park, Sarah Lee and Il Mi Chung all seem to be several years past their primes, and being well into their thirties, they may not be willing to put the hours in to become top players anymore. Jin Joo Hong and Sung Ah Yim are younger and more promising. Yim in particular made some noise in 2010 and might be a leaderboard perennial in 2011. Hong seems much more inconsistent, but has her moments. Still, it would be a bit surprising if any of these players become one of the very best on the KLPGA this year.
Like most years, there are a number of high profile rookies entering the league in 2011.
Ha Na Jang is probably the most notable of these players. Jang had a great amateur career. Among her many notable achievements was a semifinal loss at the US Women’s Amateur one year, and a six stroke win at the Women’s World Golf Championship in 2009. That Fall she seriously contended in the final two KLPGA Majors, losing both to Hee Kyung Seo. She finished third at the Hite Cup, but at the final Major, the KB Star Tour Grand Finale, it took a birdie by Seo on the 17th hole on Sunday to finally put the pesky teenager away; Jang finished second.
She turned pro in 2010 and concentrated on mini-tours. In the Fall she easily earned her KLPGA tour card at Qualifying School, and in her first event as a pro in December, she contended much of the week before ending up 6th.
Jang has a complete game and is very long off the tee. If she can play up to her potential on a regular basis, she will be tough to beat for Rookie of the Year. She is already known in some circles as the second coming of Jiyai Shin, and while that might be a bit excessive, she is definitely one to watch in 2011.
Rye Jung Lee dominated the Jump Tour, one of the KLPGA’s developmental tours, in 2010. From July to the end of the season, she played in 10 tournaments; during that stretch, she had 6 wins, a second, a third, a 6th and a 9th. Those are Jiyai Shin-like numbers. Will Lee be able to take that level of consistency to the big tour? If so, she could be a legitimate threat to Jang.
Hee Kyung Bae became the first amateur in several years to win on the KLPGA tour last season when she claimed the title at the rain shortened LIG Classic in August. She is a rookie now, and thus instantly becomes one of the top threats to win the Rookie title in 2011, although her other 2010 results were not nearly so impressive as that victory (her next best finish in her KLPGA guest appearances was a 16th).
Last year, Jung Eun Han was one of the top amateurs in the world, perhaps the very best. Among her accomplishments was leading the Korean national team in an absolute rout over the rest of the world at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship. The team won by a mind blowing 17 strokes over an American squad that included Danielle Kang, the US Women’s Amateur Champ, and Jessica Korda, who is now on the LPGA tour. They also demolished the all time scoring record at the event. Han won the individual honors as well, besting the all time stroke record set by Jenny Chuasiriporn in 1998. Han has also proved herself in KLPGA competition, having come close to winning an event last year before settling for second (at the same LIG Classic that fellow amateur Bae won). She also contended at one of the same Majors Jang excelled at in 2009.
Han is now a rookie on the KLPGA tour. If anyone has a chance to take down Jang for the Rookie of the Year title, my money is on Han.
The 2011 season starts in earnest with the Lotte Mart Women’s Open this week. Let the fun begin!