As anyone who reads this page regularly knows, Korean golfers have had an overwhelming impact on women’s golf the past dozen years. During that time they have notched 11 Major victories, but ten of those wins came in the final three Majors of the season. Se Ri Pak is the only Korean to win the LPGA Championship, but she has done it three times. Four different Koreans have won the US Women’s Open, while three have claimed the Women’s British Open. But only once has a Korean emerged victorious at the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco. In fact, the Seoul Sisters are usually not even a factor in the outcome of this event. Why is it that this one Major seems to defy them when all the others seem ripe for the picking?
This coming week marks the annual playing of the first Major on the women’s schedule. Once upon a time it was called the Dinah Shore, named in honor of the lady who acted as the celebrity host for the event. It is one of the events on the LPGA tour most steeped in tradition and lore. There is a walk showing the photos of the players who have won over the years, and every year the winner celebrates her victory by jumping into Poppy’s Pond near the 18th hole. But because only one Korean has won over the years, these traditions have largely bypassed the rabid fans of these ladies. For them, this is a week to watch other stars shine while their favorites toil in the background.
Coming into the event this year, the usual Korean suspects seem poised to make a run. Jiyai Shin narrowly missed claiming her first win of the year last weekend at the Kia Classic. She led much of the week, but missed several crucial short putts, including one on the 18th hole, and lost by one stroke to Sandra Gal of Germany. Shin actually had a good Nabisco last year, finishing fifth, but even so was not really in the hunt on Sunday. The Nabisco’s defending champion is Shin’s arch rival Yani Tseng, currently the only woman golfer in the world ranked above her.
Besides Shin, Na Yeon Choi and In Kyung Kim are also coming off strong showings at the Kia. Kim has had a very good start to her year, notching top tens in all three of the events she has played this year. She shot a season low 63 at the year’s first event in Thailand but was not able to hold on to the lead through the weekend. She finished tied for third at the Kia. Kim is typical of the Korean stars when it comes to the Nabisco. Last year, she notched top five finishes in the other three Majors but was not a factor at Mission Hills. Choi is well overdue a Major win, and had a tie for fifth finish at the Kia. Last year, she was the leading money winner on the LPGA tour and has been ranked as high as third in the world. Choi had a second and a third in the final two Majors of 2010, but only finished 27th at the Nabisco.
2004 was the one time a Korean came out on top at this event. In fact, it was a great year for the Sisters all around. In fact, the final group on Sunday consisted of Sarah Lee, Aree Song and Grace Park. Park and Lee are Korean, and Song is half Korean, half Thai. It was an epic battle, with Song and Park slugging it out until the end. Finally, Song drained an eagle on the 72nd hole, forcing Park to make a birdie on that hole to win the title. Grace did so, claiming her first and thus far only Major triumph. She took the dive in the pond, creating one of the iconic photos of her career. Who would have guessed at the time that, for all the Korean success that was to come, seven years later the Sisters would still be looking for their second chance to take that dive.
Perhaps the most compelling Korean Nabisco story is that of Se Ri Pak. By her fourth season on tour, Se Ri had claimed three of the four Majors needed to complete the career Grand Slam. The only one she was missing was the Nabisco. And to this date, she has still not claimed it. In fact, most years she isn’t even close. For a while her best finish was a tie for 9th. But one year, it looked like the stars were finally going to align and give Pak the trophy she wanted more than any other. In 2007, Se Ri took a tie for the lead into the final round. In years past, Pak was practically unbeatable when she had a lead in that situation. No one anywhere near her on the leaderboard had ever won a Major before, while she had five Majors in her career. Everything seemed primed for her to get this elusive title at last.
Things went well for Se Ri on Sunday, at least at first. She made an early birdie and claimed a two shot lead by the fourth hole. But final round co-leader Suzann Pettersen rebounded, and by the 8th hole had caught Pak for the lead. Pettersen took a one shot lead into the back nine, but Se Ri made a needless bogey on the 10th and missed a makeable birdie on the par 5 11th, and suddenly the deficit was three strokes.
Se Ri made a birdie on 12 to move back to within two, but after that, she pressed too hard to try to make up the deficit, and the result was a horrific bogey train that plunged her right out of the tournament. The irony is, if she had just focused on par golf, she might have won, for Pettersen had her own implosion a few holes later. In the end, Morgan Pressel, who had finished golfing more than an hour earlier, ended up winning the title. Se Ri wound up tied for 10th, not even her best finish at the event. She has not come close to winning the Nabisco since.
So, the question remains: why do the Koreans struggle to win this one event? Well, the older Koreans are on the downside of their careers, while the younger ones are just starting to make noise at the big events. But the younger ones have had far more success at the other Majors than this one. As for the Nabisco, the golf gods seem to set up tough situations for them year after year. In 2008, Lorena Ochoa dominated the final day of the tournament, not giving anyone else a real chance. Six Koreans finished in the top ten, but none higher than Seon Hwa Lee, who was 5th. In 2009, the highest Korean finisher was Jimin Kang, who finished tied for 8th. Jiyai Shin finished tied for 21st that same year. In 2010, Song Hee Kim finished third, but well behind the two players who duked it out on Sunday for the trophy. Shin was fifth, Inbee Park tied for 10th.
There seem to be a few interesting trends in these results. First of all, the Koreans tend not to do so well at the start of the LPGA season in general, and the Kraft is these days one of the first events of the year. Looking at the past five years, the Koreans usually have at most one win in the first few events, but more often don’t seriously contend for trophies. It’s not until May or so that they usually catch fire and start collecting wins and tons of top tens. Why would this be? Unclear, but my theory is that they work so hard in the off season that they are actually a little tired when the season starts, whereas their opponents are fresher, not having worked so hard. But once the season starts in earnest and the rest of the field gets more tired, the superior preparation of the Koreans makes more of an impact.
The Nabisco’s course setup itself also seems to favor long hitters. Grace Park, the only Korean to win the event, is also one of the longest Koreans off the tee. Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam, Brittany Lincicome and Yani Tseng are also champions known for their length. Morgan Pressel, one of the shortest players to win the event, basically backed into her win when the two long bombers Pak and Pettersen screwed up on Sunday. These days, there are only a few younger Korean players who one could consider long drivers: Amy Yang definitely, and Song Hee Kim has a decent driving average. For the rest, this is a handicap that they have to face.
Can a Korean win the Kraft Nabisco this year? Jiyai Shin is one of the toughest, winningest golfers on the LPGA, and she has improved her distance this year. In Kyung Kim seems to do well at Majors, and Na Yeon Choi is a golfing machine who is always near the top of leaderboards. Inbee Park has had a career resurgence of late, and already has a Major trophy to her credit. The course sets up well for Amy Yang as well. Song Hee Kim has struggled a bit this season so far, quite uncharacteristically, so it might not be her year to shine. Perhaps the course does not set up as well for these players as others do, but expect that at least a couple of these stars will make a run at the title this year. With so much success on their resume, it just can’t be the case that the Curse of the Nabisco will afflict the Koreans for too many more years.