Posted by: happyfan08 | June 14, 2011

So Yeon Ryu & Ha Neul Kim: Welcome Back!

Golf is a crazy game sometimes.  I am most definitely not the first to make that particular observation.  Sometimes it seems like the only people who can avoid the roller coaster the game can cause are the big stars.  Maybe that is true for some, but for many, even stardom does not guarantee results.  You might be a sensation one week, a picture on a milk carton six months later.

The Koreans and stars of Korean descent have certainly not been immune to the ups and downs of the sport.  Even the biggest star of them all, Se Ri Pak, has spent plenty of time in the wilderness, trying to find her game.  Pak managed to qualify for the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fame with her 22nd win in 2004.  She was only 26 at time, and would have to wait three more years before she had logged enough time on tour to actually enter the Hall.  But mysteriously, at almost that exact moment, her game took a major turn south, and suddenly she had trouble even making top tens anymore.  She would continue to struggle the rest of 2004 and all of 2005.  Finally in 2006, her game started to return, and her comeback was completed in majestic style with a playoff win at the 2006 LPGA Championship, the year’s second Major.  But though she has won twice more since, she has never again reached the level of consistency or sustained greatness she had in her early days.

Se Ri got to hug the clown when she won the 2006 McDonald's LPGA Championship

Then there’s Angela Park.  Park was part of one of the most impressive Rookie classes in LPGA history, especially as far as the Koreans were concerned.  Look at the names in that class: Song Hee Kim, a frequent world top ten golfer these days; In Kyung Kim, a three time winner on tour and currently 7th in the world; Inbee Park, who won the 2008 US Women’s Open; Eun Hee Ji, who followed Park as the Open champ in 2009; Jane Park, a US Amateur winner; former college player of the year Irene Cho; Jin Joo Hong, who qualified for the tour by winning an event;  and two time winner Ji Young Oh.   But Angela beat them all to become Rookie of the Year that year.  Her swing was so beautiful that Johnny Miller famously labeled it the best on tour.  When I interviewed her a few months after he made that comment, Park modestly denied that her swing was that good.   But regardless, it seemed only a matter of time before she became a genuine superstar.

Then, it just fell apart.  Suddenly, Park not only was not contending at tournaments, she wasn’t making cuts.  Then, she lost her card.  And now, she is nowhere to be seen.  Has she retired?  Is she planning on returning to golf?  Or has the mysterious loss of her legendarily great swing destroyed her will to compete?  Golf is a crazy game sometimes.

Angela Park during her good days: at the 2007 US Women's Open

Two big stars on the Korean LPGA tour spent the past few years in the wilderness themselves.  Both were searching for the success that once seemed to come so easily to them.  And both recently returned to the winner’s circle after a too long absence.  Their names are Ha Neul Kim and So Yeon Ryu.

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim was the 2007 KLPGA Rookie of the Year.  Young, glamorous, with a sparkling personality, she was saddled with the nickname ‘The Fashion Model of the Fairways’, thanks to her looks and style.  But Kim was more than just a pretty face; she got results.  She achieved 6 top tens in her rookie year while just 19 years old.  But 2008, her sophomore season, was the year when she broke through and became a big star.  She finished third at the first event of the year, and just two tournaments later claimed her first career win.  She was not done: she would win twice more during the season, and had seemingly established herself as the second best golfer on tour, behind only the unstoppable Jiyai Shin. 

Ha Neul Kim won the 2007 KLPGA Rookie of the Year award

But Kim soon found herself with a tenacious rival to deal with, one who was also beautiful, fashionable and friendly, and who was also regarded as a Fashion model of the Links: Hee Kyung Seo.  Seo had been on tour a few years and was several years older than Kim.  She had been a solid but unspectacular golfer until she spent a few weeks training with Shin.  Suddenly, she started winning and didn’t stop.  The press and the KLPGA couldn’t get enough of the two gorgeous rivals who seemed to trade wins whenever Shin was having a bad week.  In the end, Seo got the better of Kim, capturing six wins in 2008 to Ha Neul’s three.  But there was every reason to believe Kim was just getting started, and would have more to say when 2009 arrived.

Ha Neul (R) and Hee Kyung Seo in 2008

But golf is a crazy sport, remember?  Seo continued her brilliance in 2009, winning five more events, including three of that year’s four Majors (and she finished second in the other one).  Kim, meanwhile, struggled.  She had problems with her swing plane, and suddenly her accuracy took a nosedive.  She was not able to win in 2009, but all in all it was not a terrible year: she still nabbed 7 top tens and finished 7th on the money list.

Ha Neul in 2009

Unfortunately, 2010 was a significantly worse year for her.  Not only did she again not win a tournament, now she was having trouble even finishing in the top ten.  She wound up 21st on the money list, despite three top four results.  In terms of marketability, everything was still hunky dory.  She had several top sponsors, including Le Coq Sportif, a golf attire company that featured Ha Neul in TV commercials and advertisements, and credit card company BC Card, her main sponsor.  But what she wanted more than anything was to return to the top of the league.

Ha Neul and her other fellow Le Coq Sportif sponsorees

The start of the 2011 season offered hope.  She contended at the year’s first event in China, finishing second.  She followed that with an 8th in her second event of the year.  But it was third time lucky for Kim.  The event was the Hyundai Construction Seoul Economy Women’s Open, which took place in late April.  Kim played well enough to place herself second, just a shot out of the lead, after two rounds.  The leader was Ji Na Lim, a tour winner herself.  The third round turned into a pitched battle between the two.  But when Lim had two late bogies, she knocked herself out of it, and it looked like Kim at last was going to earn another trophy.

Not so fast!  Hyun Joo Lee shot a 68 to catch Kim and finish the day tied with her.  So, there would be a playoff.  If Kim was nervous, she controlled herself well.  They both parred the first playoff hole, and on the second, Kim again made par while Lee bogied.  Another win at last for the Fashion Model of the Fairways!  The win also catapulted Kim to the top of the money list and Player of the Year standings for the time being.

Ha Neul cries after winning her first event in more than two years

Ha Neul with her long awaited trophy, April, 2011

Kim proved this was no fluke by continuing to play well in the weeks since.  She struggled at the Korean Women’s Open , but had two more top tens and another top 20 after that.  She is no longer at the top of the money list, but is currently 4th, her best position this late in the season since her glory days.  Welcome back, Ha Neul Kim!

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu never got quite as far down as Ha Neul Kim did, but she still had a year and a half long winless drought going before her win last week at the Lotte Cantata Open; this was her longest such streak since turning pro as a 17 year old. 

Ryu first made a name for herself as a 16 year old back in 2006.  She was one of three girls who represented Korea in golf at the Asian Games.  She ended up winning the gold medal, crushing her nearest competition by nine strokes with a 29 under par total score.  The previous winner of the gold medal, at the 2002 games, had been none other than Japanese superstar Ai Miyazato, so there was plenty of reason to keep an eye on Ryu’s career as well.

Ryu did not take long to make her mark as a pro.  In fact, she won her very first KLPGA event in 2008 as a 17 year old rookie.  A few months later, she was in the hunt at the Korean Women’s Open, the biggest event on tour.  In fact, she had a four stroke lead at one point on the back nine before Jiyai Shin relentlessly hunted her down, finally defeating her in a three hole playoff.  Ryu did not get the win, but it was another feather in her cap to finish second at a Major while not yet even 18 years old.

So Yeon holds her first career KLPGA trophy

As it turned out, Ryu was narrowly defeated by her Asian Games teammate He Yong Choi for the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award.  But the next season, Ryu decisively established herself as not only the best golfer of her class but as one of the two best on tour, period.  She showed signs of coming greatness at the ANZ Ladies Masters in Australia when she finished tied for second.  No less an authority than Ian Triggs, mentor to Hall of Fame golfer Karrie Webb, opined that Ryu had the makings of a great player.  Her KLPGA run started with an epic win over Choi at the Doosan Match Play Championship.  Their match in the finals went a grueling 27 holes (more than seven hours) before Ryu finally put her rival away.  That win opened the floodgates, and two events later, she won again.  She followed that victory with two more consecutive wins.  Suddenly, Ryu was the top player on tour, with even Hee Kyung Seo chasing her.  Seo eventually rebounded, winning several more times to capture the Player of the Year award, but Ryu was decisively the second best player on tour right behind her. 

After more than seven hours, Ryu finally captured the Match Play trophy

Seo & Ryu were one of the best shows in Korean golf in 2009

The rivalry continued at the first event of the 2010 season, the China Ladies Open, which took place in December of 2009.  Ryu and Seo wound up in a playoff, with Ryu finally coming out on top after three holes.  Little did Ryu realize at the time that it would be her last win for a year and a half.  It’s not like she didn’t have her chances in 2010: she accumulated 14 top tens, which included three second places.  She wound up fourth on the money list that season.  But for a player used to winning, this was a major step back.

She started the 2011 season in China with a great title defense.  Indeed, with a few holes to go, she was battling Ha Neul Kim and Hye Youn Kim for the title.  Alas, she couldn’t hold on, and wound up tied for second with Ha Neul while Hye Youn took the trophy.  After that, she struggled again.  She would occasionally put together a promising round, but then shoot a terrible round and knock herself out of the tournament.  She did have one other top ten, a seventh place finish, but also had a missed cut, and an underwhelming second round loss at the Match Play tournament, a 39th, and three other top twenties.

So Yeon freshens up during round 2 of the 2011 Lotte Cantata Open

Even at the event she won, it did not seem like it was going to be her week.  She was solid through the first two rounds, shooting back to back 69s to put herself four out of the lead with one round to go.  But right from the get go on Sunday,  Ryu was on a mission.  She started her day with birdies on five of her first six holes to seize the lead, and she never let go after that.  She finished her day with her ninth birdie of the round on the 18th hole to establish an uncatchable 14 under par total.  This time, Hye Youn Kim, who had dealt her the defeat in China, had to settle for second place.  Thanks to her 64, So Yeon Ryu had at last captured her seventh career win after the longest drought of her career to that time.

So Yeon was absolutely on fire during round 3 of the Lotte Cantata

Ryu holds her seventh career KLPGA trophy

Like Ha Neul Kim, Ryu is a very popular player who has done quite well for herself in the sponsorship sweepstakes.  Her win moved her to 5th on the season money list, just behind Ha Neul, and more importantly reestablished her as a dangerous player capable of winning even when coming from well back on Sunday.  Now that Kim and Ryu have tasted victory again, it will be interesting to see if one of them can become the Player of the Year this season.  For fans of the KLPGA, it should be very exciting to see them try!

Posted by: happyfan08 | April 15, 2011

2011 KLPGA Primer

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). 

Bo Mee Lee

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).

Hee Kyung Seo in 2009

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.

Soo Jin Yang

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.

Shin Ae Ahn

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.

So Yeon Ryu

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

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?

Ha Neul Kim

Ran Hong

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?

Ran Hong

Returning names

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.

Jin Joo Hong

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.

Rookies

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.

Ha Na Jang

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).

Hee Kyung Bae

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. 

Jung Eun Han in 2010

The 2011 season starts in earnest with the Lotte Mart Women’s Open this week.  Let the fun begin!

Posted by: happyfan08 | March 30, 2011

Why do the Koreans struggle at the Nabisco?

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. 

Jiyai Shin congratulates Sandra Gal, the winner of last week's Kia Classic

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.

The iconic shot of Grace Park’s career: emerging from the pond after winning the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship

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.

Se Ri in round 3 of the 2007 Kraft Nabisco

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.

Things started to fall apart on Sunday for Se Ri

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.

In Kyung Kim at the 2009 Nabisco

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.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 24, 2011

2010 Awards (10 of 10): Player of the Year

Player of the Year

And the Winner Is: Na Yeon Choi

Na Yeon Choi

Jiyai Shin has dominated this category the last several years, pretty much ever since she first turned pro.  In 2007, 2008 and 2009, there was simply no other Korean who could touch her, although an argument could have been made for Hee Kyung Seo in 2009 (but a losing argument in my opinion).  Simply put, even with all the great and near great Korean golfers in the world, there was no one in Jiyai Shin’s league.

But this year, one golfer rose to the challenge, played superlatively, and managed to even trump the Final Round Queen in a closely fought contest.  The player I give the Player of the Year award to is Na Yeon Choi.  Let’s take a little look at her path to this point, and what made her 2010 season so special.

Choi, like Shin, first burst onto the scene as an amateur high school golfer, when she won the ADT-CAPS Championship in 2004.  The player who finished second that week was none other than Se Ri Pak herself.  Quite an accomplishment for a teenager to beat a living legend like Pak in front of her home country fans!  The next season, Choi joined the KLPGA, where she played for three seasons, finishing in the top ten on the money list all three years.  At the end of 2007, she played LPGA Qualifying School, where she gained conditional status for the 2008 season.

Na Yeon and her trophy from the 2004 ADT-CAPS, her first pro win

It did not take Choi long in 2008 to step up her game.  In her first Major on tour, the Kraft Nabisco, she notched a tie for 6th.  She soon found herself in a pitched battle for the Rookie of the Year award with Ya Ni Tseng from Taiwan.  When Tseng won the year’s second Major, the LPGA Championship, in June, it looked like that race had been won.  But Choi continued to play brilliantly week after her week.  Her consistency was almost ridiculous.  Not only did she not miss a cut in her rookie year, she did not even finish outside the top 40 in any event until October, and collected top 20s in all four Majors.  She had several great chances to win as well, but somehow could not close the deal.

Finally, everything seemed to come together for Choi at the Evian Masters in July.  She seized the final round lead by four strokes with just a few holes to go, and looked for all the world like she would grab the trophy.  But at that exact point, Helen Alfredsson started making every shot, whittled away Choi’s lead, and caught her on the final hole.  Choi eventually lost a playoff to the Swedish veteran, a crushing blow when victory had been so close.

Na Yeon at the 2008 Evian -- so close to a win!

Choi was back in the lead as Rookie of the Year, but Tseng nearly won the British Women’s Open the next week, and retook the lead.  Choi kept pounding, though, and Tseng did not finally put the Korean away until the final event of the year.  Choi did not claim a win, but made over a million bucks and finished 11th on the money list.

Her 2009 season was much the same.  Incredible consistency: she did not miss a cut again all year; she had multiple top tens and twenties and few worse results; and she had several good chances to win.  Finally, Choi again found herself in a position to get her first win, this time at the Samsung World Championship.  Her final round lead got as high as seven shots, but Japanese star Ai Miyazato at that point began to whittle it down, catching Choi with one hole to go.  But at that point Choi finally got a break: Miyazato made a careless mistake, made bogey on the final hole, and when Choi made a birdie a bit later, she claimed her first win on tour at last.  To prove it was no fluke, Choi got her second win just weeks later at the Hana Bank Championship, again with a birdie on the final hole.  Her final results for 2009: 11 top tens, two wins, top tens in three of four Majors, and a 6th place finish on the money list.

But even with all that brilliance, Choi was still in the shadow of Jiyai Shin coming into 2010.  She certainly had her moments of excellence early last year: a tie for 2nd at the State Farm Classic (she barely lost that one to Cristie Kerr); 3 other top tens as well.  But interestingly, it was her first missed cut on the LPGA tour that seemed to set a fire in the placid athlete, spurring her to a new level where she could compete with and beat anyone in the world.  That missed cut came at the second Major of the year, the LPGA Championship.  She just missed it by a stroke, but it was still hard for her to take.  She did not take long to recover.  The next week, at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, she seized control of the event, struggled a bit in the final round, made a clutch putt to get into a playoff, then beat almost all her fiercest rivals for the win.  That’s no exaggeration: her good friends and fellow top Koreans In-Kyung Kim and Song Hee Kim fell to her in the playoff; Jiyai Shin was just one shot away from that playoff; and Inbee Park, another superstar, was just two shots out of it.  The top five ranked Koreans in the world, and it was Choi who got the win.  That HAD to be a big spur to her confidence.

Na Yeon with her Farr trophy in 2010

After that, it seemed like nothing could stop Choi.  Week after week, there she was, either in contention or high up on the leaderboard.  She finished 2nd at the US Women’s Open and 3rd at the Ricoh British Women’s Open, the year’s final two Majors.  She had a great chance to win the Evian Masters after making four straight late birdies to cruise up the leaderboard.  Her second shot on the par 5 18th sailed over the green, though, and she could not get up and down; she finished tied for 2nd.  With a tie for 2nd at the Safeway Classic, that made five straight top three finishes.

After an 11th and a 9th, she returned to the top three with a tie for 3rd at the Navistar LPGA Classic.  A few weeks after that, she was in Korea defending her title at the Hana Bank Championship.  Despite playing with her good friend and fellow superstar Song Hee Kim in the final round, and entering that round trailing Kim, Choi got the better of her in the end, successfully defending her title for her second win of 2010.  Choi became the first Korean to defend a title on the LPGA since Se Ri Pak in 2002.

Na Yeon's second win of 2010, the Hana Bank Championship

By this point, Choi was the top player on the money list, nearly top in scoring average, and in good position to even win the Player of the Year award.  Jiyai Shin struck back, though, by winning the next tournament on the schedule, the Mizuno Classic, to seize the money list lead from Choi.  Choi finished tied for 5th, not too bad, and the two stars were practically neck and neck in that race.  Shin, however, decided to skip the next event on tour, and when Choi finished tied for 7th there, she once again regained the money list lead, and strengthened her lead in the scoring average as well, with just one event to go.

Choi had a chance to become the first Korean to ever win the Player of the Year award, and was the only player in the Tour Championship field who could win ALL the post-season awards.  But Shin, too, could still become Player of the Year.  They both needed to win the tournament to get that award.  It was another big test for Choi: could she face down her great rival and claim post season hardware?  The answer was a resounding yes.  Shin did not play well at all, Choi finished tied for 5th, and thus Na Yeon Choi became only the second Korean in history to lead the LPGA season ending money list (Shin did it last year).  Her final money total of $1,871,165 is also the highest money total ever achieved by a Korean golfer on that tour.  In addition, her scoring average of 69.87 was good enough to claim the Vare Trophy, the third Korean to win it after Se Ri Pak and Grace Park; it was the second best scoring average by a Korean in history (behind only Se Ri Pak). She also finished third in the Player of the Year standings.

Yani Tseng, Player of the Year, and Na Yeon Choi, Vare Trophy winner

Choi’s record was impressive top to bottom.  During 2010, she had 15 top tens, tied for the most top tens a Korean has achieved since the heyday of Se Ri and Grace Park (the only Koreans to ever beat that total).  More impressively, 12 of those were top fives, including two wins, four seconds, and two thirds.  She had top threes in two Majors.  After her missed cut, her WORST finish in her final 13 events of the year was a 16th place.  She led the league in five statistical categories: total birdies (338), rounds under par (.722), rounds in the 60s (.468), scoring average and sand saves (!), and was top three in four others. 

Na Yeon Choi has been great since she started playing pro golf, but she truly exceeded anything she had done before in 2010 and especially in the final five months of the season.  She clearly earned the SeoulSisters.com Player of the Year award over some very stiff competition.

Na Yeon Choi -- soon to be #1? Or is she already there?

Honorable Mentions:

Jiyai Shin                                                             

Jiyai Shin in March

 Although Jiyai Shin did not win the Player of the Year award this year, she still had a fantastic year by almost any standard (except possibly her own).  It was quite a tough battle between her and Choi for this Player of the Year award; indeed, had she played better in the final event of the year, she might very well have won it yet again.

In several ways, Shin had the advantage over Choi.  For instance, Shin won four events in total in 2010 – two on the LPGA, one on the JLPGA, and a KLPGA Major, the KLPGA Championship, where she beat Choi among others – while Choi only won two events all year.  While Choi basically concentrated on the LPGA, Shin played a lot of events in Japan, 7 in total, and finished in the top five in six of them.  Her scoring average on that tour was a scintillating 69.67.  It is quite a tough thing to play multiple tours all over the world and do well in all of them.

Jiyai wins in Japan

Meanwhile, she had a fantastic year in America as well.  She finished the year #1 on the Rolex rankings (Choi was #4), and was #1 for more weeks than the other two players, Ai Miyazato and Cristie Kerr, who also spent time at #1 in the wake of Ochoa’s retirement.  She played only 18 events, compared to 23 for Choi, yet managed 14 top tens, just one fewer than Choi, and barely finished behind her in the Player of the Year standings.  They had the same number of LPGA wins, although Shin had the most impressive win of the season when she captured the Evian Masters, arguably the most important non-Major event on tour (Choi finished tied for second at that event).  Shin had 12 top fives just like Choi, but Choi’s top fives were a little more impressive: Shin had only one runner up finish, at the CN Canadian Women’s Open, and four thirds, while Choi had more seconds.  Perhaps most impressively, Shin accomplished all this despite undergoing an emergency appendectomy right in the heart of the season that not only forced her to miss several key events but also inhibited her swing for some weeks after she returned to action (although her first event back after the surgery, she finished tied for third, showing just how tough she really is).

As far as post-season awards go, they were both pretty close again.  Until the final event of the year, Shin was only hundredths of a stroke behind Choi in scoring average (but she could not win the Vare trophy because she did not play enough rounds to qualify, thanks again to the appendix).  She was slightly behind Choi in Player of the Year, but could still win it with a victory in the year’s final event.  She was the only player who could catch Choi on the money list as well.  If Shin had played better than Choi at the LPGA Tour Championship, she conceivably could have beaten her in all those categories (although, again, even a lower scoring average would not have given her the official Vare trophy).  But Shin did not play well that week, and that one hiccup might have been the razor thin edge Choi needed to claim our award.

Shin became the first Korean to win the Evian Masters

Choi also had a better statistical season than Shin.  Shin wound up leading two categories: top ten % (14 of 18 events) and Fairways hit (they don’t call her Chalk Line for nothing – she is incredibly accurate off the tee!).  Choi, as mentioned previously, led in five categories.  Shin was second on the money list with nearly $1.8 million earned, fifth in Player of the Year points, and fifth in scoring average even with her fall in the final event.  It was a great year for Jiyai Shin again, but this year only good for an honorable mention in these awards.

Sun Ju Ahn

See Rookie of the Year for more details about her fantastic season in Japan.  She also added a near top ten at the Evian Masters.  Her historic year on the JLPGA was certainly amazing, but Shin and Choi’s exploits were so incredible in 2010 that Ahn would have had to have been off the charts in Japan to compete with them for this award.  She does deserve an honorable mention, though!

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 24, 2011

2010 Awards (9 of 10): Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year

And the Winner Is: Sun Ju Ahn, JLPGA

Sun Ju Ahn

Sun Ju Ahn has popped up a number of times already in these awards.  Her first season on the JLPGA has earned her yet another accolade: SeoulSisters.com Rookie of the Year for 2010.  But what’s perhaps most interesting about it all is that it could have been very different.

Back in 2007, Sun Ju was one of the Big Three on the KLPGA tour.  The other two big stars back then were her good friends and rivals Jiyai Shin and Eun Hee Ji.  Both Shin and Ji ended up leaving the tour thereafter.  Shin won a Major, the Ricoh British Women’s Open, in 2008, while Ji won her first Major the following year at the US Women’s Open.  Ahn was eager to join them on the LPGA tour.

Sun Ju Ahn and her friends Jiyai Shin and Eun Hee Ji, from 2008

To this end, she attended 2008 LPGA Q-School, winning her sectional in the process.  But in the finals, she suffered an injury that forced her out of Q-School.  She returned to the KLPGA in 2009 for one final year.

She had a good season that year, although she was overshadowed by the battle between So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo for top of the league honors.  But while she played her final year in Korea, the economy tanked, and the LPGA was hit particularly hard.  When the end of the year rolled around, Ahn decided to try out for the Japanese tour instead of the LPGA.  She succeeded in earning her JLPGA tour card for 2010, but what might have happened had she come to America?  The rookie class last year on the LPGA was somewhat weaker than normal, with only one rookie collecting a win.  Ahn, meanwhile, played so well in Japan that she climbed into the top ten in the world for the first time.  Perhaps she could have become the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year, had the situation been different.

Sun Ju Ahn and one of her 2009 KLPGA trophies

But it’s hard to second guess her, because her success in Japan was immediate and constant.  Ahn had always been very consistent in Korea, but tended not to win a lot of tournaments.  In Japan, that consistency saw her contend multiple times in 2010, winning four events in the process.  On top of her 4 wins came 2 second place finishes, 2 more thirds, and 19 total top tens in 27 starts.  She also had the lowest scoring average among the JLPGA players playing regularly on tour.  At one point she amassed a huge money list lead on the rest of the tour, and though it was decreased somewhat towards the end of the year, she still ended up with an impressive 145 million yen total for the year.  Her most impressive run came mid-year, when she achieved ten straight top fives, including three wins; one of those wins was a seven shot blowout over her former big rival Shin.

Ahn holds one of her JLPGA victory cups from 2010

For all these reasons, Sun Ju Ahn definitely deserves the Rookie of the Year award this year. 

Honorable Mention:

Inbee Park, JLPGA

Inbee played only part time on the JLPGA, but still managed a fantastic rookie year on that tour.  I suspect Inbee will appear again in these awards!

Most Improved Player

And the Winner Is: Inbee Park

Inbee Park holds her 2 JLPGA trophies from 2010

Inbee Park’s career went into a bit of a tailspin after her win at the US Women’s Open in 2008.  She had a top ten the following week, but did not have another top ten until the last two events of the 2009 season, more than a year later.  Meanwhile, she missed seven cuts in the 2009 season alone.  One had to wonder if the top pro prospect and once dominant amateur was ever going to return to the level she had once been approaching.

Well, in 2010 she returned with a vengeance, and did so while playing on two different tours.  In Japan, she was a rookie, and had an amazing start to her season (see Best Start to the Season for more details).  She won an event after several second place finishes, and won a second time at the final event of the year, the Ricoh Cup, which is also a tour Major.  In all she collected two wins, 6 seconds place finishes, and 10 top tens in just 14 starts.

But Inbee’s success was not limited to the JLPGA tour.  After starting with two mediocre results, Inbee finished second at her third LPGA event of the year, the Kia Classic; it was her best LPGA finish since the Open win.  She did not win an event in 2010 on the LPGA tour, but ended up with that second, a third, a fourth, and 11 total top ten finishes.  She also managed top tens in all four Majors in 2010, her best of those being a tie for 7th at the LPGA Championship.  Inbee saw her Rolex world ranking flirt with the top ten at times in 2010.

Without any question, Inbee Park had the most impressive comeback season for a Korean in 2010.  May she continue to play so well in 2011, and perhaps finally get another LPGA win to complete her journey back.

Honorable Mentions:

Soo Jin Yang

Soo Jin Yang from 2009

Yang’s record in 2010 was a marked improvement over what she had managed in her rookie year on the KLPGA tour, 2009.  That year she accumulated four top tens, with her best result a second place, and finished 16th on the money list.  In 2010, she had two wins, one of which was a Major (the Korean Women’s Open), three seconds, three more thirds, and 13 total top tens.  She made over 500 million won, good for second on the money list behind only Bo Mee Lee.  She was also third in the league in scoring average with a 71.07.  In all ways, Yang had a huge improvement in her game from one year to the next, and now stands as one of the top stars on the KLPGA tour at 19 years of age.

Shin Ae Ahn

Shin Ae Ahn meets the press at the 2010 Nefs Masterpiece

Shin Ae Ahn, also a second year player in 2010, had a similar year to Soo Jin Yang, although not quite as successful.  Ahn won the KLPGA Rookie of the Year award in 2009, but still only finished 21st on the money list, behind Yang, with just about 82 million won earned.  She had four top tens that season.

In 2010, she improved in almost every category.  She earned two wins, three more second place finishes, and 8 total top tens.  She earned more than 433 million won, good for third on the money list.

Amy Yang

Amy Yang had a breakout season in 2010.  Although she narrowly missed getting her first win (several times) she still markedly improved on her 2009 season, and showed that she may be ready to become a big star on tour.

Yang’s 2009 saw her notch 2 top tens, with a best finish of third.  She was 45th on the money list with a little more than $300,000 earned.  That’s not too bad for a young player like her, but in 2010 she improved on it exponentially.  Last year she had five total top fives, including her second place finish at the Tour Championship, and one other top ten.  Two of her top fives came at Majors.  She earned $765,000, more than double her 2009 total, good for 14th on the money list, by far her best placing on that list.  Watch out for Amy Yang in 2011!

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 20, 2011

2010 Awards (8 of 10): Rookie to Watch in 2011

Rookie to Watch in 2011

And the Winner Is: Hee Kyung Seo

Every year, I look into my crystal ball exactly once during these awards and try to pick the Korean rookie whom I think will make a big impact on women’s golf in the next year.  Last year the pickings were pretty slim on the LPGA tour, so I focused instead on a big name rookie on the JLPGA tour: Sun Ju Ahn.  I said:

“Sun Ju Ahn … is one of the strongest players from the KLPGA the last few years.  Although she did not amass the same kind of win totals as Hee Kyung Seo or Jiyai Shin, she still was the type of player who contended often.  (In 2009) she led the tour in scoring average much of the season, and was also the longest driver on tour.  Factors like that lead me to believe she will quickly establish herself as one of the premiere players in Japan.”

I may not be the greatest Nostradamus in women’s golf history, but I sure nailed that one.  Quickly?  She won her very first event played on that tour, and went on to become the first Korean to ever lead the Japanese tour money list.  Needless to say, she dominated the Rookie of the Year standings.

In 2011, there are a number of impressive Korean and Korean American rookies appearing on tours all over the golf world.  With so many quality golfers to choose from, who should get the focus?  I’ve picked the rookie I feel will have the most immediate impact, but I will also talk a little about a few more players who you may be hearing about in 2011.  How’s that for being non-committal?

There are a bunch of notable Sisters joining the LPGA in 2011, but two names really stick out: Hee Kyung Seo and Jennifer Song.  Seo is the player I think is most likely to be the Rookie of the Year by the end of the season.  From mid-2008 through 2009, she won a staggering 11 events in Korea, a record only world #1 Jiyai Shin has been able to surpass in the past ten years.  She struggled a bit in Korea in 2010, not winning even a single event, but she did amass 12 top tens in all, and finished 6th on the money list despite playing fewer events than most of the top players.  And while she was doing that, she managed her two best finishes in Majors, including a tie for 5th at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, and, oh yeah, won the Kia Classic to earn her LPGA tour card.  Her win makes her the only rookie coming into this season with a victory, and the fact that she beat a world class field by 6 shots at that event should make everyone sit up and take notice. 

Hee Kyung Seo

For me, the one variable is, how long will it take Seo to get used to living and traveling in the States?  If it doesn’t hit her too hard, I don’t doubt she will be making noise on tour by the end of the season.  And though there are many solid rookie prospects, all Seo’s pro experience will hold her in good stead in her battle for Rookie of the Year.  By contrast, many of her most important rivals are either amateurs who just turned pro, or who played just one season on the Futures Tour, which does not compare as a competitive environment to the likes of the KLPGA tour.

Hee Kyung Seo

Jennifer Song was an amateur superstar who has already managed some great moments as a professional.  But she has yet to win a big league pro event, and amateurs, even great ones, tend to take a little while to acclimate to professional life.  She will be a big star, and I think we will see her on leaderboards this year, but will she be the top rookie?

Jennifer Song in December

Song certainly had a great season on the Futures Tour.  Playing a lot fewer events than her other top rivals, she still finished second on the year ending money list, with 2 wins and many other top tens.  But though she had some good finishes on the LPGA, she did not notch a top ten there in 2010 (her best finish was a tie for 15th in four tries).

Look at these other 2011 LPGA rookies: Jenny Shin, Tiffany Joh, Kimberly Kim.  What do they have in common?  All of them have won important USGA events as amateurs.  Shin won the US Girl’s Junior when she was just 13 years old, Joh has two Pub Links titles to her credit (once she beat Kim Kim in the finals; the other time, Jennifer Song).  And Kim Squared is the youngest woman to ever win the US Women’s Amateur.  All of these women could be big stars, either this year or later.  But Joh is hampered with poor status on tour; she won’t play many events unless she starts playing great right away.  Kim Kim is mega talented but mercurial; I think she will have good results mixed with some really terrible ones until she focuses.  Shin is the one I think might sneak up on the field next season.  She improved consistently all through the Futures Tour season last year, winding up fourth on their money list to earn full status.  If she holds to that form in 2011, we might see her start to play quite well before the year is out.

Jenny Shin

Over on the JLPGA, a gaggle of significant rookies have followed last year’s Rookie stars Inbee Park and Sun Ju Ahn to that tour.  Some of them will be playing part time: Hee Young Park and Meena Lee are the names that stand out in that group.  Among those who will be full time on that tour, Bo Mee Lee is the most interesting name.  Lee has been a quiet superstar on the KLPGA tour the past few seasons.  In 2010, however, she stood up proudly and seized control, winning all the major awards on that tour, including Player of the Year.  She had little trouble getting through JLPGA Q-School; could she duplicate what Ahn did last year?  In a lot of ways, Lee and Ahn had similar KLPGA records.  Both had three win seasons in the past, both were very consistent and came close to or actually won the scoring title.  Ahn has the advantage of being far longer off the tee than Lee, and in general was more consistent when playing outside of Korea than Lee has been so far.  So I don’t expect Lee to be quite as strong as Ahn was last year, but I do expect she will be a foremost threat for Rookie of the Year, and should get into the winner’s circle sooner or later as well.

Bo Mee Lee

Over in Korea, the most notable rookie is Ha Na Jang.  Jang was a fantastic amateur, and in 2009 put herself in the hunt on Sunday to win two of that year’s four Majors.  Already in 2011, the tour has played its first event, and Jang was in contention and wound up tied for 4th, just two shots out of first place.  Hands down she is the rookie to beat for the Rookie of the Year honor on that tour.

KLPGA Rookie Ha Na Jang

It’s About Time Award

And the Winner Is: Se Ri Pak awarded the Blue Dragon

Se Ri receives the Blue Dragon Award

Se Ri Pak, one of the most important athletes in South Korean history, finally received a long overdue recognition from the Korean government last year.  She was awarded the highest award they can give an athlete: the Blue Dragon, or Chongyong, award.  83 other sportsmen and women were honored with lesser awards at the same ceremony, but there was no question who was the star of the show.  Congratulations to Se Ri!!

Honorable Mention:

Veterans win again on LPGA tour

Koreans have been winning tons of tournaments over the past four years, but amazingly, a Korean golfer over the age of 25 had not won an event since the 2007 season.  That all ended this year in style, as both Se Ri Pak and Jimin Kang collected victories.  For Pak, it was her 25th in her amazing career, while Kang achieved win #2.

Shin finally becomes first Korean to become #1 in the world

Another long awaited benchmark was achieved when Jiyai Shin finally became the first Korean to ascend to the #1 ranking in women’s golf.  This was something even Se Ri Pak and Grace Park never achieved, although the official world rankings did not exist back when they were in their prime.  Still, it’s a fantastic achievement by the woman many believe is the true successor to Pak’s legacy.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 19, 2011

2010 Awards (7 of 10): Most Touching Moment

Most Touching Moment

And the Winner Is: In-Kyung Kim donates entire first place check to charity.

In-Kyung Kim in November

This moment came almost entirely out of left field.  In-Kyung Kim played brilliantly in the final round of the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, defeating top player Suzann Pettersen in a memorable duel.  While being interviewed following her victory, she made the stunning announcement that she would be donating her entire $200,000+ first place check to charity; half to a charity in the US to be named later, and half to Ochoa’s charity.  It was a wonderful, beautiful gesture by the young lady.

In-Kyung plays guitar on the beach near her hometown of San Diego

Almost immediately, a few bitter souls suggested that she had made the donation with ulterior motives: free publicity, perhaps?  Tax write off?  Well, if you want publicity, you can get plenty donating $50,000.  You don’t need to give away an amount totaling nearly 20% of your total income for the year!  And the tax savings would also not equal what she was giving away, either.  Sheesh, some people…

Inky’s donation was one of a number of high profile donations made by Korean golfers in 2010.  Jiyai Shin also donated her entire winner’s check for the KLPGA Championship, about $130K, to a charity in Korea.  Na Yeon Choi gave away her third place prize money at the same event.  Jennifer Song, meanwhile, gave away 30% of EVERY check she earned in 2010 to charity, and vowed to continue to do so throughout the rest of her career.   Choi also gave away $30,000 to US Girls Golf at the year’s final event.  All this charity is a wonderful rebuke to the harsh reception Korean golfers sometimes get in this country.

Jiyai Shin, In-Kyung Kim and Hee Young Park present a donation to Birdies for Love charity in December

(Apropos of nothing, there was an interesting trend that happened this year: a Korean was profiled on the first day of a tournament and wound up being in the hunt on Sunday.  In-Kyung Kim received a nice profile from the Golf Channel at the beginning of the week she won, and Amy Yang also was profiled the week she came just a shot away from winning the LPGA Tour Championship.  Here’s hoping they have that Se Ri Pak profile all warmed up the week of the 2011 Kraft Nabisco!).

Honorable Mention:

Se Ri and Se Ri’s Kids at the Bell Micro

Se Ri's Kids soak Se Ri Pak after her win at the Bell Micro

Se Ri became uncharacteristically emotional following her long awaited win at last year’s Bell Micro Classic.  Jiyai Shin, Amy Yang and Chella Choi sat by the green watching Pak play.  It was endearing to see just how nervously these stars watched their hero battle for the win.  At one point, Shin even clasped her hands in prayer before a Se Ri putt.  After she made the putt, the TV cameras cut back to show the three golfers cheering ecstatically.  The reminder of just how much Pak means to these players, especially superstar Shin, was very touching to see.  (Yet another bit of nonsense: the commentators suggested Shin was there because she was hoping Pettersen would lose so Shin could stay #1 in the world.  Hogwash.  It only took five seconds of watching Shin to see how much Pak’s win meant to her on a personal level; whom Se Ri happened to beat was irrelevant).

Best Teen

And the Winner Is: Soo Jin Yang

Soo Jin Yang in an ad for her sponsor Nefs

It’s hard to remember that Soo Jin Yang, who this year was the second ranked player on the KLPGA tour, is still only 19 years old.  Yang had a breakthrough season in 2010, winning the Korean Women’s Open and one other event, notching 13 top tens, and winning the tour’s Most Popular award at the year ending KLPGA Awards Show.

Yang won the award as the Most Popular Player on the KLPGA tour last year

Honorable Mentions:

Kristen Park

Kristen Park

18 year old Kristen Park won the AJGA’s Player of the Year award in 2010.  The winner a few years ago of the US Girls Junior (when she was just 14), Park is one of the most promising of the young teen Korean Americans coming up in the ranks.

Danielle Kang

Danielle Kang

All 17 year old Korean American Danielle Kang did this year is win the US Women’s Amateur.  Well, and some other stuff, but it doesn’t get much bigger than winning the most important women’s amateur event in the country and possibly the world.

Jung Eun Han

Jung Eun Han with her Asian Games team gold medal

Teenage Korean golfer Jung Eun Han has been a mainstay the past couple of years on the Korean National team.  This year she helped power that team to multiple great finishes in important team events (see Most Dominating Performance for more details!).  She also managed a top three finish in a KLPGA event as well as several other near misses, including a great run at the Korean Women’s Open that came up just short.

Julie Yang

Julie Yang

15 year old Julie Yang has been quietly building a name for herself in Europe, where she has been based after moving there from Arizona.  She also achieved a top ten in a KLPGA/LET event in 2010, beating all the European tour players in the field with her 6th place result.

Best Hot Streak

And the Winner Is: Song Hee Kim, 10 straight top tens

Song Hee Kim

Song Hee Kim’s amazing 10 straight top tens included the final two events of 2009 and 8 straight to start the year in 2010.  But despite all her success, which included leading the tour in scoring average much of the year, she still has yet to win an event on the LPGA.

Honorable Mentions:

Sun Ju Ahn’s 10 straight top five finishes

Sun Ju Ahn had an incredible year in Japan, highlighted by a stretch where she achieved three wins and ten straight top five finishes.

Inbee Park’s amazing start on the JLPGA tour

See Best Start to the Season for more details!

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 19, 2011

2010 Awards (6 of 10): Most Controversial Moment

Most Controversial Moment

And the Winner Is: Inbee Park loses JLPGA event with final round penalty

Inbee Park won 2 events in Japan in 2010, and lost a third one thanks to a penalty

Inbee Park was a rookie this year on the Japanese LPGA tour.  At her second event on that tour in March, the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup, she was right in the hunt on Sunday when an odd thing happened.  Her ball was sitting on a severely sloping green, and Park, having not yet addressed the ball, was doing a practice stroke when the ball moved. “I grounded the club once, not addressing the ball, which caused the ball to move” Park later explained.   The rules of golf state that this would count as a stroke if there had been intent to make a stroke.  She claimed it was merely a practice stroke, and so should not have counted.  But the officials later deemed otherwise, she was given a two stroke penalty, and lost the event by one shot.

There were several odd things about this situation.  For one, it was a volunteer on the hole who pointed out the infraction; Inbee had apparently not noticed (no kidding!), and still didn’t believe it had happened.  Neither of her playing partners had seen it happen, either.  How does a volunteer have the power to call a penalty?

The penalty itself was not applied until after the round was over.  So, Inbee actually had the low score when she finished, and, according to her, believed she had won the tournament.  After her round, the officials reviewed video with her, eventually deciding that she had incurred the tournament losing penalty; the win went to Taiwanese golfer Yun-Jye Wei.  Inbee was still convinced weeks later that she had not done anything wrong, but was philosophical when asked about it:  “I was pretty disappointed” she said, adding “I had better be more careful.  I guess it was a really good experience.”

Honorable Mentions:

Michelle Wie grounds club in hazard at Kia Classic

Michelle Wie at the Kia Classic

Michelle Wie can always be counted on to provide at least one entry in this category every year!  She must be slipping, though; her most controversial moment of the season, while worthy, did not quite measure up to Inbee’s, if only because it did not really affect the outcome of the tournament (Hee Kyung Seo was going to win the Kia Classic no matter what happened to Wie).

So what did happen?  In the final round of the Kia Classic, Michelle Wie hit one of her shots into a hazard; nonetheless, the ball was still playable, and she decided to give it a go.  Before hitting the ball, which was on a slippery slope, she used her club to balance herself.  But you are not allowed to touch the ground with your club when your ball is in a hazard, and she was assessed a two stroke penalty.  Wie vigorously argued her case, saying she had to do what she did in order to avoid falling.  But the fact is, the rules are rules, so the penalty, while unfortunate, was without a doubt correct.

Shi Hyun Ahn and Il Mi Chung DQed at Canadian Open

There were certain people out there who tried their darnedest to make what seems to have been an unfortunate mistake into a potentially career threatening controversy.  But in the end, two players were disqualified from a tournament and life went on.

In the first round of the CN Canadian Women’s Open, Shi Hyun Ahn and Il Mi Chung were paired together.  On the final hole, one of the players (I think it was Ahn) accidentally played the other player’s ball.  They finished their rounds, discovered their errors, and both were disqualified.

At least, that’s the official story.  Soon thereafter, one of the caddies supposedly accused Ahn of trying to cover up what had happened and attempting to rope Chung into backing her up.  In other words, Ahn tried to cheat, and only was disqualified when caught.  According to this version of the story, it would not be until someone else came forward that the players admitted their mistake and were disqualified.

This story was published on a blog, and before long, the LPGA called up the two players to investigate further.  Meanwhile, the story continued to get muddier.  The two players denied that they had conspired to cheat, the order of events kept changing, and one of the caddies accused the blogger of distorting his story (claiming nothing sinister had happened).  In the end, there was nothing but circumstantial evidence, and the investigation was closed with no harm to the golfers (other than the DQ, of course).

Perhaps there was something more to it.  Perhaps the golfers did try to get around the rules.  But you cannot convict someone in a court of law on purely circumstantial evidence, you need something more solid than that.  And you cannot destroy two players’ careers with the same type of evidence, either.  Rightly, the LPGA dismissed the charges.  Hopefully the two golfers will not have to deal with a bad reputation based on this incident for the rest of their careers.

Amateur penalized on KLPGA tour, loses tournament

This incident got a lot of press in Korea when it occurred last September on the KLPGA tour.  Amateur Soo Yeon Jang was playing at the KLPGA’s Hyundai Engineering Seoul Economic Women’s Open, and doing quite well.  Just the week before, amateur Hee Kyung Bae had won on the KLPGA; would there be two amateur winners in two consecutive weeks?  The signs looked positive.

When Jang made birdie on 14 on the final day, she moved to 9 under par, a two shot lead.  But on the next hole, her approach landed in the rough next to the green.  Her father (also her caddie) planted her golf bag next to her, with a club pointing the direction she should hit her chip.  Apparently she was unaware that it is illegal to do this.  According to rule 8.2:

Other Than On Putting Green
Except on the putting green, a player may have the line of play indicated to him by anyone, but no one may be positioned by the player on or close to the line or an extension of the line beyond the hole while the stroke is being made. Any mark placed by the player or with his knowledge to indicate the line must be removed before the stroke is made.

Thus, Jang was penalized two strokes and fell back to 7 under.  This was the score she had when she got into the clubhouse, and it was only good enough for a tie for the lead.  She later lost the playoff against KLPGA pro Jung Eun Lee.

Amateur Soo Yeon Jang's rules error on this shot cost her a title

Jang later blamed her father for the mistake, and said she would never use him as a caddie again.  Ouch!  When a Korean girl says something like that about one of her parents, you know she’s pretty angry; saying something against your own father is something that just isn’t done in that country, especially in the press.

Amateur Soo Yeon Jang goes over her final round card with rules officials

The infraction came to light when a TV viewer called in to report it.  It was apparently pretty obvious, as several spectators around the green also noticed it.  Jang never denied the violation and took her medicine without argument (though with more than a little frustration).

Biggest Diss

And the Winner Is: Hee Kyung Seo wins Kia Classic, Golf Channel focuses on Michelle Wie’s meaningless penalty argument

Hee Kyung Seo won last year's Kia Classic

This year, the disses were not nearly as annoying as usual.  Oh sure, there were plenty of horrible articles about how the Koreans were ruining the LPGA tour, women’s golf, and the prospects for World Peace in our time.  There was your average amount of catty banter on message boards.  The Commissioner tended to do a good job of mentioning the Koreans and getting them involved in the publicity for the tour, but there were exceptions.  But nothing particularly egregious, at least that I can remember.

This year’s biggest diss was probably the one the Golf Channel dished out at the Kia Classic.  Hee Kyung Seo, playing on a sponsor’s invite, had just accomplished one of the more notable golf victories of the year, becoming the only non-LPGA player to win an event in 2010.  But almost from the minute she finished her round, the Golf Channel switched to covering Michelle Wie as she argued about her two stroke penalty for grounding her club in a hazard (see Most Controversial Moment).  They followed her into the rules truck.  She argued and argued and argued.  The cameras spent untold minutes following this non-story.  Yeah, it was Wie, and the press here can’t get enough of her, but if Paula Creamer had won the tournament, I highly doubt they would have ignored Creamer or treated her like they treated Seo.

By the time they got around to interviewing Seo (she spoke English just fine, by the way), the original allotted time for the tournament had expired.  Those who had tivoed the tournament thus never got to see her talk.

Honorable Mention:

Golf writers and commentators wrong about how Shin became #1 player

No, Jiyai, you’re not number 2! You’ve just moved to #1 following this win in Japan

Jiyai Shin became the #1 golfer in the women’s game when she won the CyberAgent Ladies event in Japan and Lorena Ochoa failed to make the top five at the Tres Marias Championship on the LPGA the same week.  That event was also Ochoa’s final event as a full time player, and many in the media reported, erroneously, that Shin only became #1 because Ochoa retired at that time.  Not true: had Ochoa not retired, Shin still would have been #1.  Ochoa herself has never admitted this truth, saying in essence that she believes she retired as #1 because the rankings change was not announced until the day after she had retired.  True, but her status at the time of her retirement was in fact that she was #2, regardless of whether it was announced at the time or not (and she actually knew that she was #2, having been told what she needed to accomplish to remain #1).

Interestingly, the media seemed to have realized its mistake, and most articles published about it these days have the correct information.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 17, 2011

2010 Awards (5 of 10): Most Fashionable, Best Shot

Most Fashionable

And the Winner Is: Shin Ae Ahn

Is there any Seoulie Award more hotly contested each year than the Most Fashionable award?  The Korean lady golfers definitely love their fashion.  I’m hardly a fashionista, but I know when someone has a unique style that makes them stand out (in a good way, of course!). 

This year, the golfer who turned the most heads with her interesting choice of outfits was Shin Ae Ahn.  Ahn was last year’s KLPGA Rookie of the Year, but she came into her own in 2010 with two wins and a third place finish on the money list. She also had a fashion sponsorship with Le Coq Golf Fashion, appeared in a commercial for them (which you can see on You Tube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUA-7mAVclc – Shin Ae is the lady in the black pants), and effectively modeled their outfits all through the season.  Here is a nice selection of some of her greatest hits.  

Shin Ae at the Hidden Valley

Glamor shot

Chilling with So Yeon Ryu at the season ending ADT-CAPS

The year's final Major

Driving at the Nefs Masterpiece

Saluting the crowds

Honorable Mentions:

Hee Kyung Seo

The Fashion Model of the Fairways continued to impress with her style throughout 2010.

Not winning as many tournaments, but still having a ball!

Waiting at the Women's British Open

Another eye catching outfit

Tip of the cap

At the Nefs

Ha Neul Kim

Another sponsoree of Le Coq Sportif (along with our award winner Shin Ae Ahn), Ha Neul has been down in the standings lately, but her fashion sense still stands out in the crowd!

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul usually enjoys herself on the course

Ha Neul means 'sky' in Korean; here she models a sky blue top

Hee Young Park

Hee Young certainly wore one of the most controversial styles of the 2010 season, when she rocked some rather short shorts at several events.

Hee Young at the start of the LPGA season

Hee Young in Thailand

Who wears short shorts?

Hee Young in Singapore

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is : Se Ri’s phenomenal bunker shot on the third playoff hole of the Bell Micro

This award wasn’t even close.  One shot stood head and shoulders above every other shot this year.  It was the most significant shot in that it directly led to a win, and more importantly, it allowed the most important player in Korean Women’s Golf to claim a victory after a three year drought.

The shot came in May at the Bell Micro Classic.  As the event entered its final round, three golfers, all Major winners, were tied for the lead: Se Ri, Suzann Pettersen and Brittany Linicome.  As it turned out, the weather was so bad on Sunday that the final round could not be played.  And so, they had a playoff with those three players to decide the championship.

Se Ri deals with the elements during the Bell Micro playoff

Pak was 5-0 in playoffs since joining the LPGA, but her last playoff win was 4 years previously at the LPGA Championship.  She had not even won at all since 2007.  But one thing you could count on with Se Ri was, she almost always rises to the challenge when she is in the hunt, and this day would be a spectacular reminder of that fact.

After all three made pars on the first playoff hole, they played the hole a second time.  This time, Pettersen blinked first, hitting her approach shot over the green and failing to get up and down.  Pak put her approach into a bunker behind the green, and her sand shot was less than stellar, leaving herself about ten feet for par.  But after Lincicome made her par, Pak effortlessly drained the par save to keep the playoff going.

Next time through, however, Se Ri hit her drive into a fairway bunker, while Lincicome’s drive was perfect.  Pak was in trouble.  From where she was, there was almost no room to hit an approach that would stop anywhere near the hole.  She had maybe an area the size of a small table in which she could hit the ball; too short, and she would wind up in a bunker; too far, and she’d be over the green.  Of course, she could play conservatively and try to land on the green far from the hole.  But Pak did not get into the Hall of Fame by playing it safe in situations like this one.

Great shot, great reaction

Se Ri’s response was to hit a brilliant shot right at the flag; she landed the ball almost precisely to the inch where she needed to hit it.  To hit a shot like that under any condition is amazing enough.  To do it from a bunker with the tournament on the line was jaw dropping.

Lincicome would hit her approach short into the bunker, perhaps trying to duplicate Pak’s amazing shot.  Her sand shot ended up 25 feet from the hole, but she still made the par, putting the pressure on Pak to make the six footer to win.  But Se Ri had already done most of the heavy lifting, and without any difficulty, she made the birdie to claim her 25th career victory.

At long last, win #25!

Honorable Mentions:

Na Yeon Choi hole in one, round 3, Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic

Choi would go on to win this event in a playoff.

Shin’s approach on 18, round 4, Evian Masters

Jiyai putting at the Evian

Jiyai Shin had been in hunter mode all day during the final round of the Evian Masters, trying to reel Morgan Pressel in.  Pressel had started the day with a two shot lead, but by the time they reached the final hole, they were tied with two other golfers, Na Yeon Choi and teenager Alexis Thompson, at 13 under par.  Both Shin and Pressel were in the fairway after two shots.  Pressel hit her approach first to about eight feet right of the hole.  Shin had to follow that, and delivered.  She hit her wedge over the flag, into the collar around the green, where it still had enough spin despite the higher grass to spin back to within 10 feet.  She buried the birdie moments later and won the event, moving back to #1 in the Rolex rankings in the process.

Jimin Kang’s approach on hole 16, Round 3, Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia

Jimin Kang was in a furious battle with Juli Inkster for the title at this year’s inaugural Sime Darby in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (see ‘Clutch Performance of the Year’ for more details).  But the key shot in her tournament may have come at the par 5 16th.  Kang could have played it safe and gone for the middle of the green, but instead hit an approach left of the hole.  There was little room to hit it there, and had she missed, she would have been either in bad rough or even in the water.  But she hit a perfect shot, made the birdie, and went on to win the tournament by a stroke.

Na Yeon Choi, hole 17, Hana Bank Championship round 3

Na Yeon putting in the final round of the Hana Bank

Choi took over the lead from her good friend Song Hee Kim in round 3, and also had Korean American starlet Vicky Hurst breathing down her neck.  Moments earlier, she had made a bogey on the 16th, and suddenly the leaderboard was getting uncomfortably tight.  Choi hit her tee shot on this hole well past the flag, leaving herself a winding, extremely dicey putt.  A three putt would have been a disaster at that point, especially with Kim sitting close enough for a birdie.  Choi’s putt was the best of the year, winding slowly, perfectly, down the exact right line.  Well, almost: it stopped an inch from the hole, leaving her a tap in par.  She won the event one hole later.

Amy Yang approach on hole 13 bounces, round 4, Tour Championship

As mentioned previously, this was a fantastic approach by Yang as she tried to claw her way back up the leaderboard.  She hit the shot a few feet short of the flag, it bounced a couple of times, lightly tapped the flagstick, and stopped an inch from the cup.  Had that but got in, she might have won.  Still, it was an easy birdie, and got her right back into the fight for the rest of the round, after an early quad bogey had all but ended her chances.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 17, 2011

2010 Awards (4 of 10): Best Near Miss, Most Dominating

Great Performance that came up short

And the Winner Is: Amy Yang, LPGA Tour Championship

Amy Yang at last year's LPGA Tour Championship

Amy Yang took a big step up in her career in 2010.  She finished 14th on the money list, notched 6 top tens, and had top fives in two Majors (with her worst Major in 2010 being a tie for 27th).  She was even featured in a promotional video for the tour, where she visited the World Golf Hall of Fame.  She contended seriously for titles a couple of times, and many pundits have been predicting that it’s only a matter of time before she becomes the next big Korean star.   

Her performance at the final LPGA event of the 2010 season, the LPGA Tour Championship in December, suggested that the future had arrived.  She took a share of the lead after one round, and after two rounds held a three shot lead on a tough course that was giving some other top players fits.  She struggled more in round three, but still held onto a one shot lead over Maria Hjorth and a two shot lead over a couple other golfers.

Dreams of a wire to wire win came crashing down early in round 4, when she went 5 over par on the front nine on Sunday, including a crushing quadruple bogey on one hole.  Just like that, Hjorth had the lead.  But Yang had played the back nine much better all week than the front nine, and when she reached those holes, she delivered again, rallying in a huge way.  On 13, she hit a phenomenal approach that bounced twice, lightly touched the flag pole, and hung on the lip, refusing to fall for eagle (tap in birdie, though).  She barely missed birdies on 15 and 16, and when she bogied on the 17th hole, it looked like Hjorth had it in the bag, leading by two with one hole to play.  But Amy didn’t give up!  She hit a great approach to ten feet on the final hole, then drained the birdie to put pressure on Hjorth.  Meanwhile, Hjorth’s approach landed in the greenside bunker, short siding herself.  She got it out, but still had an 8 footer for par.  Alas, the final heartbreak for Yang: Hjorth saved that par and collected the one shot win.  Yang had come incredibly close, but in the end, would have to wait until 2011 for another shot at victory.

Honorable Mentions:

Choi, Park Come up short at the State Farm

Na Yeon Choi shot a final round 65 at this year’s State Farm, but somehow Cristie Kerr managed to squeak out the one shot win despite struggling at times on Sunday.  Hee Young Park did even better, blistering the course with a 63, but came up two shots shy of her first LPGA win.

Koreans Almost Win Player of the Year

The Korean golfers have won every conceivable tournament and honor on the LPGA tour except one: the Player of the Year.  Last year, Jiyai Shin came within one stroke of finally breaking that streak and claiming the POY, but she still finished second.  This year, there were two Seoul Sisters who had a shot at winning the elusive prize: Shin and Na Yeon Choi.  But both of them needed to win the final event of the year, the LPGA Tour Championship, to get the job done.  Shin had an uncharacteristically weak tournament and missed the second cut (this event had a third round cut as well as a second round one).  But Choi finished round 3 with an outside shot at the big prize: she was seven shots behind tournament leader Amy Yang when action started on Sunday.  Choi made a great run at the top, too: she climbed as high as 3 under par, just a couple of shots behind the leaders, before two late bogies settled her at 1 under, good for a tie for 6th.  So no Player of the Year trophy, but she got to console herself with the Vare Trophy and money list win (not bad consolation, really!).

Na Yeon Choi holds the 2010 Vare Trophy for low scoring average

Clutch Performance of the Year

And the Winner Is: Jimin Kang, final round, Sime Darby

It’s tempting to choose Se Ri Pak for her stirring victory at the Bell Micro, but I chose instead to honor another more obscure Korean veteran who won in 2010.  Jimin Kang’s performance in the final round of the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia tournament was the most clutch performance of the year not only because she rose to the occasion again and again in a tough battle with a Hall of Fame golfer and seven time Major winner, but because Kang herself was not a golfer you would have expected had it in her.  Kang does have one previous win, in 2005, but since that time has only rarely posted top tens and almost never truly contended for a title.  Yet for one week in October, she went toe to toe with one of the greatest golfers in her sport and came out on top.

Jimin Kang in Malaysia

The lead seesawed between the two often on the back nine.  Kang was playing in the group ahead of Inkster, and made birdie on 15, followed by a brilliant, gutsy birdie on the 16th hole which is described in detail under the ‘Shot of the Year’ award (did it win?  Wait and see!).  Inkster also birdied those two holes to stay tied for the lead.  Next Kang played the par 3 17th, but was not able to make birdie there.  As she moved on to play 18, Inkster hit the ball close on 17, made birdie, and took the lead with one hole to go.

Kang was pretty much forced to make birdie to put any kind of pressure on Inkster.  And she delivered, with her most clutch hole yet!  She hit her approach over the flag and calmly nailed the 12 footer for birdie to move into a tie for the lead after a final round 65.  Inkster, waiting in the fairway, hit her approach right into a greenside bunker.  She got out of the trap OK, but was left with a kneeknocker for par which she had to make to force a playoff.  When she missed it, the win, improbably, was Kang’s.  Se Ri Pak was among those who congratulated Jimin on her incredible victory.

Jimin with her second career LPGA trophy at the Sime Darby

Honorable Mentions:

Se Ri, Bell Micro playoff

We’ll get back to this win a little later!

Jiyai Shin at the Mizuno

Jiyai Shin was brilliant all three rounds at this year’s Mizuno, shooting rounds of 65-66-67 to beat some strong competition down the stretch.  Despite her fantastic scores, she was challenged pretty much the whole week, only definitively putting Ya Ni Tseng away in the final few holes.

In Kyung Kim shoots final round 64 at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational

We’ll talk more about this tournament in a bit, but though it is primarily remembered for an amazing act of charity by the young Korean, please don’t forget that that act was made possible thanks to a final round that contained possibly the best overall putting performance by anyone on the LPGA tour last year.  The win made Kim the first Korean to ever claim a tournament in Mexico.

Most Dominating Performance

And the Winner Is: Korean National Team, Women’s World Amateur Team Championship (and others)

The Korean National Team blitzed the competition all year long

The scariest thing about the absolute thrashing the Korean National team gave every other women’s golf team in the world at this year’s Women’s World Amateur Team Championship is not that they set a tournament scoring record in the process; nor that they swept the top three positions in the individual standings; nor even that they beat the second place Americans, which included this year’s US Women’s Amateur champ Danielle Kang, by a whopping 17 strokes.

No, the scariest thing about the Korean National Team is the sheer number of great golfers who didn’t even make the squad that competed at this event.  Anyone who thinks that the Korean wave has crested would be advised not to read the following list of players who were either amateurs or only had recently turned pro when the Women’s World Team Championship happened in October.

For instance, there was Hee Kyung Bae, who won a KLPGA event this year, the first amateur to do that since Jiyai Shin back in 2005.  Hyo Ju Kim finished second at a recent KLPGA event herself; she is 15.  Eun Joo Lee, a 17 year old amateur, lost the Korean Women’s Open to Soo Jin Yang in a playoff, with another amateur, Soo Yeon Kim, also in the hunt on Sunday.  Soo Yeon Jang, yet another amateur, had a KLPGA trophy seemingly in her hands before a bizarre rules infraction cost her the win.  She is 16.  Julie Yang is currently based in Scotland, but has been tearing up the European amateur golf scene.  She is 15.

Then there are the girls/women who were amateurs until recently.  Jung Min Lee and Ha Na Jang both turned pro at the start of last year.  Jang nearly won 2 KLPGA Majors the previous year, and considered staying amateur in 2010 to play in events like the Women’s Amateur Team Championship.  Jenny Shin turned pro and joined the Futures Tour, and though she has been based in the US, she certainly was eligible to be on this team.  She wound up earning an LPGA tour card for 2011.  Then there’s Jennifer Song, arguably the most dominant amateur of the past few years.  She usually plays team events as an American, but she has dual citizenship and could have played for Korea had she wanted.  She only turned pro a few months before this event.

As you can imagine, if those ladies got left off the team, the players who did make the squad must have been pretty special.   Setting the pace was Jung Eun Han, whom many in Korea consider the top amateur in the country.  Han shot rounds of 72-65-68-70 to win the individual honors with a total of 13 under par.  Han is no stranger to success on the KLPGA, having contended at multiple events over the past year and a half.  Finishing second was Ji Hee Kim at 11 under total, while Hyun Soo Kim was third at 10 under, 5 shots clear of American star Jessica Korda in fourth.

The Korean National Team - be very afraid!

The same squad later represented Korea at the Asian Games in Guanzhou, China.  The Asian Games are a sports event much like the Olympics.  It occurs every four years, and countries from all over Asia send representatives.  The last time the event happened, in 2006, South Korea won all four gold medals, with a teenager named So Yeon Ryu winning the gold; Ryu is currently one of the top stars on the KLPGA tour.  Korea again easily won the team gold medal, this time by 11 shots over second place China.  Jung Eun Han was the star at the World Amateur, but the big winner at the Asian Games was Hyun Soo Kim, who claimed the individual women’s gold by ten strokes with an 11 under total.  Ji Hee Kim tied for second at 1 under but won the bronze medal, while Han finished fourth, thanks largely to a poor performance on the final day.

The Korean National Team claimed gold at the 2010 Asian Games

As if this weren’t enough, the Korean National Team also destroyed the competition at another important world team event in 2010, the Queen Sirikit Cup, which is a golf event that features countries from around Southern and eastern Asia and Australia.  This was the fourth straight win for the Koreans at this event.  The squad at this event was slightly different, with 15 year old Hyo Ju Kim joining Ji Hee Kim and Jung Eun Han.  They actually were behind New Zealand going into the final round, but produced an 8 under par final round to win this event by 7 strokes.  The star of the event was Hyo Ju Kim, who shot a final round 65 to take individual honors by 8 strokes with a 10 under par total.  Ji Hee Kim and Han tied for 6th at 1 over total.

By the way, lest you wonder how the New Zealand squad was playing so well?  Their two biggest stars are 12 year old (!) Lydia Ko and 15 year old Cecilia Cho.  Yes, they are both Korean ex-pats.  Ko had notched a top ten at the Ladies European Tour event that took place in New Zealand at the start of last year.  Did I mention Ko was 12?

Honorable Mentions:

Hee Kyung Seo at the Kia Classic

See Biggest Breakthrough for more details!

Sun Ju Ahn wins by 7 over Shin at Fujitsu Ladies

Sun Ju Ahn had a marvelous year on the JLPGA, becoming the first Korean to ever lead the money list on that tour.  Perhaps the highlight of her year came at the Fujitsu Ladies, where she shot a mind boggling 65-62 in the first two rounds to completely overwhelm a field that included top Korean Jiyai Shin.  Her 7 shot victory (Shin finished second) allowed her to carve out a huge lead of more than 50 million yen on the money list (124 million to 70.26 for Sakura Yokomine at that time).

Jennifer Song dominates first professional tournament

Jennifer Song in January, 2011

Jennifer Song played on the Curtis Cup team, then joined the Futures Tour mid-season in an effort to earn a tour card by finishing top five on the money list.  It was a crapshoot: she would have a lot fewer events than the rest of the golfers on tour to earn the money she would need.  But boy, she got out to a great start at her first event as a pro, the Tate & Lyle Players Championship.  She just got better round by round, shooting 68, then 67, then 65.  She saved the best for last, finishing the week with an unreal nine under par 61, tying the lowest score in the history of the tour, to win the event by six.  It wasn’t even as close as that, as only a great day from Esther Choe, who finished second at 13 under, kept the event from being a double digit rout.  Her 19 under total score also smashed the tournament record.

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