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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!