The KLPGA’s 2015 season starts in earnest this week at the Lotte Mart Open, so it’s time once again for my annual KLPGA Primer. Who are the players to watch out for on the Korean tour in the coming season? Read on!
2014 was one of the greatest seasons in KLPGA history. It had it all: an overwhelming superstar shattering records (Hyo Joo Kim); no less than 8 multiple winners; a fabulous three-way Rookie race that came down to the final week (won at last by Kyu Jung Baek); a former Player-of-the-Year, Ha Neul Kim, repeatedly just missing a win (she had five runner up finishes); a couple of emerging stars in In Gee Chun and Yoon Kyung Heo; and two long hitters and the 1-2 players on the tour in 2013 making noise (Ha Na Jang and Sei Young Kim). Best of all, a staggering number of tournaments came down to a battle between one or more big stars, often in playoffs. You could depend on the KLPGA to present a compelling storyline almost every week.
2015 sees the KLPGA with the most tournaments in its history and the largest total purse. But the tour is also at a crossroads: five of the top ten players from 2014 have left the tour for greener pastures, including last year’s #1 player and the players who had topped the money list from 2011 – 2014. The KLPGA has never seen such a massive exodus of top talent in a single year before. 2011 and 2012 Money List leader Ha Neul Kim has moved on to play in Japan, while 2014 #1 Hyo Joo Kim, Rookie of the Year Kyu Jung Baek, 2013 Player of the Year Ha Na Jang and 2013 #2 player Sei Young Kim have gone on to the LPGA. Those players are already making a big splash: three of them are in the top four in the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year race, with Sei Young Kim having won a tournament and nearly won the year’s first Major, Hyo Joo Kim also having won in 2015, and Ha Na Jang with one runner up finish so far.
But with the KLPGA’s big stars stirring it up in the States, who will be left to make things happen in Korea? Yes, it will be a year of transition, but enough big names are still around that the KLPGA should weather this change well.
The Emerging Stars
Last year’s top gun, Hyo Joo Kim, has claimed she will play ten events on tour in 2015, and has already won the first one, the Hyundai China Ladies Open, which was contested in December. But her part time status will probably mean that a new top player will emerge. In fact, for the first time in many years, no top player from previous years will be playing full time on the KLPGA tour; however, three of the top five golfers from last year will be returning.
Yoon Kyung Heo, 24, finished second on the tour in 2014. She won twice last year, but was more notable for the number of times she came close to winning but was not able to get the job done. She also briefly contended at the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank tournament in Korea, although she faded to 18th place by the end. In the final two events of the season, Heo held a three shot lead going into the final round, but won neither event. In all, she had 15 top tens during the year, 9 of which were top fives.
Heo certainly has the game to become the KLPGA’s new big star, and with her fashion sense, she is a popular figure over there. But she needs to find a way to close the deal more often. In her breakout year, 2012, she ran into the same thing: four runner-up finishes but no wins. She was still second on the tour’s money list that year, and followed that up with her first career win in 2013, but only finished tenth on that year’s money list.
Jung Min Lee, 23, was third on the 2014 tour money list, with two wins during the season. She had 14 top tens. Lee has been a player that for some years had been touted as a potential star, and she had won before last year (twice, in fact), but somehow she would fade back to the pack after each win. In 2014, she started slowly, but notched five top five finishes in the latter half of the year.
Lee’s strength is that she is a fairly long hitter and one of the most placid players on tour. But she still came up short when duking it out with Hyo Joo Kim last year. Her tendency to struggle for long periods of time before kicking it into high gear makes her somewhat of a question mark going forward. But she is only 23, and if she has truly turned a corner in 2014 with her great season, she could yet become the player to beat on the KLPGA.
The golfer most followers of the tour think may be the tour’s next superstar is 20-year-old In Gee Chun. Chun is what they call the complete package: she is tall, with a classy demeanor and a ready smile that has made her extremely popular with fans. Indeed, her official fan club, which calls itself the Flying Dumbos, already has more than 2000 members and continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Chun has a genius IQ (a member of Mensa and a math prodigy), and already has accomplished a lot in just her two years on tour. She also has a great game tee to green AND a superlative short game, and possesses one of the most beautiful swings in golf.
Chun won three times in 2014, following her rookie year, where she won only once (but that win came at the Korean Women’s Open, the biggest event on tour). She was fourth on the 2014 money list. She also contended at the 2014 KEB Hana Bank, where she lost in a playoff to rookie star Kyu Jung Baek. She had more wins last seasons but was not as consistent as Lee or Heo, notching only 8 top tens. She is also not a particularly long player off the tee, depending on tactical skill to make good scores.
Chun is already one of the poster kids on tour, appearing in a popular ad for the Ping Rhapsody driver, where she portrayed a golfing Barbie doll come to life (so can we add acting skill to her list of talents?)! Barely out of her teens, with four wins and a near miss at the KEB, Chun still has a lot of time to develop her skill and make her mark on the world at large. This season she has already played four times on the LPGA tour, and though she did not manage even a top 20, she did make the cut all four times. It is common for players to take a while to come up to speed when first playing in the States, and given these were her first events played over here, her results showed promise.
(for those interested in seeing In Gee’s Korean language commercial, it can be found here:)
The Rookies Come of Age
Last year’s tour featured a battle between three superb 19-year-olds for the Rookie of the Year title. Kyu Jung Baek managed to win three events, including a Major, as well as the KEB Hana Bank; but Jin Young Ko and Min Sun Kim, each of whom won only once, kept the race close with their intense consistency. Indeed, the week after the Hana Bank win, Baek and Ko were exactly tied atop the rookie standings, with Kim not far back.
Baek’s Hana Bank win earned her an LPGA tour card, and she is not on the KLPGA in 2015. But the other two players are back, both hoping to improve their ranking in 2015.
Jin Young Ko was the first of the two to get a win; she won her sponsor’s tournament, the Nefs Masterpiece, last summer. She wound up second in the Rookie race to Baek, and 8th on the money list with 14 top tens.
Min Sun Kim came close to winning several times, losing a particularly crushing 5-hole playoff to Min Young Lee at the Pak Se Ri Invitational (she missed several putts to win in that playoff). She finally broke through in the second to last event of the year, winning another playoff, this time against Sei Young Kim and Yoon Kyung Heo. Kim wound up with 12 top tens in 2014, 11th on the money list.
Both players seem capable of going far in 2015 Kim is one of the tallest players on tour at 5’9”, and might parlay that height advantage into longer drives and wins. Ko is shorter but incredibly consistent, with more top tens and a higher money list position than Kim. Both have earned the attention they will doubtless get this year!
This Year’s Rookie Crop
2015 sees a bunch of new players join the KLPGA tour as rookies. Two names immediately have bubbled to the top as the most promising.
Teenager Gyeol Park played on the Korean national team as an amateur in 2014. Her most notable achievement was winning the quadrennial Asian Games gold medal in women’s golf. The Games this year were held in Inchon, South Korea, and Park shot a final round 64 to come from behind and claim the gold in front of her home crowd.
Since then, she has captured the attention of Korean companies, who have showered her with sponsorships. She looks to be the rookie to beat in 2015. But she has not had much success yet in the few KLPGA events she has played. The question facing her is, will it take her long to assimilate to her new surroundings, or will she have growing pains that will enable another talented rookie to steal the spotlight?
One rookie who might do just that is 18-year-old Han Sul Ji. Ji missed qualifying for the Asian Games team by a shot, but still was one of the top amateurs in Korea the past several years, winning 8 titles during her unpaid days. In 2014, she turned pro and played the Jump Tour, a developmental tour of the KLPGA, where she won twice. In 2015, she will be a full time rookie in the big leagues, and she has signed a primary sponsorship with Hoban. The press is already talking up the potential rivalry between Ji and Park. This could get really good!
Another name that has been mentioned in 17-year-old Ju Yeon In. In was a standout amateur known for her crushing 270 yard driving average. She collected 27 total wins in her amateur days. She has real world beater potential, but sounds a bit rawer than the other ladies we mentioned. And based on her performance in the Dream Tour in the Fall, she probably will not start the year as a full KLPGA Rookie.
Some other names to Watch
Soo Jin Yang
Soo Jin Yang was a top five golfer on the KLPGA for several straight years. However, last year was not so great for her. She seemed a bit distracted by off course activities. She designed a line of clothing for her golf clothing sponsor, Pearly Gates, and had a very public relationship with Sung Hyuk Kim, the top player on the KPGA tour in 2014. But while Kim admitted that the relationship with Yang helped his game, Yang floundered to a winless season, finishing just 26th on the money list. But Yang is usually a far more stellar golfer, so it’s quite possible that 2015 will see her return to her former glory.
Char Young Kim
Char Young Kim is the glamorous and popular player who won three times on the KLPGA tour in 2012, but has not won since. In 2014, she finished 30th on the tour money list. But her 2012 season showed she is at least theoretically capable of being a top player again.
Chae Young Yoon
Yoon is another glamour girl, but in her case, 2014 was her best ever season. She won her first ever KLPGA event last year, after nine years on tour. She finished 20th on the money list. It’s possible this could be the start of something for this longtime player.
Je Yoon Yang
Yang won the 2012 Player of the Year award in an upset over money list leader Ha Neul Kim. But in the last two seasons, she has only finished 60th and 61st on the money list. Was she a flash in the pan? Or does she still have it in her to return to her top player level?
Ji Hyun Oh
Ji Hyun Oh was an 18-year-old rookie on the KLPGA last year. She had a decent season, but the fact that, unlike several of her older rookie rivals, she went directly from the amateur ranks to the KLPGA without playing the developmental leagues probably affected her success.
This season she is a year older and might be ready to live up to her potential. She was the low amateur at the Korean Women’s Open (in 2013), and many still believe she has superstar potential. The ‘Yu Na Kim of Women’s Golf’ (so named because of her resemblance to the Korean figure skating gold medalist) may have her breakout year in 2015.
Shin Ae Ahn
No primer for the KLPGA tour would be complete without mentioning tour’s biggest sex symbol, Shin Ae Ahn. Ahn is these days primarily known for her bombshell looks and fashion choices, but what many forget is that she was the Rookie of the Year in 2009 (beating Soo Jin Yang), and won twice in 2010. Already this year she had a 7th place finish at the LET’s Mission Hills China event (which was won by So Yeon Ryu and featured three of the world’s top ten players). The KLPGA brass would not be sad if this lady were to have a career best season in 2015. But Ahn seems to be suffering from a leg injury and will be sitting out early action while it heals.