This year, the KLPGA has sent more top quality rookies to the LPGA tour than in any single year in history. On top of that, there are a bunch of promising young ethnic Koreans from America and Down Under getting ready to tee it up full-time on tour. Here’s a little preview of who these newcomers are and what they have accomplished to date!
The KLPGA Stars
Players who come from the KLPGA tend to be well prepared for the rigors of the LPGA tour. This is because the KLPGA itself is so competitive and chock full of top level talent. In most cases, former KLPGA stars become reasonably big names on the LPGA. This year, four of the top ten golfers from last year’s KLPGA money list, including two of the top five, will be LPGA rookies. Chances are really good we will be seeing these ladies more than a few times on leaderboards this year. Here they are in order of Rolex Ranking!
Hyo Joo Kim
Rolex Ranking: 7th
2014 KLPGA Money List position: 1st
Hyo Joo Kim is the teenage superstar who dominated the KLPGA tour in 2014. Her list of accomplishments since 2012 would almost be too long to include in a brief overview. But just in 2014, she won five times over there, the most wins by a single player in a year since Hee Kyung Seo in 2009. Included in those wins were three of the tour’s four Majors. She shattered the record for most money earned in a season with over 1.2 billion won earned (that’s more than $1.2 million). She also won Player of the Year, Low Scoring Average and Most Wins. In addition, she has already won the first event of the 2015 KLPGA season. And if that were not enough, she also won the 2014 Evian Championship, the LPGA’s fifth Major and the first Major she ever played. And she did it in record shattering style, shooting a world record 61 in the first round, the lowest score ever shot in a Major by a woman or a man.
Hyo Joo is a cool customer who doesn’t get ruffled, and she is consistent. In her 9 or so LPGA appearances she has never finished outside the top 25. She intends to play only 15 LPGA events this year and 10 KLPGA tournaments. Even at her B level, she is still one of the best golfers to come out of South Korea in some time. But expect her to do some spectacular things when she gets on a roll. We could be witnessing something really special with this kid!
Kyu Jung ‘Q’ Baek
Rolex Ranking: 11th
2014 KLPGA Money List Position: 5th
Like Kim, Baek won an LPGA event to gain a tour card for this season. In her case, it was the KEB Hana Bank Championship. On Sunday, she reeled off five straight birdies to catch the leaders, then drilled a clutch birdie on the first playoff hole to take the crown. But Baek, who is a few months younger than Hyo Joo, did more in 2014 than just that win. She achieved three more wins on the KLPGA tour, including the only Major that Hyo Joo Kim did not win. She had 13 top tens and earned over 600 million won, good for fifth on the money list. Oh yeah, and that was her rookie year, so she won the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award as well.
Baek is a more emotional player than Hyo Joo Kim, and is somewhat longer off the tee. Occasionally she can get down on herself, but she usually manages to snap back and get the job done. She has taken the English name ‘Q’, which is all sorts of cool. Although she is probably half a notch below Kim at this point, she is definitely a force to be reckoned with, easily top 20 in the world and perhaps better. And she will be playing full-time in America, so that might be good enough for her to make a serious run at the Rookie of the Year award.
Ha Na Jang
Rolex Ranking: 21st
2014 KLPGA Money List Position: 6th
Ha Na Jang was the dominant Player of the Year and Money List leader in the 2013 KLPGA season. She split her time between America and Korea in 2014, and thus did not have quite as good a 2014 KLPGA campaign. But she still finished sixth overall, won twice, had ten top tens, and made over 580 million won.
Jang’s 2014 LPGA event appearances were not so hot, with one exception: like Kim, she contended all week at the Evian Championship. In fact, with two holes to go, she was right in the hunt. But she missed two crucial putts on the final two holes and wound up tied for third. Undaunted, she went to LPGA Q-School in the Fall. She led that tournament for several days before a bad final round dropped her to sixth, but it was still good enough to get her a full tour card.
Jang is a firecracker. She is known as the Clover Girl because she was spotted picking clovers at a Major tournament she played in back in Korea when she was just 12 years old. The clover has become her symbol as a result. Who will lead the league this year in fist pumps? It might very well be Jang, who plays the game with a lot of spunk and emotion. She is also a very long hitter (she was 2nd in driving distance in 2014, and was ahead of bomber Mirim Lee in 2013 back when that two-time LPGA winner played full-time in Korea). Once she gets used to the tour and the culture, she could be a breakout star on the LPGA. And she could be a player who shatters the stereotype of Korean golfers as quiet and unemotional for all time!
Sei Young Kim
Rolex Ranking: 39th
2014 KLPGA Money List Position: 10th
Sei Young Kim has been a top star in Korea the past two years; she won three times in 2013 and twice last year. She finished 10th on the 2014 KLPGA money list with ten top tens. She played several LPGA events as well. Although she didn’t have much success in them, it was a good learning experience for her. She got her tour card by tying for 6th at Q-School.
Kim was the longest hitter on the KLPGA the past two years, longer even than Ha Na Jang. Like Jang, she has a very emotional and engaging style of playing, and is known for her goofy and irreverent attitude (check out the trophy hugging picture above to see what I mean!). She is not as consistent as the other three players we’ve talked about, but she certainly has the game to contend on the LPGA, especially given how important long hitting can be on this tour.
And The Rest:
Ju Young Park
Rolex Ranking: 154th
Best KLPGA Money List Position: 31st
Ju Young Park is a much lower ranked player from the KLPGA who is primarily known for being the younger sister of two-time LPGA winner Hee Young Park. In her five years on the KLPGA she never won a tournament, her best finishes being third places. So it was a bit of a surprise when she decided to attend Qualifying School last year. She actually played quite well, finishing tied for 11th to earn full status on tour.
She probably won’t be as noticeable a force on tour as the four previously mentioned players, but she has a few things in her favor that should help her maintain her tour card and perhaps contend from time to time. For one, she is another very long hitter, and that always helps more on the LPGA than KLPGA. For another, having her sister here gives her a built-in support system the other ladies won’t have. Here’s hoping she makes it work, because she and her sister should be a very entertaining and unique one-two punch!
Jeong Eun Lee
Rolex Ranking: 131st
Best KLPGA Money List Position: 4th
Lee joined the KLPGA back in 2007, but her best season came in 2009. She won twice that year, finished fourth on the money list, and managed to win the one Major that Hee Kyung Seo was not able to win that year. She finished 7th on the money list in 2010, but has since been a little less effective. 2014 was her worst year in a while; she only managed a 31st on the money list. She has four total career wins.
So Lee is a pretty strong golfer in her own right, although not as good in the past year as she was before that. She got only partial status on tour in 2015 thanks to a tie for 28th at Q-School. It’s hard to say how she will do on the LPGA. She has had decent success on the KLPGA, and if she can return to that form she should easily maintain her tour card. On the other hand, it’s not easy getting into fields with a conditional status, so she will have a lot of pressure to do well when she does get in.
Thunder from Down Under: Minjee Lee
Rolex Ranking: 78th
Other than the KLPGA stars, the most intriguing Seoul Sister coming into the league this year is Korean-Australian teen sensation Minjee Lee. Lee, still just 18 years old, was the top women’s amateur golfer in the world for much of last year. She has some big amateur wins on her resume, and has won professional events on minor league tours as well. She got into the league by tying for the medalist honors at Q-School, so she has shown she has the ability to hang even with top KLPGA stars like Jang and Sei Young Kim, both of whom she beat.
Lee will have another advantage over the KLPGAers: she speaks fluent English and is used to Western culture, so her adjustment period should not be as severe. However, her record on the LPGA, while good, is not nearly as amazing as Baek’s or Hyo Joo Kim’s. Her best LPGA finish is a tie for 11th, and that came at the LPGA event in her home country of Australia. She doesn’t have nearly as much experience competing on the pro level in a tough league as the KLPGA stars do, either. Having said that, she has so much potential and so much talent that it seems highly likely she will be a big star at some point. The only question is how long it will take her to make her mark. It certainly could happen this year!
There are a bunch of former college stars who have turned pro this year and joined the LPGA as well. In recent years, the record for college players, even big stars, joining the LPGA has not been that good. Good pro experience, like one gets on the KLPGA, seems to count more than college success. Even the best of these players will have a tough battle to get noticed in this deep rookie class.
Rolex Ranking: 480th
Age: This was her sophomore year in college, so she’s probably 19
Alison Lee was born and raised in Southern California. She was an AJGA all-star for six straight years as a junior. She enrolled at UCLA in 2013, and won the award for top female golfer in the country that very year. She has competed in all sorts of important amateur tournaments in her career, including team events like the Curtis Cup and the Junior Solheim Cup. At Q-School, she finished the week tied with Minjee Lee for medalist honors (ie, she and Minjee tied for first). So she will have full status on tour in 2015.
Lee was the #2 ranked player in the country when she turned pro, but she has very little experience playing in the big leagues, and her best LPGA result I’m aware of was a tie for 26th. Despite her talent, it will be a tough battle for her to make a mark. But her college record and Q-School result has earned her some attention to be sure!
Rolex Ranking: 732nd
Age: This was her senior year in college, so she’s probably 21
SooBin Kim was ranked the #1 female college golfer this year, just ahead of Alison Lee. She was born in Korea, grew up in Canada, and set all sorts of records for the past three plus years at the University of Washington. She finished tied for 11th at Q-School to earn full status.
Kim has even less pro experience than Lee and a far less gaudy amateur record. But like Lee, her top status in college, especially this year, has earned her a certain amount of attention. This is more likely to be a learning year for her than a breakout one.
Rolex Ranking: 830th
Kelly Shon was a star junior player who had a great career at Princeton. She graduated in 2014, and earned a tour card by finishing tied for 9th at Q-School.
Shon is one of the few Ivy Leaguers to ever make it to the LPGA. Alas, she has even less pro experience than the previously profiled college players, and has not made a cut in the three LPGA events she has played. In all likelihood, keeping her card while she hones her game and gains experience will be her big challenge in 2015.
Rolex Ranking: None
Julie Yang has had one of the craziest careers of any of the Sisters. Although only Hyo Joo Kim’s age, she has lived all over the world, including Korea, Arizona, Thailand, Oklahoma and Scotland, as she has honed her golf game. She won over 20 age group titles before she was 9. In 2007, at the age of 12, she won the third AJGA event she entered, becoming the second youngest to ever win an AJGA tournament. Later that same year, she played in a KLPGA event (but missed the cut)!
Her talent took her to Scotland, where she won numerous events. She returned to the States in 2011, becoming the youngest to ever win the Trans-National. She graduated from high school early in 2012 and enrolled in Oklahoma State in 2013. At 2014 Q-School, she finished tied for 18th and entered a playoff for the last full tour cards. She did not win one, though, and thus has conditional status for 2015.
What to make of Julie Yang? She is very young, has won a ton of events, but has so little pro experience that she has no Rolex Ranking. She did finish 46th at the LPGA’s Kia Classic when she was 16. But with limited status and less experience, she might be better off joining the Symetra Tour in 2015 to try to get a full card that way. If she goes the LPGA route, she will need to take advantage of any events she gets into; if she can do well early, she can improve her status and get into more fields.