Posted by: happyfan08 | March 19, 2019

2019 KLPGA Primer

It’s time once again for our annual preview of the coming Korean LPGA season, the 2019 KLPGA primer! Let’s get right to it.

Those Who Have Left

Each year, a couple of the big KLPGA stars leave the tour to try their luck elsewhere, and this year is no exception. The two big names who will leave the KLPGA in 2019 are Jeong Eun Lee 6 and Seon Woo Bae.

Jeong Eun Lee 6

Lee had another superlative season in 2018. She led the money list for the second straight year, and also won the title for low scoring average. On top of that, she was picked as the best golfer by the press. Lee won the LPGA’s qualifying school ‘Q-Series’ last fall, and so earned a full tour card for the LPGA this year. She has already played in two events, notching t-10th and t-11th finishes. She seems well on her way to a great year on that tour.

Seon Woo Bae

Bae finished second on the KLPGA money list in 2018 with 884 million won earned. She won the Hite Cup (a Major) and the High One Resorts Open, and also notched five second place finishes. Bae decided to transfer to the Japanese LPGA this season.

The Big Stars

So who is left to contend for the top awards in 2019?  Three names stand out as the big returning stars. Chances are good that these three will win most of the hardware on tour in 2019.

Hye Jin Choi

In 2018, every award that Jeong Eun Lee 6 did not win was claimed by teen superstar Hye Jin Choi. Choi destroyed the competition in the Rookie of the Year race, and she also claimed the Player of the Year, the first person to get both of those awards since former world #1 Jiyai Shin did it in 2006. Choi is perhaps best known in the West for nearly winning the 2017 US Women’s Open (she hit a shot into the drink late to allow Sung Hyun Park to take that title).

In 2018, she had a great year on the KLPGA. She won twice, increasing her career victory total to four. She finished 4th on the money list and second in the scoring average race. She had 16 top tens in total. She was even named the Most Popular player by the fans! If she can continue her explosive growth in the sport, she will be the player to beat on tour in 2019.

Ji Hyun Oh

Ji Hyun Oh seemed poised to dominate last year, but a somewhat weak finish to the year dropped her in the standings. By the middle of the summer, she led the tour in all the big categories. She won two events, including her second Major, the Korea Women’s Open, which she won by a staggering 8 shot margin. She ended the year third on the money list, third in scoring average and second in Player of the Year standings. She topped the league in putting average and was 7th in driving distance. Besides her wins, she had 12 other top tens.

Oh is 23 now and seems the perfect age to have her career best year. She also has steadily improved every year since her rookie season of 2014.  She has mentioned that she wants to start playing overseas events this year, so this might be her last chance to grab the glory in Korea.  If anyone can stop Choi, it seems likely to be Oh.

So Young Lee

The third top player of note last season was So Young Lee. Lee had a breakout season in 2018: she won three times, the most of any player on tour. Lee had been considered a top prospect when she joined the tour in 2016, but she was upset in the Rookie Race by little known (at the time) Jeong Eun Lee 6. So Young did manage a win in her first two years, but her fantastic improvement in 2018 made her a player to watch. Her only weakness is that she is not nearly as consistent as Oh or Choi. When she is playing her A Game she is great, but between those events she seems to have her share of weaker events. Still, she finished 5th on the money list in 2018 with 11 top tens.

Other Top Players

A few more players to watch who had strong 2018 seasons.

Ha Na Jang

Ha Na Jang finally came into her own after her shocking return from the LPGA tour. Indeed, early in the season she looked likely to seize control of the entire league. She won the year’s first Major, the KLPGA Championship, as well as a second event. But she cooled off considerably after that. She had six total top tens and finished 8th on the money list.

So, Jang has not been strong most of the time since she’s been back in Korea. But, she has shown flashes of brilliance, and is a 4-time LPGA winner and former Player of the Year on the KLPGA, so you can’t count her out as a possible force on tour in 2019.

A Lim Kim

A Lim Kim also had a breakout year in 2018. She made some noise by getting all the way to the finals of the Doosan Match Play, then battling Hall of Fame superstar Inbee Park to the very end in the finals. She lost that event, but she later won another tournament for her first career win. She notched a total of 8 top tens during the year, including two seconds and a third, and finished 6th on the money list.

Kim was the longest driver on the KLPGA in 2018. That, coupled with her results and explosive improvement, sets her up for a great 2019.

Improved Players to watch

Several players had great advancement in their careers in 2018, even if they did not quite get up to the top ranks like the previously mentioned women did. They still bear watching for 2019.

Ji Young Park

Ji Young Park has shown a lot promise the past several years. She won the Rookie of the Year award in 2015 and won the first event of the 2019 season back in December. She finished 19th on the 2018 money list, with a second and two thirds being her best finishes.

Gyeol Park

Gyeol Park was also a rookie in 2015. She has always attracted a lot of attention, thanks to her gold medal win at the 2014 Asian Games and her striking looks. But Park has been slow to adapt to life on tour. Last year, she took her first big step, grabbing a surprising win at the SK Networks Ladies Classic, coming from well back in the final round to do it. This earned her an invite to the KLPGA Awards Show at the end of the year, where she stunned the paparazzi with a dazzling dress that earned her tons of photographic attention. This in turn led her to a new sponsorship by Footjoy, becoming their top female star in a media blitz that included commercials, interviews, a cover story in Golf Digest Korea, and another story that same month in Golf For Women magazine.

Gyeol is certainly the new It Girl of Korean golf, and it will be fun to see if her game lives up to her new level of fame. In 2018, she finished 14th on the money list, on the cusp of becoming a top player. Will she continue to grow in 2019? Time will tell.

Ju Yeon In

Ju Yeon In also earned her first career victory in 2018. She has been a promising player for several years, known for her length off the tee. Besides her win, she had three other top tens, but two of those were third place results. She was 18th on the money list. In has gotten a lot of attention from the media since her win, although not as much as Gyeol Park. She seems a good bet to keep improving in 2019.

Returning stars

Yoon Kyung Heo

Yoon Kyung Heo was one of the top players on tour a few years ago. Then a series of serious injuries forced her out of the league for several seasons. Now she is finally ready to come back. Will she have the form that saw her win multiple times back in the day, or are her top days behind her? Her return is eagerly anticipated, not just because of her talent, but because she was one of the most popular players in the league back then. It would certainly be a boon to the KLPGA if Heo could again do what she was able to do before.

Rookies

2019 seems to have a bumper crop of promising young players coming into the league. Hee Jung Lim and Hyun Kyung Park are two who have been often mentioned, but the one that stands out above the others is Ayean Cho. All three players are among the first golfers to join the KLPGA who were born in 2000.  The press has dubbed them the ‘Millennium Babies’.

Hyun Kyung Park

Ayean Cho

Cho was a big standout as an amateur. She earned a tour card by winning the KLPGA Qualifying School, and signed several big deals in the off-season. She did not take long to show her talent, notching a top ten in her first event as a KLPGA member in Vietnam a few months ago. She seems likely to contend for or even win the top Rookie award in the league, but it seems quite possible she could also challenge the top gals in the league for the other awards as well.

The KLPGA season starts in earnest in April. Hang on to your hats, it looks like another fantastic season is coming up!

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Rookie of the Year
And the Winner Is: Hye Jin Choi

This year’s Rookie of the Year was probably the toughest choice of all these awards. It came down to Jin Young Ko, who was a rookie on the LPGA, and Hye Jin Choi, a rookie on the KLPGA, and to be honest, I’m still not sure I made the right choice. In the end I decided that Choi just edged out Ko for this honor.

Both players dominated the rookie competition on their respective tours, although Choi was even more dominant than Ko was. Choi managed 16 top tens on the KLPGA in 2018: two wins, three seconds and three thirds among them. However, she did not manage a Major win in that bunch. Ko had one win (the Australian Women’s Open, an LPGA event where Choi finished second; this second place is in addition to the ones listed above) and 13 total top tens, the most of any Korean golfer on the LPGA this year. Beside her win, she had one tie for second and one tie for third. Choi clearly has the advantage here. Like Choi, Ko didn’t win any Majors, but she also didn’t make any top tens (she did have two top 20s in Majors). Choi had three top tens in Majors on the KLPGA, including a second place at the KLPGA Championship.

Below: Jin Young Ko became the fourth straight Korean star to win Rookie of the Year

Choi also managed to win the Player of the Year award, the first rookie to win both Rookie and Player of the Year in the same season since Jiyai Shin did it in 2006. Now, the Player of the Year is an odd award on the KLPGA, in that it rather heavily weights top five finishes compared to wins, but the achievement is still remarkable.

Choi finished 4th on the money list and second in scoring average. Ko finished 10th on the money list and 3rd in scoring average. Both are impressive for rookies, but Choi was just a little bit more amazing.

Without question, it is tougher to be a rookie on the LPGA. Not only is the competition tougher, but the travel, food, and language challenges are much more daunting. For that reason, Jin Young’s achievements compare quite well with what Choi did, even if Choi seemed slightly more impressive statistically. But Choi is a teen who traveled a bit to play in LPGA events herself this year, yet still was able to become one of the biggest stars on the KLPGA at the same time. I found what she did just the least little bit more impressive, and so I give the nod to Hye Jin Choi as our Rookie of the Year.

Other nominee:
Jin Young Ko

Most Improved Player
And the Winner Is: So Young Lee

A few years ago, So Young Lee was one of those amateur stars that just seemed destined to be a star in the pro ranks. She won several notable events as an amateur, with the most important being the gold medal for women’s golf at the 2014 Junior Olympics. She turned pro in 2016 and was poised to dominate the KLPGA Rookie of the Year race.

It didn’t turn out that way. Lee played well, but another rookie named Jeong Eun Lee 6 stunned Lee to take the rookie crown. The next season, Lee 6 won all the big awards, and was on her way to superstardom.

So Young Lee was 18th on the money list in 2016, with one win and a few more top tens. She was 20th in 2017 but managed no wins. So, she was certainly a good player, but not nearly the star Jeong Eun Lee had become.

But 2018 was another story: she had a breakout season, and for a time even challenged for the top ranking in the league. In the end, she won three tournaments, the most of any player in 2018. She wound up 5th on the money list with about 727 million won earned. She had 11 top tens. In addition to the three wins, she had two thirds and a fourth. She had improved so much that she earned more wins and more money in 2018 than she had in her first two seasons combined. With Jeong Eun Lee and Seon Woo Bae leaving the tour in 2019, So Young Lee will have a legitimate chance to challenge for the top spot in the league.

Other Nominees:
Ah Reum Hwang

Hwang has been a decent player on the JLPGA who has won now and then. But nothing prepared fans for her surge of brilliance in 2018. Hwang managed three wins this year, and seemed a fixture on leaderboards most of the season.

Player of the Year
And the Winner Is: Jeong Eun Lee 6

Selecting the Player of the Year in 2018 was a tough business. Keep in mind that this award is given to the player who does the most impressive job on her tour, it is not just for the player who wins the most LPGA events. In my opinion, there were five golfers who could have legitimately earned this award. On the LPGA, Sung Hyun Park had the most wins among the Sisters; in Japan, there were Sun Ju Ahn and Jiyai Shin; while in Korea, all the post season hardware was split between Jeong Eun Lee 6 and Hye Jin Choi. After weighing the facts, I’ve decided to give the trophy to Jeong Eun Lee 6 for her fantastic season in Korea and elsewhere.

First, why not give it to Sung Hyun Park? She was the only Sister who managed multiple wins on the LPGA in 2018. The main arguments in her favor: she had three wins on the LPGA, including the only Major won by a Korean on that tour this year. She reached #1, one of two Koreans to do that in 2018. She was part of the winning International Crown team. And she was the highest ranked Korean on the money list at third.

But Park also had a LOT of struggles in 2018. She had only 7 top tens. There were several tournaments where she put herself into contention only to fall apart, including the ANA Inspiration and the British Women’s Open. She also missed 7 cuts, which is a ton compared to anyone else on my list. In fact, it might be as much as the other four put together. That resulted in a very low 23rd place ranking in scoring average. Add on to that the fact that two of her wins had a large luck factor: one came courtesy of a missed iron shot into the water by So Yeon Ryu to let Park back into the match, while the Volunteers of America win was a two-round event that she won by chipping in on the final hole. So, it was a great season with a lot of highlights, but not the best among all the Koreans.

The two Japanese tour stars, Jiyai Shin and Sun Ju Ahn, both had fantastic years. Shin won the Player of the Year and was second on the money list, while Ahn won the money list and was second in Player of the Year points. Shin finished second in scoring average, Ahn third. Shin had four wins, Ahn five. Shin had 17 top tens, Ahn 16. They were pretty much neck and neck in all those statistics.

Ahn did better more often. On top of her 5 wins, she had 6 second place finishes compared to just 2 runner-up finishes for Shin. But Shin did far better at the Majors. In fact, Shin won three of the four Majors on that tour in 2018 (the fourth, the Japan Women’s Open, was won by invited guest So Yeon Ryu, meaning that all four Japanese tour Majors in 2018 were won by Koreans). Ahn obviously won no Majors. In addition, Shin played two LPGA events, achieving a 7th place finish at the Australian Women’s Open and an 11th at the Toto Classic, and won an LET tournament in Australia, the Canberra Classic. Ahn finished outside the top 30 in her two LPGA events.

It was a razor-thin margin, but based on Shin’s Major record and achievements outside of Japan, I give her the edge over Ahn.

In Korea, the KLPGA honors were evenly split between Jeong Eun Lee 6 and Hye Jin Choi. Choi won Player and Rookie of the Year, while Lee won the money list and scoring title. Both had two wins on tour. But Lee had an edge, in that her two wins both came in Majors, while Choi did not win a Major (she did manage a second place, however). In addition, Lee managed to win the money list despite playing just 17 events on tour; she spent a lot of time playing overseas, and did quite well in those tournaments as well. For instance, she nearly won the JLPGA’s Salonpas Cup, one of their Majors, but wound up third; it was her first ever time playing in Japan. On the LPGA, she played four Majors, and missed only one cut, while notching a tie for 6th at the Evian, a t-16 at the ANA Inspiration, and a t-17th at the US Women’s Open. As if that weren’t enough, she also found time to win the LPGA’s Q Series to earn a tour card. Choi was impressive in 2018, but Lee was better.

So, what was the decisive advantage Lee had over Shin? To be honest, it was extremely close. Lee not only won the scoring average, she did so with one of the lowest scoring averages ever achieved in KLGA history, a 69.87. She played overseas much more than Shin did, although she did not win, unlike Shin (but Shin’s win came in an LET event with a far weaker field than an LPGA tournament; Lee did not play any LET events). Lee had a bunch of good international finishes, including the only top ten in a Major between the two. Shin had far more top tens and more Major wins on her tour, with one of her Major wins coming when Lee collapsed at the end of the Salonpas, allowing Shin to swoop in and get the trophy (Lee had had the lead most of the week until the final day). Shin won one post season award and was second in the other two, while Lee won two post season awards and was just 6th in Player of the Year (but a lot of that came from playing fewer events than her rivals).

And of course, Lee also found the time to earn an LPGA card at Q Series.
So, in the end, the crucial advantage Lee had was that she managed to win two award categories on the KLPGA while at the same time nearly winning a Japanese Major in her first try, earning a tour card at Q Series, AND notching several top 20s in LPGA Majors. Winning the money list when she played 6 – 8 fewer events than her world-class rivals is utterly impressive. And her scoring average made her the ONLY player in KLPGA history to break 70 for a season twice. Even Shin never did that.

For all these reasons, congratulations to Jeong Eun Lee 6 on her Seoulie for Player of the Year, and good luck in the US in 2019!

Best Amateur
And the winner is: Yealimi Noh

Yealimi Noh really established herself this year, climbing from being merely a promising young player to arguably the top junior amateur in the game. Her climb was so steep and rapid that by the Fall, she had already decided to forego college and turn pro. Expect to see her make some more noise in 2019!

Other Nominee:
Ayean Cho

Like Noh, Ayean Cho had turned pro by the end of 2018. But before that, she had convincingly established herself as the top amateur in South Korea. Perhaps her best recent achievement was winning the individual title at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship. Alas, the Korean team was not able to follow suit with the team title. Cho then turned pro and won the KLPGA’s Qualifying School. In December, she played her first event on tour and notched a top ten. She looks to be the rookie to beat for 2019.

Best Hot Streak
And the Winner Is: Yealimi Noh wins three straight events in the summer

Amateur Yealimi Noh had one heck of a great early summer in 2018. Even before then, she had won the California State Championship and the Pak Se Ri Invitational, which earned her a spot at the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank tournament.

Then she really started playing well. She notched a win at one of the AJGA’s most important summer events, the Junior PGA Championship. The very next week, she won the biggest event in the country for junior golfers, the US Girls Junior. And as if that weren’t enough, she followed that up with a win the week after that at the Canadian Women’s Amateur!

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Noh said. “At the beginning of the year I really set my goals for the three events this month. . .I didn’t think I could win all of them. I’d be really happy with winning one out of three. Winning three in a row is just crazy.”

Noh would go on to be the only amateur to make the cut at the Canadian Women’s Open later that year. With her length off the tee and overall talent, look for the high school senior to make a ton of noise in 2019 as a young professional.

Other Nominees:
So Yeon Ryu in June

How hot was Korean superstar So Yeon Ryu in June? How about this factoid: she shot in the 60s in every round of golf she played that month. That includes three of the rounds she played at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, one of the tour’s Majors, and her win at the Meijer Classic.

Rookie to Watch in 2018
And the Winner Is: Jeong Eun Lee 6

My choice last year for Rookie to Watch was Hye Jin Choi on the KLPGA tour. I said:

It would not surprise me in the least to see Choi contend at and perhaps even win an LPGA event next season. She could be looking at not just Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA next year, but all the top prizes.

Bold prediction! Choi didn’t win an LPGA event in 2018, although she did finish second at the Australian Women’s Open. Nor did she win all the prizes on the KLPGA; but she did win the Rookie and Player of the Year, and was chosen the Most Popular player by the fans. So, she won half the awards, still pretty impressive for a teenager!

As for my choice of a rookie to watch next year, KLPGA superstar Jeong Eun Lee 6 entered and finished first at the LPGA’s Q Series, the newfangled version of LPGA’s Qualifying School. After thinking about it long and hard, she decided to accept her tour card for 2019.

Lee has a long streak of brilliance to uphold when she tries to earn next season’s Rookie of the Year award. The Koreans have won the last four of these, and each time, it was one of the KLPGA’s big guns who won it. They are: Sei Young Kim (2015), In Gee Chun (2016), Sung Hyun Park (2017) and this year’s Jin Young Ko.

Lee is well equipped to make it five for five. In the history of the KLPGA, only four golfers have ever earned more than a billion won in a single season. Park and Ko are two of them. Hyo Joo Kim, a Major winner, is the third. And the fourth is Jeong Eun Lee, who did it in 2017 and nearly did it again this season. Also in tour history, there are just four sub-70 season scoring averages. Sung Hyun Park and Jiyai Shin have two of them. The other two? Both by Lee. And both Shin and Park are former world #1s.  Could Lee make it three for three?

Besides being a great talent, Lee was also very popular on the KLPGA. She has a great personality and seems to be having a lot of fun on the course. She has the cool ‘6’ gimmick to make her easily memorable (she is called ‘6’ because she is the 6th player in KLPGA history with the name Jeong Eun Lee. In fact, Jeong Eun Lee 5 is also on the LPGA right now, although she does not use the number here). Her unique way of reading putts by facing perpendicular to the line and turning her head is bound to appeal to fans here. She doesn’t speak much English yet, but her enthusiasm will transcend language. And her touching back story, where she is helping to support a father who was paralyzed in a traffic accident, will doubtless wring a few tears out of American fans.

Lee is decently long off the tee and is quite a good putter. In fact, she basically does everything well. She is also great under pressure, as her rookie rivals will soon discover. Nothing is a guarantee, but if she plays remotely up to her potential, it’s hard to imagine her not winning the top Rookie prize next year.

Other Nominees:
Ayean Cho

The KLPGA rookie class seems chock full of promising teenagers, the so-called ‘Millenium Babies’ who were born in the year 2000. Among them are Hyun Kyung Park, Hee Yong Lim and Mi Jin Shin. But the golfer who seems to be getting the most buzz is Ayean Cho, who won the KLPGA’s Qualifying School in December and promptly notched a top ten in her first career event as a pro a few weeks later. Cho, as mentioned previously, also won the individual gold medal at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship and was on this year’s winning Queen Sirikit Cup team as well.

Youngin Chun

Youngin Chun has been making news ever since she started winning international tournaments as a seven-year old! The daughter of a longtime commentator for JTBC Golf Channel in Korea, Youngin was sometimes featured on that channel’s golf lesson programs even when she was still in elementary school. Last year, Chun turned pro and was the youngest player on the Symetra Tour. The seventeen-year-old was not able to earn an LPGA tour card there, but she did manage to finish tied for 14th in the Q-Series to earn an LPGA card that way.

Chances are that Chun will be among the very youngest on the LPGA tour in 2019; like Ayean Cho, she’s a ‘millennium baby’. Odds are she will not contend for the Rookie of the Year; indications are that she is still a work in progress. But give her this: she has shown herself capable time and again of exceeding expectations, so it would not be a bit surprising to see her in contention now and again next season.

It’s About Time Award
And the Winner Is: Inbee Park finally wins a pro event in Korea

Inbee Park is arguably the most successful Korean women’s golfer in history. She’s won the most Majors, has spent the most time at #1 in the world rankings, has the second most LPGA wins behind only Se Ri Pak, and also, oh yeah, won the only Olympic Gold Medal ever given in her sport of women’s golf.

All the more amazing that, until this year, one of the few accomplishments that eluded her was winning a professional event in her home country. It’s not been for lack of trying; but despite her best efforts, she has never won the KEB Hana Bank, nor had she ever won any of the KLPGA tournaments she has been invited to play (unlike many Korean stars, Inbee was never a full time member of the KLPGA).

Last year, she came agonizingly close to breaking the jinx. She got all the way to the finals of the Doosan Match Play, only to lose to longtime KLPGA veteran Char Young Kim in the final match. Inbee played that tournament again this year, and finally, finally, got all the way through the field to capture her long-awaited win.

The event starts with a three match round robin; the top player in each of 16 brackets advanced to the round of 16. Inbee had some tough battles in her group, just edging out He Yong Choi and Yoo Rim Choi 1-up each. Still, she won, and when she beat Yeon Ju Jung 3 & 2, she advanced to the next round.

It was at this point that the real Inbee Park arrived. She destroyed her next opponent, Hye Sun Kim, 6 & 4, then followed that up by annihilating Chae Yoon Park 9 & 7. You read that right; Inbee was so brutally efficient in that match that her foe was barely able to survive past the turn. Inbee had little trouble in the semis, either, beating Eun Woo Choi there 3 & 2. And so came another finals, this time against rising KLPGA long bombing star A Lim Kim.

Kim lived up to her billing, and after several easy matches, Inbee had a fight on her hands. For a few holes, it seemed like she would once again be denied, but Inbee hung tough, eking out a 1 up win against the indomitable youngster. At last, Inbee Park had a chance to celebrate a win in front of her South Korean fans.

Other nominees:
The International Crown Won by South Korea

The Korean team has been the top ranked team in the International Crown all three times it was contested, but they were not able to win in 2014 or 2016. This year, the event took place in South Korea. Despite the enormous pressure of playing in front of their crazy fans, the Koreans at last got the monkey off their back and got the win.

So Yeon Ryu wins William and Mousie Powell award

Each year, the LPGA players choose one player to receive the William and Mousie Powell award. This award is given to the player who best exemplifies the spirit of the LPGA. So Yeon Ryu was chosen to get the accolade this year. Considering she is perhaps the textbook example of what this award celebrates, it’s amazing it’s taken this long for her to get it, but thank goodness at least she finally did!

Most Controversial Moment
And the winner is: In Kyung Kim’s clubs stolen

In Kyung Kim was heading to San Diego, en route to an event in Asia, when she discovered that the airline had lost her golf bag; the bag included her LPGA ID and all her golf clubs. These were the same clubs she had used to win the British Women’s Open the previous year, so needless to say, she was attached to them. When she complained to the airlines, they ‘helpfully’ suggested that she should rent some clubs until her old ones could be located (of course, a pro like Inky cannot simply rent clubs and get anything like the same results she was used to; some of the clubs in her bag were no longer in production).

She mentioned this incident in an on-air interview but resigned herself to the idea that she would never get her clubs back again.

Lo and behold, some fans saw the interview, then noticed that there were some interesting clubs being sold at the local used golf club store in her hometown of San Diego. When they looked in the bag, they found Kim’s ID. Some of the clubs had already been sold, but several were still left. They contacted her, and she was thrilled to be reunited with her bag!

Interestingly, she later found another club that was being sold on E-Bay and got that one back as well.

Did someone working for the airline steal her clubs? How did the people at the used club store not notice the LPGA ID on the bag they were reselling? What a crazy situation! Fortunately, it had a (mostly) happy resolution.

Other Nominees:
In Gee Chun cuts her hair

In Gee Chun is such a popular player that when she suddenly got a severe hair cut in the Spring, it resulted in a lot of unexpected controversy from her fans. ‘In Gee Chun short hair’ even trended for a while on the Korean internet.

At the time, she was frequently asked if she did it because she was trying to get over a broken heart! The truth was far more mundane: she always wanted to try having short hair, and one day she went for it. But she later felt she went too far and told her fans that she plans to grow it out again.

Inbee Park’s house broken into just before the KPMG

Just before world #1 Inbee Park was going to try to win the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship for the fourth time, her house in Las Vegas was broken into. She was distracted by the news, as she had no way to assess what or how much was taken. Hopefully nothing too valuable was lost!

Biggest Diss
And the Winner Is: The American Golf Media still doesn’t get the Koreans

So many of the disses this year came from cluelessness on the part of the American Golf media that I decided to roll them all into one big squooshy category. Here is a brief recap of some of the ways, big and small, that they have dissed the Seoul Sisters this season!

First of all, would it kill golf commentators to learn how to pronounce Korean names? I mean, they somehow manage to navigate their way around those six syllable Thai surnames, how can they mess up the three syllables needed to say Korean ones? For some reason, the one that seems to trip everyone up is Sung Hyun Park. No, they get ‘Park’ right, it’s the second name they screw up. Everyone seems to pronounce it as ‘Hyoon’. It’s Hyun: rhymes with fun, people. They also mess up Hyo Joo Kim frequently, calling her Ho Joo or even Hojo. Last time I looked, Hyo Joo Kim does not have 28 flavors like the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. And So Yeon Ryu: it’s ‘So’ ‘yon’ ‘yoo’. So many times, they make it So Young or Sun Young or Roo (which is fortunately rare these days).

Below: Not Sung Hyoon Park

Secondly, and far more seriously, they just don’t want to give Koreans credit for the things they accomplish. Here are a few of the more annoying examples from this year:

Back in January, Golf Magazine picked the ‘Most Fashionable women in golf’. Thank God they didn’t pick Instagram-star-and-pretend-pro-golfer Paige Spirinac, but the winners they did pick were almost as bad. Michelle Wie was their top chioce, with Paula Creamer and Lexi Thompson as runners-up. Now, ‘most fashionable’ is a lame category anyway, so take this with a grain of salt, but Michelle Wie? This is a woman who showed up to a fancy-dress gala in a jeans jacket! But, Wie is clickbait, so of course she was chosen. Meanwhile, choosing Creamer at this point is just lazy; she has been on the back side of her career for the past five years. And Thompson? She is a jock through and through, hardly known for her fashion sense.

Fashion is just a sideline, though. The real question is, how do they treat the Sisters when they talk about golf? Unfortunately, the answer is usually, ‘not well’.

In April, the Golf Writers of America chose Lexi Thompson as their female golfer of the year. This was for the 2017 season, when history was made, as it was the first time two players tied for Player of the Year on the LPGA tour. Both of those players were Korean: So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. They both won Majors in 2017 (Thompson did not) and both spent time at the top of the world rankings (Thompson did not). Yet they were both ignored so Thompson could be given this award.

Furthermore, Thompson had notoriously received a four-shot penalty at the ANA when she was caught moving her ball in an illegal manner. I won’t open the can of worms about that penalty again, but in choosing her and ignoring golfers who won Majors, the writers are basically excusing her of any fault for the infraction that she committed. Note that some golfers in the past who were caught doing exactly what Thompson did had their reputations ruined, so this was not a minor violation.

Below: So Yeon Ryu, not chosen by the Golf Writers of America for an award in 2018

Even the writers who specialize in covering the LPGA tour could be guilty of ignoring or diminishing the Koreans. Golfweek magazine listed the ten most memorable moments of the 2018 season, as written by their longtime LPGA scribe Beth Ann Nichols. Not a single one of the events she chose involved a Korean.

So according to her, no Korean did anything noteworthy in 2018. Not Korea’s incredible International Crown win in front of the huge galleries at home. Not In Gee Chun ending a two year winless drought in front of her (huge) home country crowd. Not Sei Young Kim shattering the all-time scoring record at Thornberry or Jin Young Ko making history in Australia by winning her first ever event as a member. But Lexi Thompson’s dog DID make the list.  Her dog.

Below: 2018 Rookie of the Year Jin Young Ko; her accomplishments did not make Golfweek’s list for most memorable events of the year

Nichols chose four of the five Majors to highlight, and the one Major that did not make the list was the KPMG, coincidentally (?) the only Major won by a Korean. This event saw two of the top five golfers in the world duke it out in a playoff for the title, with hands down some of the best golf played on tour all year. Immensely exciting stuff, but not good enough to make the list. IMAGINE if this had been the PGA, and two of the top five male golfers in the world met in a playoff at a Major, and a scribe did not pick that as one of the most memorable events of the year? That writer would be polishing her resume in the morning for making that mistake.

(to be fair, she did mention Korean-born Lydia Ko winning, but Ko does not play for Korea; and Korean American Michelle Wie winning in her one decent outing all season, but it’s Michelle Wie, OF COURSE she is going to be mentioned).

Ron Sirak, another longtime LPGA scribe, went overboard describing Thompson’s win at the CME. He claimed that she now (along with Ariya Jutanugarn) would probably dominate the LPGA in 2019. OK, I suppose that could happen. But keep in mind, this came after ONE victory all year by Thompson. Meanwhile, Sung Hyun Park won three times in 2018, including a Major, and spent some time at #1 in the world, which Thompson has yet to do. Why is she not considered a potential dominator? This reminds me of how, every time Michelle Wie would win anything, writers would bloviate about how she had ‘turned the corner’ and her domination of the tour was about to happen; and then it never would.

Then there was Golf Channel, who picked as the number 9 story of the year the growth of the women’s game. Who did they choose to illustrate the story with? One of the international players who has actually helped spearhead the enormous growth of the game in Asia? Of course not; they chose Lexi Thompson. The Koreans were not even mentioned in the story.

How about a resolution for 2019 to give the Koreans a fair shake in the press? Pretty please?

Other Nominees:
Inbee not given replacement clubs by TaylorMade

Apparently Inbee Park requested and was denied free replacement clubs from TaylorMade, which is odd, given that pro men sponsored by such a company would instantly receive clubs after such a request. The excuse was that she was not using their driver, so they didn’t want to give her replacements for the clubs she was actually using.

This incident generated a story about how disrespected female pros are compared to the men. If true, it wasn’t the best move they could have made. For a pittance, they could have gotten tons of free publicity from having their clubs used by one of the most popular players in Asia.

Happiest News
And the Winner Is: Lucky Six is coming to the LPGA in 2019!

Jeong Eun Lee 6 has been the best player on the KLPGA the past two seasons. But although she played well in most of the LPGA events she attended this year, she was not able to win any of them. Nor did she earn enough money to qualify for the tour like Sung Hyun Park had done in 2016. So, she attended the LPGA eight round qualifying school called Q-Series. Not surprisingly, she finished first. But after that, it took her a month to decide if she wanted to accept her card and come to the LPGA.

Luckily for us all, she finally decided to give it a whirl, and Lee will be a rookie in 2019!

Other Nominees:
Hee Young Park got married

Longtime LPGA star Hee Young Park tied the knot this year! Her wedding was attended by a great group of former Seoul Sister stars (like Hee Won Han and Grace Park) and newer players like So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park. Congratulations to her.

So Yeon Ryu gives $100,000 to Meijer charity

So Yeon Ryu won the Meijer Classic in 2018. A few months later, she pledged $100,000 to their participating charity. She is the first champion of that event to give back to the community in this way. But given who she is, is anyone really surprised?

In Gee Chun returns to Lancaster to start charity there

In 2018, In Gee Chun returned for the first time to the site of her first LPGA win: Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she had won the 2015 US Women’s Open. Before her return, she had contributed to the local charities remotely on multiple occasions. In May, she decided to start a fund to benefit the locals, and returned to Lancaster to hold a press conference, play in a pro-am to generate more money for the fund, and give a golf clinic for kids.

The In Gee Chun Lancaster Country Club Education fund will help fund educational costs for students with ties to golf or Lancaster Country club, including that club’s caddies and employees. Why is she doing this? Because she really appreciated the support she received from the community during her win there. And because that’s just the kind of awesome person she is.

Most Touching Moment
And the Winner Is: Korean Golfers participate in Winter Olympics Ceremonies

Below: Bo Mee Lee

The biggest event of the year in South Korea was the Winter Olympics, held for the first time in that country in the small town of Pyeongchang. The Korean golfers, being big athletic stars there, were invited to participate in the Olympic festivities. Golf legend Se Ri Pak, as well as Bo Mee Lee and In Gee Chun, were among those who carried the Olympic torch on its journey around the country. In Gee carried it for a spell while riding in an elevated train (the torch was temporarily enclosed in a lid at that point, fortunately!). She also took a quick golf swing with it, to the delight of the watching crowds.

Best of all, two of the most legendary Korean women golfers were invited to take part in the opening ceremony itself. Se Ri Pak was among several athletes who carried the official flag into the stadium. Inbee Park, the other Hall of Famer and the gold medalist in golf at the previous summer Olympics, was one of the athletes who carried the torch inside the stadium, seen by billions the world over. Even the normally taciturn Park was choked up by the honor, as were all those who had cheered her and the other Seoul Sisters on through the years.

Other nominees:
Soo Yun Kang retires

Soo Yun Kang at last retired from golf this season. She was the last of the original first wave of Seoul Sisters to call it a career. Kang had done it all: she had played on the legendary Korean amateur squad that won the 1994 World Amateur Team Championship (Hee Won Han, Mi Hyun Kim and Se Ri Pak were the other members). She was the Player of the Year several times on the KLPGA around the turn of the century. She then came over to the LPGA, where she played for several years, finally getting her sole win at the 2005 Safeway Classic (which I was lucky to attend in person!). Later, she moved to the Japanese LPGA, where she played until her retirement. She was 42 years old as of her final event.

Good luck to Kangsy in all her future endeavors!

In Gee breaks down following win at KEB Hana Bank

In Gee Chun showed a ton of grit in winning the KEB Hana Bank Championship in October, but later she admitted just how tough the time since her last win had been. She had begun to seriously doubt herself and was deeply hurt by some of the negative comments she had read online. When she was being interviewed after her win, emotions overcame her, and she broke down in tears. It was a touching reminder of just how hard these ladies work to get to where they are.

Most Dominating Performance
And the Winner is: Sei Young Kim at Thornberry Creek Classic

Sei Young Kim had an inconsistent year in 2018, but one thing she has always been known for is her ability to go mega-low.  For instance, in 2018 she shot a 61 at the ShopRite Classic, and she already co-held the record for the lowest all-time 72 hole score with relationship to par, 27 under.

At this year’s Thornberry Creek Classic in Wisconsin, Kim exceeded even what she had done before.  She was playing on another planet from the rest of the field.  Yes, there were low scores a plenty on this course, but nothing like what Kim produced.  After three rounds, she sat at a ridiculous 24 under par, the lowest 54-hole score in LPGA history.

She didn’t slow down a bit in the final round, shooting a 65 to produce an astronomically insane 31 under par total for the week.  She shattered the all time best score with relation to par by four strokes, claiming a nine-shot win in the process.  She also set the 54-hole record and the total stroke record for a 72 hole event:  her total score of 257 broke the old record by a stroke.  She also had 31 birdies and one eagle, setting the record for most under par holes in a single event.  It’s almost impossible to imagine a more dominating performance than that!

Other nominees:

Ji Hyun Oh at Korea Women’s Open

Ji Hyun Oh won two KLPGA events in 2018, and both victories came in dominating fashion. She won the Samdasoo Masters, with Inbee Park in the field, by six shots.  But in June, she had an even more impressive victory at the Kia Korea Women’s Open, arguably the most important Major on that tour.  As usual, the tournament attracted the cream of the KLPGA and top amateur golfers in the country.  Oh entered the final round already leading by three shots, then produced a final round 66 for a staggering 8-shot win.  It was the second Major win of her career; she had won the Hanwha Classic the previous season.  Her total score also broke the all time record for the Korea Women’s Open, a record previously held by LPGA star In Gee Chun, which she set when she won this event in 2013.

Hye Jin Choi’s Rookie season

Everyone was expecting Hye Jin Choi to win the KLPGA’s 2018 Rookie of the Year award, but what was impressive was how thoroughly dominating she was.  She wound up compiling 2,633 points for the season, which was close to twice as many as Jin Seon Han, the second-place rookie, who carded 1,449.  Choi won her very first event as a rookie back in December of 2017, and the rookie race was literally never close after that.

Most Fashionable

And the Winners Are: Well, see below!

The Koreans have great fashion sense, and each year I choose a nice selection of some of my favorite looks of the season.  I could have easily chosen 50 more, but the below should give you a good idea of what they were sporting on the fairways.

So Yeon Ryu always looks sharp.  Here’s a nice simple look from the Women’s British Open.

Gyeol Park is a KLPGAer who got her first tour win this season.

Chae Young Yoon

Char Young Kim

Ha Neul Kim’s blouse says ‘lovable’.  Indeed!

Top KLPGA star Jeong Eun Lee 6 — note the ‘6’ pattern!

Hyun Ju Yoo

The LPGA’s Jenny Shin with an electrifying lightning pattern

Je Yoon Yang only plays occasionally on the KLPGA these days

Ji Hyun Kim loves flowery patterns

KLPGA Rookie Ji Yoon Kim in a flattering green

This season’s LPGA Rookie of the Year Jin Young Ko.  Her sock game is epic here.

Soo Yun Kang retired at age 42.  She went out with a bang in this interesting jungle top

KLPGA player Keun Yeung An in a beautiful red jacket.  I like the off-center zipper.

Like So Yeon Ryu, Minjee Lee always looks sharp on the course

Australia’s other Korean star, Su Oh

Another KLPGA star, Ji Hyun Oh

So Hye Park is sponsored by Nike.  I like how this all black outfit is not solid black on top.

So Hyun Ahn

Lastly, our old favorite Soo Jin Yang, this time dressed by the LPGA fashion line.

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is: Sung Hyun Park’s flop shot from the weeds at KPMG, final round

There were two holeout shots in 2018 that were crucial for eventual victories (we’ll get to them in a minute).  But there was one other shot that was so spectacular and clutch that it left even the commentators slack-jawed in awe afterwards, even if the ball did not find the bottom of the cup.  It is that shot that we choose as the Shot of the Year.

Sung Hyun Park was in a tight battle for the prize at the year’s third Major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.  On the 16th hole, she hit her approach shot right and barely avoided the water.  But her situation was still dire: So Yeon Ryu had a one-shot lead and her ball was on the green.  Park was in tall grass, almost in the water.  Somehow, Park not only hit out of that mess, she smashed a majestic high flop shot that stopped right next to the hole for an easy par.  She needed it: Ryu made birdie moments later.  After Ryu hit it into the water on the next hole, however, they fell into a tie and eventual playoff.  Had Park made bogey on 16, she would not have made the playoff and won the title.

Other nominees:

Sung Hyun Park holeout at Volunteers of America to win

One of the two holeouts I was talking about came a bit earlier in the season at the Volunteers of America.  The event was shortened by rain to just 36 holes.  Sung Hyun Park (again!) was in a tight battle for the title but missed the final green.  She hit the perfect chip, finding the bottom of the cup for a one-shot lead.  Eventually, that would be good enough for her first trophy of the year.

Eun Hee Ji hole in one en route to win at Kia Classic

Eun Hee Ji was also in a tight battle for a victory, this time at the Kia Classic.  Cristie Kerr made a birdie to move to within a shot of Ji in the lead.  Faced with possibly getting caught, Ji produced an unforgettable ace on the 14th hole to reassert control.  She would win by a single shot, so the ace was crucial.  She ended up winning two cars thanks to the hole-in-one: one for making the ace on that hole, and a second for winning the tournament.  Not bad!

Jeong Eun Lee 6 hole out to win final singles match of OrangeLife

Was it the final shot of her KLPGA career?  At the time, Jeong Eun Lee had not yet decided if she was going to take the LPGA card she had earned by winning the LPGA’s qualifying Q-Series event.  At the OrangeLife team event, she was hip deep in a singles match against In Gee Chun, who had not lost a match play match in her seven previous tries.  Reaching the final hole, they were all square, and Lee missed the green.  Not to worry: she pitched in for a birdie and the 1-up win.  She leapt with joy when the ball found the bottom of the cup, and was soon surrounded by her happy teammates.

In Gee Chun chip in on 12th hole, round 4, KEB Hana Bank

In Gee Chun was looking for her first win in more than two years.  She was barely leading the KEB Hana Bank but decided to chip from the fringe instead of putting on the 12th hole.  It seemed like an odd choice, but it worked out for her when she made the shot and saved par. She would go on to win the tournament a few holes later.

Round of the Year

And the winner is: Sei Young Kim, 61, 2nd round, ShopRite Classic

Sei Young Kim produced one of the lowest scores of the year in the second round at the ShopRite Classic in June: a ten-under par 61.   It came from nowhere: she shot a 69 in the first round and a 70 in the final round, and thus made a top five but not a win.

Other Nominees:

Ji Hyun Oh, final round, Korea Women’s Open 66

Oh’s final round 66 turned a close tournament into a rout.

Ran Hong, 64, final round of Brunei Ladies Open

The KLPGA held its first ever event in the country of Brunei.  Longtime veteran Ran Hong stunned everyone with a final round 64 to claim the title.

Inbee Park, 63, third round, Founders Cup

Inbee went on to win the event for her only LPGA victory of 2018.

So Yeon Ryu, 1st round 64, Meijer Classic

So Yeon Ryu hit all 18 greens in her nearly flawless first round 64.  Afterwards she said, “I like challenging golf courses and this is one even though I shot 8-under.”  OK…

So Young Lee, 61, round 2, Moonyoung Queens Championship

So Young Lee had the lowest score of the KLPGA season at this event.  She edged out Seon Woo Bae and super rookie Hye Jin Choi for the win, one of her three titles in 2018.

Cinderella of the Year
And the Winner Is: Annie Park, ShopRite LPGA Classic

Annie Park, a Korean-American golfer from Long Island, came into this season with conditional status after a tough 2017 season.  She wasn’t even guaranteed to get into the field most weeks.  Her best finish in her entire career had been a tie for sixth.

Needless to say, few were expecting much of her when she played the ShopRite Classic in Atlantic City in June, just three hours or so away from where she grew up, even though that 6th place finish had come at this very event two years earlier.  In fact, she only got into the field thanks to a great tournament in San Francisco a month or so earlier.  She Monday qualified for that event, managed a second-round lead, and finished well enough to improve her status when they reshuffled tour status a few weeks later.

Park made the most of it, producing a stellar 8-under par 63 in the final round to finish one shot ahead of Japanese player Sakura Yokomine.  Most of Park’s family was there to witness the win; some had not seen her play since she was in middle school.

If that isn’t the textbook definition of a Cinderella win, what is?

Other nominees:

Gyeol Park, SK Seokyung Classic

Gyeol Park is a popular KLPGA golfer who has had a few chances to win on tour but had never managed to get the job done.  It didn’t look like her first win was going to come at this year’s SK Seokyung Classic, either.  The event was beset with terrible weather, and after two rounds, He Yong Choi had a three-shot lead.  Park was barely an afterthought, eight shots back.

But Choi struggled to a 77 on the final day, while Park shot one of the best scores of her career, a 66 that was tied for second best score of the day.  She easily caught the leader, but had to wait while several other stars, such as Seon Woo Bae and Da Yeon Lee, shot great scores for their own massive comebacks.  In the end, they could not outdo the woman nicknamed the Living Doll of the Fairways, and Gyeol Park achieved her first ever KLPGA triumph.

Ju Yeon In, NH Investment Securities Ladies Championship

Ju Yeon In is a long bomber who had never won on the KLPGA.  She had had a few good results before but had not come close to winning nearly as often as Gyeol Park had.  Nonetheless, at this year’s NH Investment Securities Ladies Championship, she led wire to wire for her first trophy.  It got dicey in the final round, where So Yi Kim caught In and forced a playoff, but Ju Yeon toughed out the victory in two playoff holes.

Great Performance that came up short
And the Winner Is: Inbee Park at the ANA Invitational

Usually when Inbee Park is on a leaderboard breathing down the necks of her competition, the rest of the field is playing for second place. This is especially true when it happens at a Major. At this year’s first Major, the ANA Invitational, everything seemed to be setting up for Park’s 8th career Major victory. She wasn’t playing at the very height of her abilities; her tee-to-green game was still a little rusty after a long layoff the previous year. But she already had a win in 2018, and was bearing down on a leader, Sweden’s Pernilla Lindberg, who had never seriously contended at any LPGA event, let alone a Major.

Alas, for this one week only, Lindberg played like the second coming of her countrywoman Annika Sorenstam. She made mistakes, but time and again found a way to rescue herself and stay in the hunt. The event came down to a playoff between her, Park and Jennifer Song. Song bowed out after a few playoff holes, but Park hung in there with the tenacity her fans had grown used to. After five playoff holes, and with darkness descended upon the course, they still had not settled the issue.

They came back Monday, and after three more holes, it was Lindberg who sank the improbable winning putt. She would not be a serious factor in another event in 2018, while Park would notch several more top three finishes and rise to #1 in the world for the fourth time in her career. But the 8-hole playoff loss must rank as one of the most frustrating defeats in Inbee’s storied career.

Other nominees:
Hyo Joo Kim at the US Women’s Open

Hyo Joo Kim should not have even had a chance to win this year’s US Women’s Open. Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn was in full flight, grabbing an enormous lead as she hit the turn on the final day of the event. To be frank, it looked like it was done. But on the 10th hole, Jutanugarn made a triple bogey, creating the slightest amount of hope for the field. Kim, meanwhile, was playing great, finishing her day with a stellar 67 which included holing a putt from off the green on the 15th hole.

Jutanugarn had blown most of a seven shot lead but made a clutch birdie on the 16th hole to grab a two-shot lead with two to go. Victory seemingly in hand, she proceeded to bogey the final two holes, and it was time for a playoff.

The new format for this tournament required an aggregate score for the first two playoff holes. On the first hole, Kim made a clutch birdie to take a one-shot lead. Jutanugarn hit her approach on the second hole into the bunker, so all Kim needed to do was find the green and the win was probably hers. Alas, she also hit into the bunker, and only Jutanugarn was able to get up and down. Tied again, they went into two more holes of sudden death before Ariya prevailed.

It was not as disappointing to see Kim lose as it had been to witness Park’s travails at the previous Major, given that the win would have been mostly due to an epic collapse by the Thai, but Kim literally had the trophy in her hands after the first playoff hole, so her inability to close the deal was still one of the most frustrating results for a Korean golfer in the past ten years.

In Gee Chun at Kingsmill

In Gee Chun did not have a good season in 2018. For most of the year, she was mired in relatively mediocre results, especially when compared to her brilliance in her first two LPGA seasons. But one of the events where she did do well was the Kingsmill tournament in May. Rain would shorten the tournament to three rounds, and In Gee had the lead heading into what would be the final day.

On Sunday, she had a couple of chances to grab the solo lead but wound up in a tie with Ariya Jutanugarn (yes, her again) and Japan’s Nasa Hataoka. Alas, the playoff hole at this event really benefits long hitters; it is quite tough to get close to the hole with a medium length club. Not surprisingly, Chun bowed out against her much longer opponents after just one hole; Ariya made two birdies and won the tournament.

Jeong Eun Lee 6 at the Salonpas Cup

KLPGA superstar Jeong Eun Lee played her first career Japanese tour event in the Spring at the JLPGA Major the Salonopas Cup. Not surprisingly, Lee did well. Even when she struggled, she made ground on the field. After three rounds, she had a three-shot lead and looked poised to claim the win.

But Lee had multiple issues on Sunday, including a terrible finish that saw her make several bogies late to lose the event to fellow Korean Jiyai Shin.

Below: Lee holed out early on Sunday to take a four shot lead, but began to struggle shortly thereafter.

It was a painful pill to swallow. Lee posted a sad comment on Instagram, then went off social media for a bit. Her results in Korea suffered for a month or so. But eventually she righted the ship and went on to win the KLPGA money list for a second straight season.

Clutch Performance of the Year
And the Winner Is: Sung Hyun Park at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

Sung Hyun Park had an odd 2018 season. She spent some time at #1 in the world and notched three wins, the most of any Korean. On the other hand, she also missed seven cuts, the most of any of the top Seoul Sisters.

Park contended a lot in 2018, but sometimes her game would abandon her in the heat of battle. One time this most definitely did not happen was at the year’s third Major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. In an epic battle with fellow 2017 Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu and Japanese star on the rise Nasa Hataoka, Park rose to the challenge time and again when she needed to. She hit a phenomenal up-and-down on the 16th hole after nearly costing herself the title. She made an essential par on 17 when Ryu hit into the water, rising into a share of the lead. In the end, she had the only bogey-free round of the day, a 69.

On the first playoff hole, both she and Ryu made birdie, two of the only birdies that tough hole had seen all day. She then made birdie on the second playoff hole as well, claiming the trophy. It was easily her best performance of the season.

Other Nominees:
In Gee Chun at the KEB Hana Bank

In Gee Chun, as mentioned before, did not have a good 2018 season. By the time she reached Korea for the annual LPGA event there, she had not won anywhere in the world in more than two years. Fortunately, she was in sudden good form, thanks to her superlative performance at the International Crown the week before. She had managed a perfect 4-0 record that week, and she carried that form into the KEB. After two rounds, she had put herself into the hunt, but it was on the weekend when she shined. She put together back-to-back 66s to claim the emotional win in front of her home country fans.

IK Kim, International Crown

IK has struggled with injuries most of the year. But she showed how much heart she has at the International Crown, winning her singles match against a tenacious Englishwoman named Bronte Law. The English team had put themselves into position for a shocking upset, but after Law took the lead, Kim roared back to grab a 2-shot win that clinched the crown for Korea.

Biggest Disappointment
And the Winner is: Inbee Park, Sung Hyun Park, Jennifer Song at ANA Invitational

Below: Jennifer Song at the ANA Invitational

We talked about Inbee Park at the ANA Invitational, but Lindberg’s unlikely win came at the expense of several Koreans who were having great weeks.

Sung Hyun Park was in the final group with Lindberg on Saturday and seemed to be ready to take over the tournament. Then the group was warned for slow play. Park almost immediately started playing worse and fell out of the hunt from then on.

Inbee Park, as mentioned before, was not having her best week, but was still making clutch putts and enough good approaches that a win would normally have been in the cards. But Lindberg simply did not falter over 72 holes and 8 playoff holes.

Jennifer Song, meanwhile, was having her own best-ever tournament. She managed to get into the playoff. But after three holes, before darkness hit on Sunday, she, too, was eliminated.

Three solid Korean stars in the hunt, all losing to a first-time winner, made for the most disappointing result of 2018.

Other Nominees:

Ji Hyun Oh wins no post season awards on KLPGA

Ji Hyun Oh had her career best KLPGA season in 2018. At one point, she led in most of the major categories. But injuries and a resurgence from her rival Jeong Eun Lee 6 meant that she ended up winning none of the post season awards in the end. She wound up third on the money list, second in Player of the Year, second in number of wins, and third in scoring average. Better luck next year!

So Yeon Ryu at KPMG

This one hurt! So Yeon was in a battle with Sung Hyun Park for the title. Park managed a clutch up-and-down on the third-to-last hole, but Ryu responded with a birdie there to take a two shot lead with two holes to go.

The 17th hole was fronted by water and was dangerous, but if Ryu just hit the green, she probably had the title. Alas, she hit her tee shot into the water, made double bogey, and went on to lose the title in a playoff.

So Yeon Ryu at the Ricoh Women’s British Open

At the next Major after her near miss at the KPMG, So Yeon Ryu once again found herself in the hunt heading into the final round. She was in the penultimate group, again with Sung Hyun Park, trying to hunt down a golfer who had never come close to winning on the LPGA before (sensing a theme here?).

Alas, So Yeon had some bad breaks in the final round, while the player, Britain’s Georgia Hall, seemed to be incapable of making a serious mistake. Eventually So Yeon regrouped and made a massive run at the leaders, but Hall continued to play well and eventually won the tournament, with So Yeon finishing third. Once again, a player had managed her best tournament of the year when So Yeon was in contention.

Jeong Eun Lee at Salonpas Cup

As mentioned in Great Performance that Came Up Short, for three and a half days, Lee looked like the inevitable winner at this JLPGA Major. After she holed out for eagle early on Sunday, she had a four-shot lead. But from that point on, she struggled, making multiple unexpected mistakes, and wound up third with Jiyai Shin taking the crown.

It’s time once again for our annual review of the best (and worst) moments of the year for the Korean golfers. Let’s get started handing out this year’s Seoulie awards!

Best Start to the Season
And the winner is: Jin Young Ko

Before 2018, Jin Young Ko had been one of the top players on the Korean LPGA tour. She was a rookie in 2014, and 2017 was her fourth season on tour. In October, she played in the LPGA’s annual visit to Korea, the KEB-Hana Bank Championship. She played well, and in the final round was matched in the final group with two of Korea’s most popular players, In Gee Chun and Sung Hyun Park. The crowds were enormous, with most of the fans rooting for one of those two stars. Nonetheless, it was Ko who got the last laugh, winning the tournament and earning herself an LPGA tour card for 2018.

Ko immediately took advantage. Her first event as an LPGA member was the ISPS Handa Australian Women’s Open. She shot a 65 in her very first round as a member to take a two-shot lead over fellow Korean Jiyai Shin. Ko extended the lead to three shots after a second round 69, and maintained her lead after the third round. She would be paired in the final round with Hye Jin Choi, the superstar teen KLPGA rookie who had nearly won the 2017 US Women’s Open.

But even Choi couldn’t stop the Jin Young Ko freight train. Ko won the event, becoming only the second player in history, and the first since the initial year of the LPGA tour, to win her first event as a tour member. That’s what you call getting out to a great start!

(she would go on to notch top tens in her next two events and in four of her next six starts, keeping the momentum going strong).

Other nominees:

Hye Jin Choi wins first event as a KLPGA rookie

The aforementioned Hye Jin Choi herself had a great start to her 2018 season. After winning two KLPGA events as a teen amateur, Choi turned pro in September of 2017, and joined the KLPGA in December for the 2018 season. Just before joining, she won the LF Point Queen of Queens, a special year ending event that featured ten of the top players on the KLPGA. She then won her first event as an official member, the Hyosung Championship, which took place in Vietnam in December but counted towards the 2018 season.

In February, as we discussed above, she also nearly added an LPGA tournament to her resume when she finished second to Jin Young Ko at the Australian Women’s Open.
Choi finished in the top 20 in her next seven KLPGA events, including four top tens.

Biggest Disappearing Act
And the ‘Winner’ is: Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim was one of the top players on the Japanese LPGA tour in 2017; indeed, for much of the season, she was the top player in several categories. But she faded towards the end of the year, winding up fourth on the money list. Not what she was hoping for, but not a bad result at all.

2018, however, was a massive downturn for the popular star. She wound up just 29th on the money list with no wins all year. She had just five top tens, with one runner-up finish.

Kim has had an up and down history her entire golf career. She will frequently follow great seasons with more lackluster outings. But in the past, she has always seemed to bounce back. Hopefully she has a pleasant surprise in store for her fans in 2019.

Other Nominees:
Inbee Park

Inbee Park has not played a complete LPGA season since 2015. In 2016 and 2017, her year was cut short by injuries. But she started 2018 pain-free, and it looked like it might be a great return for her, especially after she scored an early win at the Founders Cup in March.

But by the early summer, Park was only sporadically showing up at tournaments, and when she did come, only sometimes played well. She did manage a win at the Doosan Match Play on the KLPGA and a second place at the KB Star, one of that tour’s Majors. But she also missed two Major cuts in a row on the LPGA, something that had never happened to her in her entire career.

Other than the Majors, she only played two LPGA tournaments after the end of April. It seems she was dealing more with motivation issues than injuries, but for the moment at least, it looks like she is still intent on continuing her career in 2019, so hopefully retirement is not soon on the horizon.

Mirim Lee

Mirim Lee finished just 68th on the 2018 money list, with a little more than a quarter of a million dollars earned. By comparison, she earned nearly a million dollars the previous year. It does seem like she has been dealing with injuries.

Na Yeon Choi

A few years ago, Na Yeon Choi was the #2 player in the world, behind only Ya Ni Tseng. She has struggled with severe injury issues since then, and basically took most of 2018 off to try to recover.

Q Baek

Kyu Jung ‘Q’ Baek has had a terrible couple of seasons lately. In 2014, she was the rookie of the year on the KLPGA in one of the most impressive classes the tour ever saw. Among the rookies she topped that year were this year’s LPGA Rookie of the Year Jin Young Ko, former world #1 Sung Hyun Park, top KLPGA star Ji Hyun Oh, and multiple KLPGA winner Min Sun Kim. Baek earned an LPGA tour card in her rookie season by besting In Gee Chun and Brittany Lincicome, both Major winners, in a playoff at the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship.

After a couple of seasons on the LPGA, she returned to the KLPGA in 2017. It did not go well. She finished 111th on the money list, but still maintained a tour card. In 2018, she missed a ton of cuts, and in fact was often near or in last place in the entire field. Not since Angela Park has a promising young player so quickly lost her game.

Still, there are the occasional signs that Baek still has remnants of her old talent. In one event, she shot 87 in the first two rounds, putting her in last place by a hefty margin. But the event had no cut, and in the final round, she shot a 69 (!). And she did manage to earn a tour card at KLPGA Q-School for 2019. So perhaps there is still a chance she can make a fabulous comeback next season.

Best Korean Confrontation
And the Winner Is: LPGA vs. KLPGA, 2018 OrangeLife Champions Trophy

The past few seasons, there has been a special year-ending team event that pits a team of Korean golfers who play on the LPGA tour against another team from the KLPGA. You might think that would not be much of a match, but the KLPGA shocked the LPGA by winning the trophy last year. As a result, this event was extra juicy this season, and the LPGA invited a few ringers for their team in the form of ethnic Korean golfers who do not play under the Korean flag: specifically, Minjee Lee of Australia, Lydia Ko of New Zealand, and Danielle Kang and Jennifer Song of the United States.

Even with those stars and other great players like Sung Hyun Park, So Yeon Ryu, In Gee Chun and Inbee Park, the LPGA had its hands full at this year’s event. Crowds turned out in force, and the teams both played with a lot of fire. An award was given out for best first tee rallying move, won by Jenny Shin, who did a sexy K-pop style dance (all the players were encouraged to play to the crowds on the first tee, and many gladly did). Jeong Eun Lee 6 and her partner did a hip bump after one birdie. The operative word was FUN, and the huge crowds had a ball cheering on the teams.

Below: Jenny Shin gets down on the first tee

Best of all, there were some great matchups. Sung Hyun Park took on Hye in Choi in a rematch of the 2017 US Women’s Open final round; Park drubbed her teen rival, sending the KLPGA team a powerful message. In Gee Chun and Jenny Shin had a ball playing together, with Chun claiming she wanted to team up with Shin for the LPGA’s team event next season. So Yeon Ryu and Danielle Kang had so much fun as another team that they spent the next several weeks sending affectionate notes to each other about how cool each thought the other was. The two Ji Hyuns, Oh and Kim, made another memorable team.

Below: So Yeon Ryu and Danielle Kang, BFFs

One first-day match featured Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu vs. Ji Hyun Oh and Hye Jin Choi; that is some serious fire power (Park and Ryu eked out the 1 up win).

The LPGA looked like it had the win in hand, but the KLPGA rallied big time during the Sunday singles. Thanks to Sung Hyun Park’s win over Choi, the LPGA reclaimed the trophy, but the KLPGA stole several matches along the way. One of the final matches featured In Gee Chun against Jeong Eun Lee 6, with both popular stars thrilling the huge gallery by making great plays to keep it close. It ended as it seemed destined to: Lee holed out for birdie from off the green on the final hole to capture a 1 up win. Lucky 6 jumped for joy when the ball went in.

The final score was LPGA 11, KLPGA 9. I hope we get to see many more years of this awesome event; there is nothing like watching so many great players in a team format going mano a mano with huge crowds cheering them on.

Other nominees:

So Yeon Ryu vs. Sung Hyun Park, KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

Two of the top Korean golfers in the world, and the two co-Players of the Year from 2017, went head to head down the stretch at the year’s third Major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. There was an amazing rescue by Park to stay in it, a great birdie by Ryu to seemingly put it away, then a botched tee shot to allow Park to get back in. Sung Hyun would eventually win in a two-hole playoff, birdieing both holes. Even though Ryu lost, she said it was the best golf she played all year. I agree.

Jin Young Ko vs. Hye Jin Choi, Australian Women’s Open

See Best Start to the Season for more details!

Best Korean Finish
And the Winner is: South Korea wins the International Crown

Normally, this category is dedicated to the leaderboard with the most Korean stars near the top, but the International Crown team event was such a special win, with all four players on the team essential, that it deserves to be mentioned instead.

The Korean squad did not have a lot of momentum coming into this event. In the first two playings of the Crown, the Koreans were the favorite both times, but were only able to manage a third and second place finish. This year, the event was being held in South Korea, and the crowds were going to be enormous. Failure was not an option. But the Koreans were not having a great season, with only one Major win and many events with just one or two Koreans on the leaderboard. Could they rise to the occasion?

Complicating matters, Inbee Park decided to bow out of the tournament to give another Korean golfer a chance. But, because the KLPGA had scheduled the Hite Cup, one of their Majors, the same weekend, Jin Young Ko (a Hite sponsoree) and Hye Jin Choi (a KLPGA golfer) were not available to play. They had to dip to the third alternate, In Gee Chun, to fill Park’s spot. Chun is a great player, but she had been having a very weak season by her standards to that point.

Below: In Gee Chun meets the press pre-tournament

As if that weren’t enough, another team member, In Kyung Kim, was coming off an injury that had forced her to miss the Evian. The signs were not good.

But something magical happened when Sung Hyun Park, So Yeon Ryu, Kim and Chun arrived for the event. Even during their practice rounds they were followed by hundreds of fans.

Below: the Fab Four get ready to do battle (L to R): In Kyung Kim, So Yeon Ryu, In Gee Chun and Sung Hyun Park.

They decided to divvy up the teams with Ryu and Chun as one squad, Park and Kim as the other. It was a great decision. In the first round, both teams were heavily challenged by Taiwan, an underrated team, but both teams squeaked out 1 up wins. Ryu and Chun continued to be brilliant, trouncing Australia and England in their next two matches despite strong opposition from the surprising English team. Kim and Park did lose one match, but they won the one that counted against England. For the first time, Korea entered the singles matches in the lead.

Teamwork:

It would be the two players who had been the most in doubt pre-tournament who would rise to the challenge on Sunday. Chun grabbed a huge lead in her match against Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist, then hung on for the win. Kim fought tooth and nail against England’s match play specialist Bronte Law. Kim made a chip-in and a long birdie putt late, provoking a shout and joyous fist pump from the usually sedate Korean. Her win clinched the cup for the home team. Meanwhile, Ryu squared her match against Lexi Thompson of the US with a brilliant bunker shot to a foot on the final hole, while world #2 Park lost to the world #1 Ariya Jutanugarn in the kind of match you would only get to see at an event like this.

Who was the MVP? Kim and Chun (the only player with four wins, a perfect record) had the best week of their years to that point, but Ryu and Park both had moments when their top-five-in-the-world brilliance carried their teams. It was a case where all four players were invaluable, and as such, they deserve a four-way MVP award!

Below: Korea claims the crown (and the trophy!)

Other nominees:
ISPS Handa Australian Women’s Open:

Jin Young Ko won, the KLPGA’s Hye Jin Choi finished second, Australia’s Minjee Lee was tied for 5th, and So Yeon Ryu, Jiyai Shin, and Sun Young Yoo were tied for 7th.

Indy Women in Tech Championship

Sung Hyun Park got her third win of the year, with Amy Yang finishing third, Jin Young Ko 4th, Danielle Kang tied for fifth, and Mi Hyang Lee tied for 7th.

Posted by: happyfan08 | April 28, 2018

2018 KLPGA Primer

It’s time once again for our annual primer for the KLPGA season: who to watch and what to expect on the Korean professional women’s golf tour for 2018!

Those Who Have Left

This season sees 10-time tour winner Jin Young Ko leave the Korean tour for the LPGA.  She punched her ticket for the big tour by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank last October in front of some of the biggest crowds the event had ever seen.  She joined the LPGA tour in February, and won her very first event as a member, the Australian Women’s Open.  She thus became only the second woman in tour history to win her first event.  So far she has been walloping the competition in the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year race, and seems well on her way to continuing the Korean dominance of that award.  Just last week, she managed a tie for second at the Hugel-JTBC LA Open.

Jin Young holds the 2018 Australian Women’s Open trophy

The Big Stars

There are two big names to watch in 2018, and at least at this juncture, it seems likely that one or the other of them will dominate the top awards on tour.

Last year’s big star was Jeong Eun Lee 6.  Lee was numbered ‘6’ because she is the sixth golfer in tour history with the name Jeong Eun Lee.  She embraced the number, taking it on as her trademark and creating the nicknames Lucky Six and Hot Six to go with it.

She indeed did have plenty of luck going her way in 2017, and at times she certainly was white-hot.  Coming off the Rookie of the Year award in 2016, Lee won all the big awards on tour last season: she not only led the money list with over a billion won earned, she also was Player of the Year and had the lowest scoring average.  In fact, she ended up winning six awards, which is fitting given her nickname (the others were for most wins, Most Popular (as voted by the fans) and Best Player (as voted by the Press)).

Jeong Eun Lee 6 at last year’s KLPGA Awards Ceremony

Lee also played at the US Women’s Open, where she notched a top five in her first appearance there (her final score for the week?  Yup, 6 under par.  Lucky Six indeed!).

Lee also has a touching back story.  When she was younger, her father was in a traffic accident that left him paralyzed.  As they traveled from tournament to tournament, they always had to pay more money for accommodations, because cheap hotels were not designed to allow easy access to someone in a wheelchair.  Now that she has become so successful, she is thrilled to be able to share it all with her dad.

Lee and her parents

Lee certainly entered 2018 as one of the favorites to continue her impressive dominance, but there is one player out there who may not only give her a run for the money, she is probably a favorite to top her.  That player is Hye Jin Choi.

Hye Jin Choi

Choi is only eighteen, but she is a phenom the likes of which the tour hasn’t seen in a while.  Lee did well at the 2017 US Women’s Open; Choi, however, actually led the tournament on Sunday (as a 17-year-old amateur) until she hit a tee shot into the water late to allow Sung Hyun Park to pass her and take the title.  But Choi had many other highlights in 2017.  She won two KLPGA events before even turning pro.  In September she became professional and earned a nice chunk of change playing as a guest on the KLPGA.

After the year ended, she was invited to play in the limited field LF Point Championship, known as the Queen of Queens event.  And she won it, beating a bunch of the other top KLPGA stars.  A few weeks later, she officially started her KLPGA career.   Traveling to Vietnam for the Hyo Song Championship, she won there to take an early lead in all the KLPGA races.

Shhh!  Hye Jin is a rookie now!

Choi has everything it takes to be a star.  She is long off the tee, has a great iron game, and is fairly unflappable.  In short, she has no weaknesses.  Even better, she never seems to go more than a couple of events before she contends or plays well.  Given her talent, Rookie of the Year seems a foregone conclusion.  Can she become the first player since Jiyai Shin to win the Rookie and Player of the Year award in the same season?  Stay tuned!

Fun fact: Hye Jin Choi’s nickname is Penguin.  Let’s see if it catches on for her like In Gee Chun’s ‘Dumbo’ nickname caught on for that star.

The Other Top Names

Here are a few of the other top stars on tour to watch in 2018:

Ji Hyun Kim

Ji Hyun Kim at last year’s KLPGA Awards

Ji Hyun Kim had a breakout season in 2017.  She was the surprise top player the first few months of last year before she cooled off.  During that stretch, she won three tournaments, including the Korea Women’s Open, the year’s most important Major.  She wound up second on the money list with nearly 790 million won earned; only Jeong Eun Lee 6 earned more money.

Kim has played three events on the LPGA this year.  She missed the cut badly at the first two, including the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first Major.  Right after that, she returned home and won an event on the KLPGA, the Lotte Rent-a-Car.  Being that she is a bit older (26) than the other top players on this list, her sudden success is somewhat of a surprise, and it is hard to assess how temporary it will be.  But the fact that she followed up the foul-up at the ANA with a win in Korea, then followed that with a t-11 finish at the LPGA’s Lotte event in Hawaii, it seems likely that she can contend again for the big hardware in 2018.

Ji Hyun Oh

Ji Hyun Oh

In 2017, there were four women with the first name Ji Hyun who won tournaments.  Besides Ji Hyun Kim, there was another Ji Hyun Kim who won (known on tour as Ji Hyun Kim 2), Ji Hyun Lee, and Ji Hyun Oh.  Besides the previously mentioned Ji Hyun Kim 1, Oh is the other top talent in that group.  Still relatively young (she just turned 22 earlier this year), Oh had managed two wins before 2017.  Last year was a big one for her: she won twice more, including her first Major at the Hanwha Classic.  She wound up third on the money list, ahead of Jin Young Ko.

Oh is having a bang up season so far on the KLPGA in 2018. Although she hasn’t won yet, she has two runner-up finishes and has only finished outside the top ten once in five starts.  This has allowed her to take the lead in the scoring average and Player of the Year races.  It still seems like Choi and Lucky 6 may be a bit better than she is, but if she continues to improve like she seems to be doing, that could very well change in 2018.

Seon Woo Bae

Seon Woo Bae

Seon Woo Bae is another of the rising young stars who continues to excel on the KLPGA tour.  The 24-year-old did not win on the KLPGA in 2017, but notched a bunch of strong finishes and wound up 9th on the money list.  Already in 2018, she has played one LPGA event (the Founders Cup) and finished with a respectable tie for 16th.

Bae is a consistent player who seems on the cusp of taking the next big step.  So far in 2018, her KLPGA results have not been impressive, but it might not be long before she turns that around.

Min Sun Kim

Min Sun Kim

Min Sun Kim was a rookie the same year as Jin Young Ko and Q Baek, and found herself often pitted against those two stars in the public’s mind.  But since then, both Baek and Ko have won LPGA events, while Kim is still struggling to take the next step in Korea.  Like in years past, Kim had one win and several more runner-up finishes in 2017, but also missed several cuts. She finished a decent 10th on the money list.  With her length, she periodically shows flashes of a truly talented player, but that potential remains largely untapped to date.

Ha Na Jang

Ha Na Jang is already a winner in 2018

Ha Na Jang is the ringer on the KLPGA tour.  A former Player of the Year, she joined the LPGA in 2015 and won four total events over here.  But suddenly last Spring, she announced that she was forsaking her LPGA membership and immediately returning to Korea, which is what she in fact did.  A pity: with her exuberant personality and celebrated victory moves, Jang certainly broke the mold for what Americans expected from Korean golf professionals.

Alas, Jang did not have the great record in Korea after her return that you might have expected.  It wasn’t all bad: she did have a pair of runner-up finishes, but no wins.

In 2018, however, Jang seems to have rebounded in a major way.  Besides playing at the ANA Inspiration (she finished 30th), Jang also has notched a win and a runner-up on the KLPGA tour and is among the tour leaders in most categories early in the year.  She seems ready at last to make her return to Korea in style.

Up and Comers

Last year, there were three rookie stars, all 19 years old, who stood out on the tour.  None of them have managed a win to date, but all played well enough that they deserve attention in 2018.  All three seem to be good friends as well.

The most successful of the three is Eun Soo Jang, who won the Rookie of the Year title last year.  The other two are So Hye Park and Da Bin Heo.  Park is one of the few ladies on tour sponsored by Nike, and she was featured in an excellent TV commercial for that company last season.  Heo has oodles of charisma and often has a dimpled smile on her face.  Will one of them break through in 2018?  Will all of them?  They are all still young enough that they have few years yet to establish what they can do.

Eun Soo Jang with her Rookie of the Year award

So Hye Park

Da Bin Heo

Han Sol Ji + Gyeol Park

Han Sol Ji was a promising young rookie a few seasons back.  She has had a few good tournaments over the years, but finally got her first win at 2017’s final event, the ADT Caps.  You couldn’t have wiped the smile off her face if you tried.  Time will tell if this was the first step towards stardom or not.

One of her main competitors in the rookie race in 2015 was Gyeol Park.

Park established herself by winning the Asian Games gold medal back in 2014.  This same award was the springboard for greatness for two former world #1 golfers, Ai Miyazato (she won it in 2002) and So Yeon Ryu (the 2006 champ).  Park has had runner-up finishes and a decent career so far, but she is still more known for her potential than her success.

Hye Sun Kim

Hye Sun Kim stunned the tour last season by winning a tournament late in the year.  Even more impressively, she did it by beating top star Jeong Eun Lee 6 in a playoff.  The win garnered her a lot of attention; now will come the time to see if she can back it up.

So Young Lee

So Young Lee, like Gyeol Park, won a big title as an amateur.  In her case, it was the 2014 Junior Olympics Gold Medal.  Lee had won on tour before but was surprisingly toppled in her bid to win Rookie of the Year in 2016 by Lucky Six.  She hasn’t been super strong since then, but she did manage a surprise win just last week at the Nexen Saint Nine Masters, coming from behind in the final round.

Hyun Joo Yoo

Also known as Hyeonjoo Ryu, Yoo took the tour by storm last year.  But it wasn’t her play that garnered her so much attention.  In fact, she was not able to maintain her tour membership for this year, although she did have a few good rounds here and there.  Rather, it was Yoo’s attractiveness that helped to elevate her to the top tier of popularity on tour.  Now on the Dream Tour, Yoo is working hard to return to the big leagues, and will appear from time to time in fields when the sponsors allow.  Expect the press to be paying attention when she does show up!

Stars On the Comeback Trail

Several older players are looking to return to form in 2018.  Here are a couple to watch.

Char Young Kim

Kim has had a bit of a renaissance in her game in recent years.  She won a match play event last year for her first win in years, and has contended from time to time since.  She is not one of the very best players on tour, but seems capable of reaching that level – she won three times in the 2012 season, showing that she is for real, and in her win at the Match Play event, she beat no less a player than Inbee Park in the finals.  She is another photogenic player that is usually more known for her looks than game, but with four career wins, she certainly has a decent resume as well.

Soo Jin Yang

For years, Soo Jin Yang has been known as much for her wild fashion sense and off course romances as her game.  Yang peaked early in her career, winning a bunch of times in her first few seasons.  The past couple of seasons, she became more known for her tabloid exploits, dating numerous high-profile athletes before marrying one and having a child.  She took most of last year off to have her child, but now is back and ready to compete again.

Yang is an artist who loves designing her own golf clothes.  She was fortunate that her previous clothing sponsor, Pearly Gates, was receptive to that.  She became known for her unforgettable outfits throughout the years.  Alas, she has now moved on to a different sponsor, and it seems like her clothes are far tamer than before.  But wild or mellow, it’s still great to have her back!

Rookies

The rookie race is dominated by the shadow cast by Hye Jin Choi.  Is there anyone who could conceivably challenge her for the top Rookie honors?  To be honest, it doesn’t look like it.  One name that has surfaced is Ji Yoon Kim, who received a recent profile in Golf Digest Korea.  She flexed her considerable biceps in that article, but so far she has not made much of an impact on tour.

Ji Yoon Kim

The season is underway, and the fun is just getting started!  Good luck to all the ladies, and here’s hoping to see a few of them contend on the LPGA as well this year!

Most Improved Player

And the Winner Is: Jeong Eun Lee 6

Jeong Eun Lee 6 had a very good 2016 season. She was the surprise winner of the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year, upsetting the favorite So Young Lee. But she did not win an event, and so she came into 2017 as a player to watch, but not much more.

In 2017, Lee quickly showed she was a major talent, and by the end of the season, was the clear best player on tour. She won four times in 2017, and won all the major awards as well. As mentioned, she is known as Jeong Eun Lee 6 because she is the sixth player in KLPGA history with her same name. She has decided that 6 is her special number. She marks her balls with a big ‘6’, and her nickname is Lucky 6. And the number 6 seemed to follow her around in 2017.

For instance, she won 6 post season awards on the KLPGA: Player of the Year, money list leader, Scoring Average, and Most Wins, and was chosen by sportswriters as best player and by the fans as most popular. She became just the fourth woman to ever break a billion won in a season. Her scoring average of 69.80 was quite possibly the lowest in KLPGA history; she was certainly one of the few to ever break 70.

Lee shot a 60 in one of her wins (see Round of the Year), becoming the first player in KLPGA history to achieve that score. Yes, 60, another ‘6’ reference for her. As if that weren’t enough, she also played her first ever Major at the US Women’s Open this year, and once again found herself in contention all week. She wound up tied for 5th, even better than the 6th place you might have expected; but her final score was, yup, 6 under par.

Other Nominees:

IK Kim

Kim won once in 2016, but she had a fantastic year in 2017. For the first time in her career, she managed three wins in a single year, and also captured her first Major at the Women’s British Open (see Happiest News). She came close to capturing the LET’s Dubai Ladies Masters in December, losing in a playoff to American Angel Yin.

Ji Hyun Kim

Ji Hyun Kim is a veteran KLPGA golfer who joined the tour in 2010, but did not manage a win until 2017. In that season, however, she struck gold, collecting three wins including the Korea Women’s Open. She made nearly 790 million won for the season, placing her second on the money list behind just Jeong Eun Lee 6. By contrast, in 2016 she finished 13th on the money list, with a few top fives including a runner-up at the Doosan Match Play.

Ji Hyun Oh

Ji Hyun Oh has shown promise before this year, but the young 4th year player really came into her own in 2017. She won her first career Major at the Hanwha Classic, and also won at the BC Card for her first multi-win season. In addition, she finished third on the KLPGA money list with about 746 million won. She notched nine total top tens and played for the first time at the ING Champions and Kowa Queens team events.

Player of the Year

And the Winner is: So Yeon Ryu

This award came down to three players: So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park on the LPGA and Jeong Eun Lee 6 on the KLPGA. In the end, I’m giving the award to Ryu by a razor-thin margin.

Ryu had a career best season in 2017. She at last delivered on some of the promise she has shown since she joined the tour back in 2012. But it was a tight neck-and-neck battle between her and Sung Hyun Park, and in the end, they wound up exactly tied in the LPGA’s Player of the Year race, the first time in history that had ever happened.

There are compelling arguments for both women. Ryu finished with more top tens, 12 to Park’s 11. Both collected two wins including one Major. For Ryu, it was her first Major in a long time, while for Park it was her first ever Major. So Yeon got a big break at the ANA Inspiration when leader Lexi Thompson was hit with a four-stroke penalty, but Ryu also had to deal with a hostile crowd after that who were practically willing her to fail.

Despite that, So Yeon rose brilliantly to the occasion to close the deal. Park also benefitted  in her Major win from a late mistake by teen leader Hye Jin Choi, but unlike Ryu, she was not dealing with negative waves from the fans in attendance.

The tiebreaker in terms of Majors goes to Ryu, who had the better overall Major record and won the Annika award as a result.

Sung Hyun Park had to deal with being a rookie and rising to the task of not only claiming Rookie of the Year, but also handling all the challenges inherent in changing culture and tours. So Yeon is used to the LPGA, so that’s a mark in Park’s favor.

Park finished ahead of Ryu on the money list (they were 1-2), and had a better scoring average (she finished 2nd, Ryu 6th). Advantage Park. But Ryu managed to climb to #1 and stayed there for 19 weeks, whereas Park only got there for one week before falling down. And So Yeon hung on for part of the Player of the Year award despite struggling with injuries the last few weeks of the year.

Another plus mark for So Yeon was her incredible start to the season, where she notched eight straight top tens and eleven straight dating back to 2016. She also had to deal with far more adverse publicity than Park, not only from the Thompson “fans” who hounded her after the ANA, but also the Korean trolls who made her life difficult because of a controversy involving her dad and taxes. For a while, she even stopped posting Instagram and Twitter posts. And that was on top of the pressure of dealing with the #1 ranking.

How close was this choice? If Park had managed to play a tad better in the final round of the CME (one stroke better would have been enough), she would have won the Player of the Year outright and possibly reclaimed the #1 ranking as well. In that case, she would have definitively clinched this award as well.  But she couldn’t get that done, and so, by the slightest margin, So Yeon Ryu gets our Seoul Sisters Player of the Year award.

Other Nominees:

Sung Hyun Park

Jeong Eun Lee 6

 

Rookie to Watch in 2018

And the Winner Is: Hye Jin Choi

There are two players who will be rookies in 2018 who both have the chance to shine. On the LPGA, Jin Young Ko, who earned her tour card by winning the Hana Bank; and teenage sensation Hye Jin Choi, who will play her first full season as a pro on the KLPGA. As exciting a prospect as Jin Young Ko is, we nonetheless have to give this award to Choi, who has the potential to be one of the all time greats, and who could certainly challenge for all the top awards on the KLPGA next year, not just Rookie of the Year.

Last year, the player I chose for this honor was Sung Hyun Park. I wrote:

There is one obvious superstar-in-the-making joining the tour, Sung Hyun Park. The 2016 KLPGA money list leader, Park managed three top tens in Majors on the LPGA tour this year and has spent some time in the top ten in the world rankings. With her booming drives, her game seems tailor-made for the LPGA in much the same way as Sei Young Kim’s and Ha Na Jang’s are.

Nailed that (admittedly pretty easy) prediction. Sung Hyun Park destroyed a decent Rookie class with the easy of a giant flicking a few bugs off her arm. In fact, she wound up winning both the LPGA Rookie and Player of the Year (tying with So Yeon Ryu), the first rookie to win both awards since Nancy Lopez in 1978.

Hye Jin Choi has world beater potential. The aforementioned Park got to see that first hand at this year’s US Women’s Open. Indeed, Choi seized the lead going into the final few holes, and only an ill-timed botched tee shot on the 16th hole prevented her from becoming the youngest player in history to hoist that trophy. She finished second.

But over on the KLPGA, she already has more than made her mark. She won her first KLPGA event while still an amateur, claiming the Chojung Sparkling Water Resort Open in late June after a final round 63 that include not one but two hole-outs for eagle. She would win again, still an amateur, at the Bogner MBN Women’s Open in August. If you’re keeping track, she managed two wins on the KLPGA and a second at the most lucrative event on the LPGA, and earned not a nickel for her efforts.

Choi was not done. After the KLPGA season ended, she was invited to play at the limited field LF Point Championship, where she again won, beating the elite golfers present in the two-day event. Then, she started her 2018 KLPGA season in Vietnam a few weeks later, and pocketed 140 million won by winning the Hyo Song Championship. She will go into her rookie year atop the money list with a win already in her pocket for the 2018 season.

What is it about Choi that makes her one to watch? In a word, everything. She is fairly long off the tee and very accurate. She has an incredible head on her shoulders and doesn’t get flustered. She has a great iron game and great short game. In short, she is solid in every conceivable way.

She has the occasional bad event or two, but never stays off her game for long. She may very well be the most promising young star to come along since Hyo Joo Kim, who won a Major while still a teenager. It would not surprise me in the least to see Choi contend and perhaps even win an LPGA event next season. She could be looking at not just Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA next year, but all the top prizes. It could be incredibly thrilling to watch this prodigy, still wearing braces on her teeth, get into gear in 2018.

Other Nominees:

Jin Young Ko

With two KLPGA wins and the LPGA win at Hana Bank this year, Ko will definitely be the odds-on favorite to win the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2018, continuing the streak of the past three seasons, when the winners were all former KLPGA stars: Sei Young Kim, In Gee Chun and Sung Hyun Park. Like those three, Ko has been a force on the KLPGA for the past several seasons. She is ready to make this move, and even more seasoned in some ways than Chun and Park were when they went over (and both of them won Majors in their rookie years). Her specialty is her iron play. She was like a laser at the Hana Bank, nailing some incredibly accurate irons just when she needed to both Saturday and Sunday. But her short game and demeanor are also A+. It’s been a long time coming, but at last Jin Young is about to arrive!

Rookie of the Year

And the winner is: Sung Hyun Park

This was probably the easiest award choice in years. Simply put, Sung Hyun Park dominated the LPGA rookie class of 2017 more impressively than almost any other Korean in tour history. On the KLPGA, there was an impressive group of teenagers who joined the tour, including Rookie of the Year winner Eun Soo Jang, So Hye Park and Da Bin Heo. But none of those three won a tournament, and though they all easily maintained tour cards, their achievements cannot begin to compare to Park’s.

On the JLPGA you had Min Young Lee, who won that tour’s Rookie of the Year. She had a very good year, finishing in the top ten on the money list. But that’s still not in the same ballpark as Sung Hyun’s season.

So what did Sung Hyun Park do? She came over from South Korea, barely able to speak English, and with perhaps a larger assimilation task ahead of her than most Sisters face. She took a little time to find her feet on tour, but she still never missed a cut, and once she got going, she did some amazing things.

By the end of the season, Park was not only the Rookie of the Year, she also was in the running for Player of the Year, Vare Trophy, Money List title, CME million dollar bonus and #1 world ranking. Had she pulled all of those things off, it would have been one of the most amazing feats ever accomplished by anyone. She didn’t quite make it. She did finish first on the money list, the only player to break 2 million dollars in 2017. She also tied for Player of the Year with So Yeon Ryu and of course won the Rookie of the Year. But she just missed out the scoring average title, finishing second, and though she briefly ascended to #1, she could not hold onto that ranking.

But grabbing the Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year makes her only the second player after Nancy Lopez to manage that feat.

Park finished the year with 1,620 Rookie of the Year points, more than double Angel Yin, her nearest competitor. And Yin had a good year. She earned $2,335,883; only Inbee Park has ever earned more in a season among the Koreans. That gave her roughly a $350,000 edge over #2 So Yeon Ryu. Her scoring average of 69.25 was among the lowest ever achieved by a Sister.

Below: Sung Hyun faces the press on her return from the US after winning the Rookie and Player of the Year awards

She compiled 11 top tens and did not miss a cut. She had two wins, including a dramatic victory over teen sensation Hye Jin Choi at the US Women’s Open. Last year, Park had narrowly missed grabbing that title, but she made up for it this year. It was her first Major win (and first LPGA win, period). She won again a month later at the Canadian Women’s Open. She almost had a third victory, but was narrowly beaten by Jin Young Ko at the KEB Hana Bank. She also climbed to #1 in the world, only the fourth Korean (fifth if you count Lydia Ko) to ever reach that ranking. Alas, she was only up there one week, but it’s still an incredible achievement for a rookie.

For all these reasons, Sung Hyun Park is hands down the 2017 Rookie of the Year.

Other Nominees:

Min Young Lee, JLPGA Tour

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