After two rounds at this year’s US Women’s Open, there were several names on the leaderboard familiar to LPGA fans. The most notable might have been Korean Amy Yang. Yang has contended at the event before without ever winning it; last year, she held a share of the lead heading into the final day but was not able to hold on, finishing in fourth place. in 2015, Yang held a three shot lead entering day three. Stacy Lewis sat in second position, with world #1 Inbee Park and Karrie Webb also lurking.
But five shots behind Yang was another player whose name was not so familiar to Western fans: In Gee Chun. In fact, many of the western golf writers, if they noticed her at all, expressed confusion as to who she even was. Korean fans, of course, were well familiar with the 20-year-old whose nickname is Dumbo: Chun was no less than the 2015 KLPGA money list leader, with three wins already on tour this year. Her great play had allowed her to rise all the way to 20th in the world rankings without playing much on the LPGA tour.
On Saturday, Chun shot a 2 under par 68, moving into solo third place and earning herself a spot in the penultimate group on Sunday. Again the golf writers scratched their collective heads. “Maybe she’s decent; after all, she is 20th in the world?” they mused. But still, she got relatively little attention, as almost all of them expected the winner would be either the perennial bridesmaid Yang, who had maintained her three shot lead entering Sunday, or world #2 Lewis.
On the final day, however, it was Chun who made the headlines. She charged early, stayed in contention through a rough patch, suddenly found herself tied for the lead when Yang made a few mistakes, then blistered her final few holes to grab the outright lead by several shots. Yang, however, rallied, making a late eagle and another birdie to move to within one shot of Chun. A final hole bogey left In Gee tied with Yang, But moments later, Yang also bogied the final hole, and the win belonged to Chun, the third youngest to capture this august title behind only the legendary Se Ri Pak and the almost-as-famous Inbee Park.
In a way, Chun’s treatment by the media is symptomatic of a myopic world view held by these sports writers, who often seem to think that women’s golf starts and ends with a subset of players on the LPGA tour. But especially in the past decade, the KLPGA has increasingly fielded more and more players who have gone on to superstar careers. Since 2008, on three different occasions, KLPGA stars have won Majors to earn LPGA tour cards. In two cases – Jiyai Shin in 2008 at the Women’s British Open and Hyo Joo Kim last year at the Evian Championship – the player in question was not only the top player on the KLPGA at the time but also among the top players in the world to boot. In the remaining instance – So Yeon Ryu at the 2011 US Women’s Open – the player was not the very best on the KLPGA, but was still a multiple winner who had finished in the top five on that tour’s money list several times. You’d think the writers would get a clue – KLPGA stars tend to do well at LPGA Majors, so educate yourself about who they are at the start of the week, it might come in handy! And certainly, it should not be the least bit surprising when one gets into the hunt at a Major.
But yet they still drew a blank about Chun, a player with 7 career wins on the KLPGA tour already in just two and a half years. Their comments that Chun had ‘come out of nowhere’ are particularly insulting, given her pedigree and world ranking.
Though Chun is for the moment at the top of the KLPGA like Shin and HJ Kim were, it is So Yeon Ryu with whom she has the most in common. Back in 2011, Ryu was a 21-year-old who was in her fourth year on the KLPGA tour. Chun is in her third year and just a few months shy of her 21st birthday. Ryu had won 7 times in her career to that point – the same number of wins as Chun. Both players were pro golfers also attending college at the same time, Ryu at Yonsei University, Chun at Korea University. Ryu had not been able to win the KLPGA Rookie of the Year award despite a brilliant rookie season which included a win. Chun, too, wound up second in the rookie standings (to Hyo Joo Kim), despite winning the Korean Women’s Open as a rookie. And weirdly, both players used the same caddie – Dean Herden – in their US Women’s Open winning efforts.
These two are also the only Korean stars to ever make the US Women’s Open their first career LPGA wins. Both players had also made an early choice to pursue golf instead of another passion at which they excelled. For Ryu it was violin that lost out, while Chun was a math prodigy who fell in love with golf and focused on that until she became a star. And lastly, both have bubbly, personable styles that makes them very popular with fans.
In Gee Chun’s golf career started in the fourth grade, when she was ten years old. She was taken to a golf range by her father and a friend, where she hit a few balls for laughs. She wasn’t very good, and her dad teased her about it. Chun bridled, determined to show that she could do a better job. Taking up the game, she grew to love the sport, while discovering a talent that she soon groomed into national stardom at the amateur level in her homeland.
But as In Gee blossomed as a golfer, her family struggled. Both her parents lost their jobs, and money was tight. Her parents continued to provide for Chun and her career, sinking every last bit of money they could into golf. Chun did not even realize how bad their situation had been until years later; her family did a good job allowing her to focus on golf and not to worry about anything else. And so, Chun became a star on the Korean national team, where she helped Korea win several important international competitions and frequently clashed with (and sometimes teamed with) top players like Hyo Joo Kim.
Chun turned pro in 2012 and joined the KLPGA the following year. Within a few months, she found herself in contention at the Korean Women’s Open, the most important event on that tour. She was in the final group on Sunday with Kim and another young star, Kyu Jung Baek. Amazingly, Chun was the oldest of the three, though still just 18. She won the tournament after ripping off birdies on her final four holes. Thus, her first KLPGA win was a major. She would go on to push Kim hard for the rookie of the year, eventually finishing second to her friend and rival.
Chun’s second year on tour, 2014, was more consistent. She managed three wins that season, but perhaps the two most pivotal moments of the year were tangential to her KLPGA career. The first was this: she had earned the right to attend the 2014 US Women’s Open thanks to her money list finish in 2013, but that event took place the same week as her title defense at the Korean Women’s Open (an unlucky scheduling issue that had never happened before). She chose to play the Korean event, and thus missed out on a chance to hone her skills overseas.
The second important moment came at the Hana Bank, the LPGA’s lone Korean stop. She played brilliantly, putting herself one short putt away from earning a tour card. Alas, she missed, and eventually lost in a playoff to rival Baek. Baek earned the card, while Chun remained in Korea another season.
But Chun’s fourth place finish on last year’s money list earned her more chances to try her luck on the LPGA tour in 2015, and she took them. She played four LPGA events early in 2015, including the year’s first Major, the ANA Inspiration. She did not manage a top twenty in any of them, but the experience was essential. It gave her the confidence that she could play against the best in the world, and this confidence immediately paid dividends. When she returned to Korea, it took her just two events to grab her first win of 2015.
In mid-May, she sat atop the KLPGA money list, and took another gamble. She accepted an invitation to play the Salonpas Cup, the Japanese LPGA’s first Major of the season. She dominated, winning by four shots, but that margin does not even do justice to how completely she controlled the final two days of the event. It was her first event in Japan, and once again, like she had on the KLPGA, she made her first win on a tour a Major.
What resonated with In Gee was just how well she was able to play against top players on a tour she had no experience with. More than any other single event, this win propelled Chun onto a superstar trajectory. The JLPGA, according to her father, made it known that they wanted her to join the tour full time, and were impressed not only with her play and how quickly she established herself as a fan favorite, but also with how she donated a car she won that week to charity to help earthquake relief efforts. She was now making money enough to help her struggling family, but still made it a priority to help others as well when good fortune came her way.
Chun returned to Korea the following week and went on a winning tear. She outlasted all her opponents at the Doosan Match Play, notching six wins during the week in the process. These were not easy wins, either: several were either playoffs or came down to the final hole. But In Gee’s confidence had improved to the point where draining must-make putts was becoming second nature to her.
She won again at the S-OIL Champions a few weeks later, claiming her first ever successful title defense in the process. Not long after that, she journeyed to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, more than a week before the US Women’s Open, to play the course and get herself used to her new caddie and being in the States. Dean Herden came to her courtesy of Hee Kyung Seo, an 11-time KLPGA winner who had become a mentor to Chun. Seo had not been able to qualify for the Open, so she lent Chun her caddie for the week, and they got on like a house on fire (Herden had caddied not only for Ryu in her Open win, but also for Shin in her first British win as well). Chun spent July 4th in the States, absorbing the culture while playing multiple rounds of golf at Lancaster Country Club.
Chun’s nickname in Korea is Dumbo. This is not because she is slow witted; in fact, In Gee, a math prodigy, has an IQ rumored to be 138. It was her coach who gave her the Disneyfied nickname; he claimed it was because she seems to have almost superhuman hearing, which allows her to hear everything that goes on around her. As well, this hearing comes with a curiosity in learning and meeting new challenges.
Chun went into her first Open experience with one goal: enjoy every moment. Stay positive, have fun, that was her mantra. And so, as the pressure mounted on Sunday and Yang and Lewis looked increasingly like they were walking to the gallows, Chun kept smiling. She missed a putt for par? Big smile. She made a clutch birdie to move into the lead by herself for the first time? Big smile and a fist pump. After a brilliant birdie on the diabolical 15th hole, she walked to the next tee grinning ear-to-ear, giving dozens of high fives and fist bumps to fans along the way. While Yang and Lewis both made over par scores on 15 behind her, Chun kept her attack going, getting up and down for birdie on the drivable par 4 16th, then striping a gutsy iron on the par 3 17th to a few feet for yet another birdie. The crowd was loving the smiling assassin and her sheer joy of playing.
The 18th hole had been treacherous on this day, and Chun made the mistake of hitting her drive into the rough there. She left herself with a length par attempt which she barely missed. Her three shot lead was decreasing as Amy Yang rallied, making an eagle on the short 16th and a birdie on 17. Chun’s bogey left them tied for the lead. In Gee looked momentarily crushed, but as she walked off the green, her smile returned. ‘Have fun’ was her mantra, and even when it looked like she might have cost herself the title, she was going to stick with the attitude that had gotten her there.
As it turned out, the miss didn’t matter, for Amy Yang made the same driving error as Chun and was not able to save par. In Gee wound up winning the title by a single shot. For the third time, she made a Major her first win on a tour, just like she had done in Korea and Japan. Overnight, In Gee Chun’s already burgeoning popularity took a quantum leap forward, especially in her homeland.
What will happen to In Gee Chun now? She will complete her year on the KLPGA, playing a few LPGA events here and there like the two remaining Majors, possibly the CME at the end of the year, and the Hana Bank.
For next year, she will play in America, although Japan tried hard to get her to consider playing there. Chun made the announcement on her return home, where she was given a hero’s welcome at the airport.
Whatever happens next, she does seem to have taken a huge step forward. She is now 10th in the world, just one spot out of an Olympic berth (ironically behind Amy Yang). She has a JLPGA and LPGA card for the taking. She just made over $800K and inscribed her name on the greatest trophy in women’s golf. But most importantly, through it all, she has remained the kid who loves golf, the happy fighter with the computer mind and iron determination, and has remembered to always have fun and keep smiling. She seems very likely to keep her ever growing fan base smiling as well!