In Gee Chun is known as the “Major Queen” in South Korea. Looking at her record, it’s easy to see why:
On the Korean LPGA, her first career win came at the 2013 Korean Women’s Open, the most important Major on that tour. In 2015, she made her first two wins on the Japanese tour Majors: the Salonpas Cup, followed by the Japan Women’s Open. Then, in July of that year, she made her first win on the LPGA another Major, the US Women’s Open. She is the only player in history to have made her first wins on three different tours Majors.
Chun made a little more Major history last week when she won the LPGA’s Evian Championship. Like in Japan, she has now made her first two wins on the LPGA Majors victories, becoming only the second player in history to achieve that. The first? Korean legend and Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak.
Chun’s win puts her in elite company among the Koreans. Only three other Korean golfers (four if you count Lydia Ko, who was born in Korea but plays for New Zealand) have won multiple Majors in their careers. Se Ri Pak, the Hall of Fame legend, has won five. Inbee Park, the Hall of Famer and Olympic Gold Medalist and former world #1, has won seven. And Jiyai Shin, another former world #1, has won two. Now add In Gee Chun to that august group. With her win in France last week, she has now risen to #3 in the world, becoming the highest ranked Korean in the world. It’s the first time Inbee Park has not been the top Korean in nearly four years.
In Gee Chun’s LPGA rookie season has been remarkable, but the only thing she had not been able to do up to now is win. She has dominated the Rookie of the Year standings and will almost 100% certainly win the Rookie of the Year award this season. She started the year with a third, followed by two second place finishes. But every time she got close to winning, someone was playing just a little bit better. Still, it looked like just a matter of time until a win would be hers.
Then the Incident happened. The place was Singapore’s airport, as she was arriving to participate in that week’s LPGA tournament, the HSBC Champions. As she rode down the escalator, from above, the father of another Korean golfer, Ha Na Jang, lost control of a piece of luggage. It tumbled down the escalator, striking Chun in the lower back. The resulting injuries sidelined In Gee for nearly a month and three straight events. To complicate things further, who should happen to win that week but Jang! And this came at a time when both golfers were intensely trying to qualify for the Olympics; in fact, Jang’s win put her on the team for the moment, knocking Chun off of it.
The Korean internet went into a tizzy. Chun’s fans were up in arms about what they perceived as insufficient apologies on the part of the Jang family, and when Ha Na did one of her victory dances at the end of the HSBC, that was seen by many as insensitive to Chun.
In Gee eventually recovered enough to play, and in her first tournament back, the year’s first Major, the ANA Inspiration, finished second. But the media craziness began to take a toll on both players, driving Ha Na Jang into virtual seclusion for several months as she dealt with sleeplessness and anxiety. In Gee, meanwhile, did not seem to be quite the same player she had been before. Although she notched a few more good finishes here and there, her momentum has stalled. And she still struggled, even up to the Evian, with soreness from the injury.
Though you wouldn’t know it given her ebullient exterior, Chun became depressed. “It was an inner struggle,” Chun said after winning the Evian. “I just had to keep it quiet inside, but I had to go through all those hard times, not being able to mention anything about my injury and my hurt and pain.”
She struggled in the summer to an unimpressive finish at the year’s second Major, the KPMG. But she really hit the wall when she missed the cut at the US Women’s Open in July. She had been looking forward to defending this title all year, and finishing as she did was a crushing disappointment to her. Fortunately she still managed to hang on to the final spot on the Olympic team, which was decided at the conclusion of the Open.
It was in Rio that things finally started to turn around for Chun. She found herself tied for fifth after three rounds with a legitimate chance for a medal. Alas, she did not have a good final round and finished tied for 13th. But her teammate Inbee Park won the gold, and watching a woman with whom she had spent a lot of time in Rio win the top prize galvanized her and inspired her anew.
Her very next tournament, the Canadian Women’s Open, proved a good one. In Gee played great, shooting 68-67-66 in the first three rounds to put herself into the final group on Sunday. Alas, Thai star Ariya Jutanugarn was playing even better, and won rather handily, but In Gee produced a third place finish, her sixth top three of the year.
Her next event, the Manulife, marked her third top ten in a row, an 8th. She had three more rounds in the 60s there.
And so In Gee came into the final Major of the year on a bit of a roll. She would be tested right away: in the first two rounds, she would be paired with Ariya Jutanugarn, who had beaten her just a few weeks earlier in Canada. The weather was another test: rainy and at times cold, the kind of conditions that would exacerbate her back issues.
But right out of the gate, Chun played magnificently. While Ariya struggled in an up and down performance, Chun started with two birdies in her first four holes. She stayed at that level for a while, but when she made the turn and played the front nine (she had started on ten), she caught fire. She made birdies on 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7, then wrapped it up with yet another birdie on 9. A six under par back nine, and an 8 under par 63. She hit every single green on the day, and made no mistakes. After the morning was done, she held a three shot lead.
In the afternoon, a player who looked to be one of In Gee’s biggest threats started her week. Sung Hyun Park had already won 7 times on the Korean tour in 2016, had managed two top tens in previous LPGA Majors, and had just set the all time record for most money earned in a single season in Korea. She was on an epic roll, and she continued it by shooting a 63 of her own to match In Gee.
Park played in the morning on Friday and continued her torrid pace. She shot a 3 under par 68 to move to 11 under and set a target for Chun. In Gee had a few problems early, including her first bogey of the week, and she actually missed a few greens. But she soon righted the ship, ripped off a bunch of birdies, and produced a 5 under par 66 to move to 13 under and a two shot lead. That set up the clash all of Korea was waiting for: the 2015 KLPGA Player of the Year vs. the almost certain 2016 Player of the Year, mano-a-mano in the final group on Saturday.
They did not disappoint: on Saturday, in soggy conditions, the two stars played great. In Gee held onto the lead tenaciously, but faced her biggest test of the week on the 9th hole when her second shot flew into an unplayable lie in the woods. She decided to hit her next shot from the same spot, and somehow managed to eke out a double bogey. But now the gap had closed, and Park was in good position to take over the lead.
It was not to be. Like the champion she is, In Gee made a birdie on 11, another on 13, then chipped in for eagle on the par 5 15th hole. After another birdie on 16, In Gee had produced a 65, an even better round than on Friday. Park had played well and still lost two shots to Chun.
In Gee sat at 19 under par, the all time lowest third round score in a Major in LPGA history. In fact, 19 under would tie the all time 72 hole record, so if Chun just broke par on Sunday, she would break that record. And the men’s record of 20 under par sat ready for the taking as well.
But In Gee’s main concern was to win, and with a four shot cushion over her rival Park, she was certainly in a great place to do just that. Sunday, however, started with absolutely miserable weather. The rain was pouring down, and the second green got so bad that the grounds crew had to squeegee the greens before every putt to remove some of the water. In those conditions, it became more imperative than ever to hit fairways and greens.
Alas, In Gee started out by putting her first drive in the rough, while Sung Hyun Park hit a perfect drive down the middle. In Gee rose to this first challenge, first by punching her ball out into the fairway, then by hitting her third shot to within a few feet for a par save. Meanwhile, Park overshot the green and wound up with bogey. What could have been a disaster for In Gee was anything but.
The final group waited nearly a half an hour on the second tee for their chance to go. Again, patience was tested, but In Gee responded with an easy par. Park, however, made a birdie to climb back within four. Her tee shot landed next to the flag, where it embedded nearly entirely into the soaking wet green. No bouncing tee shots on that wet day!
In Gee continued to be solid on the front nine, making no bogies and two birdies to move to 21 under par. Park was far shakier, missing some birdie tries while making one more birdie and one more bogey. By the turn she was six shots back.
The tournament was all but completely in In Gee’s hands, and to make matters easier, the rain stopped and the wet weather jackets came off. So Yeon Ryu played really well, eventually shooting a 66, but even though she wound up tied for second, she still was too far back to really challenge. The only player who could take the tournament from In Gee now was Sung Hyun Park. In Gee hit some nice approaches on the back but just missed birdies, then made a bogey on 14. When Park hit her approach on the par 5 15th to eight feet and dunked the eagle, she moved to within three shots. For the briefest of moments, it seemed like In Gee might have some trouble.
But no sweat. In Gee made birdie on the same hole to move back to 21 under par and would eventually win by 4 shots. Now the only challenge remaining to her was historical: could she finish at 21 under and set the all time record?
It wasn’t easy. She hit her drive on the final hole into the rough, then briefly considered going for the green before her caddie talked her out of it. She hit her third shot to ten feet, and fought nerves on the walk to the green. She had to make the putt to set the record. Her caddie told her he would pay for dinner if she made it and, determined to get that free meal, she stepped up to the ball and drilled the final par to set the record.
In four days in France, In Gee Chun set all sorts of records. Not only was her 21 under par the lowest score against par ever achieved in a Major for either men or women, but her total number of strokes was also the lowest ever achieved in any women’s Major. And as mentioned before, she became only the second women in LPGA history, after Se Ri Pak, to make her first two wins at Majors.
The future looks bright for In Gee Chun, Korea’s Major Queen. Tres Magnifique!