Posted by: happyfan08 | May 13, 2020

2020 KLPGA Primer

It’s time once again for our annual preview of the coming KLPGA season, the 2020 KLPGA primer!

Needless to say, the Covid pandemic has had a major disruptive effect on the KLPGA, golf in general and all of sports in 2020. Large parts of the KLPGA season have already been canceled or postponed in response. But South Korea has handled the epidemic fairly well so far, and so they are ready to start tentatively playing KLPGA events again. Their first event will be the KLPGA Championship, starting on May 14th. It will be played without fans and with many safeguards in place. The event will feature several returning former KLPGA stars and will have a huge 3 billion won purse. Each player is guaranteed a check.

With the LPGA sidelined for a little while yet (and possibly longer depending on the pandemic situation in the States), it’s quite possible that this will become a new normal, with a few LPGA stars appearing regularly on the KLPGA for the interim. This no doubt will affect the full time KLPGA stars and the status of the post season races. But for now, let’s focus on the KLPGA full time players to watch in 2020.

Those Who Have Left

Each year, a couple of the big KLPGA stars leave the tour to try their luck elsewhere, but for once there were no major defections from the tour.

The Big Star – Hye Jin Choi

Hye Jin Choi established herself as a big name in 2018 when she won both the Player and the Rookie of the Year awards. The pressure was on the player they call Penguin to deliver in 2019, and she didn’t disappoint. Despite a great rookie class, and strong challenges from the likes of Ha Na Jang, Choi easily swept all the major awards last year. She earned a billion won in a season for the first time, topped the money list, had the low scoring average and won Player of the Year. She was even named Most Popular by the fans. She notched five wins including her first Major at the KLPGA Championship. Choi now has 9 career wins in just two seasons on tour. By every measure, she is the player to beat in 2020.

Choi is just 20, and if she can continue to play at the same level, look for her to potentially earn an LPGA tour card this year. She has already played two LPGA events in 2020, back in February in Australia. She came within just a shot of winning the Vic Open, making a massive Sunday run to fall just short of the winner Hee Young Park. She hasn’t played since, but since everyone will probably be a bit rusty thanks to the unexpected time off, she should be no worse off than anyone else.

The Wily Veteran

Ha Na Jang is the wild card on the KLPGA. She earned four wins on the LPGA in her time there, then suddenly returned to the KLPGA to be closer to her family. She re-established herself as a top KLPGA player with several wins in 2018, but in 2019 she was even better. First she won the Hana Financial, the event with the largest winner’s check of the year. Just a few weeks later, despite struggling with a nagging injury, she won the BMW Championship, the LPGA’s lone Korean event, defeating Danielle Kang in a playoff. This was her fifth career LPGA win, but she declined the LPGA tour card and decided to remain in Korea. The money also counted towards her KLPGA total, meaning Jang managed to earn over a billion won herself in 2019, barely behind Hye Jin Choi on the money list.

Jang finished second on the money list, second in scoring average, and fourth in Player of the Year points in 2019, with 13 top tens including three second place finishes and one third. If anyone is poised to rain on Choi’s parade in 2020, it is probably the Hanagizer.

Ji Hyun Oh – The Comeback Kid?

Ji Hyun Oh has had a slow and steady climb up the rankings since joining the tour in 2014. 2018 was her best year yet, and she seemed ready to explode in 2019. But it didn’t work out that way. She struggled with injuries, and, by her own admission, overconfidence. She finished just 35th on the money list, earning only 160 million won, and had just three top tens, with her best finish a third.

Can she make a comeback? She has said in interviews that she is injury free and ready to rock. She feels she has overcome her mental issues with the help of her coach, and her game is as strong as it’s ever been. More overconfidence? Given her track record, it would be best not to dismiss her!

Other Top Players

A few more players to watch who had strong 2019 seasons.

A Lim Kim

A Lim Kim is the longest hitter on the KLPGA tour, and she had a great year in 2019. She finished 11th on the money list with over 500 million won earned. She earned one win and had nine additional top tens. With her length and consistency, she seems destined to become a big name sooner or later.

Cecilia Cho

Cecilia Jeong Min Cho grew up as a rival of Lydia Ko in New Zealand, but has found her game playing on the KLPGA tour. In 2019, she earned nearly 700 million won, finishing 7th on the money list. She had two wins and three runner-up finishes.

Min Ji Park

Min Ji Park finished 8th on the tour money list in 2019 with 630 million won earned. Park joined the tour in 2017 and has gotten better and better. She managed 13 top tens last year, including a win, two seconds and two thirds.

Da Yeon Lee

Da Yeon Lee continues to shine on the KLPGA. In 2019 she finished third on the money list, with over 912 million won earned. She did that thanks to two wins, the more significant of which was the Korea Women’s Open, the most important event of the year. She had an additional three seconds and three thirds (including a second at the year’s final Major, the KB Star). She tends to fly a bit under the radar, but if she keeps up numbers like that, she won’t be obscure for long!

Some Popular Stars to Watch

Char Young Kim

Char Young Kim is one of the glamor women of the KLPGA tour. She has never been one of the very top players in Korea, but she usually finishes in the top 30 on the money list and occasionally does something amazing, like the time she beat Inbee Park in the finals of the match play event. This solid record, combined with her looks and style, make her a fan favorite. In 2019, she finished 28th on the money list, and though she didn’t win, she did come up with five top tens, including a second place.

Gyeol Park

Gyeol Park is another fan favorite who is swimming in big money endorsements. She had her first ever KLPGA win at the end of 2018, which led to a lucrative sponsorship deal as the face of Footjoy golf fashion. She did not follow that up with a great 2019, but she kept her card and notched two top tens. Park had one memorable achievement as an amateur, winning the Asian Games gold medal in women’s golf in 2014. So she’s shown at times that she’s more than a pretty face, and merits watching as a fashion star who could still break out into stardom on the course.

2019 Rookiemania

Other than Hye Jin Choi, the biggest story on the KLPGA in 2019 was the fantastic rookie class, many of whom were the first KLPGA golfers born in 2000. Most years, it’s impressive to have one rookie break 2000 rookie points for the season. In 2014, the year Jin Young Ko was a rookie, there were three. But in 2019, there were FIVE rookies who managed that feat. Four rookies claimed wins, and two of them finished in the top five on the money list.

The rookie class was so popular, they even earned a television series on one of the Golf Channels, featuring five of them in various wacky hijinks. The Rookie of the Year even earned a second solo show. Let’s learn more about them!

Ayean Cho

The top rookie of 2019, with an astounding 2780 rookie points, was Ayean Cho. That might very well be the highest rookie point total of all time, yet she still barely won the title, such was the level of competition. But ‘Iron’ Cho has shown that she is up to the challenge, and has the potential to become a mega star if she keeps it up.

Cho earned over 750 million won, finishing fifth on the money list. She claimed two titles, one of them in a playoff against superstar Hye Jin Choi. She also had a second, two thirds and 13 total top tens. And all that as a 19-year-old; Cho was born in June of 2000.

She lived for a while in New Zealand growing up, and is becoming so popular that she was even featured in a Korean television show this year covering her off-season training in that country.

Earlier this year, Cho played in three events down under, and contended in all three. In fact, she was in the final group on Sunday all three weeks. First came the LPGA’s Vic Open, where she collapsed on Sunday and finished outside the top ten. The following week, she was paired with none other than Inbee Park in the final group at the Women’s Australian Open. She struggled on Sunday again, but hung on for a tie for 6th finish. She then played an LET event, but though this time she had a good Sunday, an unexpected amateur ran away with the title; Cho finished second.

Of all the players on this list, she is the one with the most potential upside. Can she harness her nerves and long hitting and become a superstar? The signs are intriguing to say the least.

Hee Jeong Lim

Hee Jeong Lim was one of the youngest players on the KLPGA in 2019, born in September of 2000. But that didn’t stop her from excelling: her 2532 rookie points would have given her the top rookie honors almost any other year. She started her career strong with a 10th in her first ever event as a tour member, and a 4th just two tournaments later. But it wasn’t until the second half of the year that she really caught fire. From August to November, she won three tournaments, including the year’s final Major. She also managed a 6th place at the LPGA’s BMW Championship.

She wound up fourth on the money list, higher even than Ayean Cho, with over 875 million won earned. For good measure, she also played at the LPGA/KLPGA team event and went undefeated there as well. Among those she beat were Minjee Lee in singles. Imagine what Lim might accomplish when she turns 20!

Hyun Kyung Park

Ranked third in rookie points with 2068 despite not managing a win, Hyun Kyung Park has quickly become a huge fan favorite. She is a millennium baby, born in January of 2000. She earned over 300 million won in 2019, finishing 23rd on the money list. Her best result was a third. Park has talked about being friends with world #1 Jin Young Ko, another player who was somewhat overshadowed in her rookie year. She hopes to follow in Ko’s footsteps and have a break out sophomore year.

So Mi Lee

So Mi Lee finished 4th in the rookie race with 2061 points. She did not manage a win in 2019, but she still had a fantastic season, finishing 14th on the money list with 438 million won earned. She was in the final group on Sunday at the LPGA’s BMW Championship, but faded a bit and finished 4th. Still, that’s a fantastic finish for a KLPGA rookie barely out of her teens. The previous week, she finished 2nd at the Hite Cup, one of the KLPGA’s Majors.

Seung Yeon Lee

Seung Yeon Lee finished fifth in the rookie standings with 2025 points earned. Lee had a win early in the year, but was not as consistent as the other players in her class. She’s also a little older, born in 1998. Still, like the others on this list, she has attracted a lot of new fans, and showed her talent by contending seriously at the BMW Championship, the LPGA’s Korean event, before winding up 9th.

Ga Young Lee

Ga Young Lee did not earn 2000 rookie points in 2019, nor did she win an event, but she still had a good year, finishing 25th on the money list with 289 million won earned. She saved the best for last, just missing out on a win at the year’s final event, the ADT-CAPS.

This year’s Rookies

One incoming rookie has already won on tour: Hae Ran Ryu. Ryu played at first on the developmental Dream Tour, where she grabbed four wins in short order. She moved onto the KLPGA by August and promptly won at the Samdasoo Masters, her first event there. Though she didn’t win again in 2019, she did manage two more top tens. Born in March, 2001, she should be one of the rookies to beat in 2020.

A few other big names in the amateur ranks have recently turned pro, although none of them are yet on the KLPGA. They include:

Yae Eun Hong

Also known as Amy Hong, she turned pro at the end of 2019. She had an excellent amateur career which included winning the Australian Women’s Amateur. Still just 17 at the start of the year, she will be focusing on the Symetra Tour in the US for now.

Uh Jin Seo was born in November of 2001 and turned pro in March. She has already snapped up deals with Hite and Titleist. She was another big star on the Korean National team; among her achievements was leading her team to an overwhelming victory at the 2019 Queen Sirikit Cup (also on that team was another new pro: Ye Been Sohn (born January, 2002) – those two finished 1-2 in the individual standings at Queen Sirikit as well as leading their team to a massive victory).

Seo will start on the Jump Tour in May, but expect to see her occasionally on the KLPGA. Sohn, meanwhile, has signed a big deal with Nike Golf for three years. Nike only rarely acts as a primary sponsor on the KLPGA, so they must see big things in this teenager’s future.

Uhjin Seo

Ye Been Sohn

As for genuine KLPGA rookies, look out for Se Lin Hyun (born March, 2001) and Jae Yoon Lee (born August, 2000), who focused on the Dream Tour last year. Hye Lim Jo (born March, 2001) managed an 11th place finish in her first KLPGA start as a rookie last December, and currently co-leads the Rookie standings as the season starts in earnest. It’s hard to know which (if any) of these players will stand out in the coming months, as none of them were as high profile as amateurs as the above players currently on the Dream Tour.

Jae Yoon Lee

Rookie of the Year

And the Winner Is: Jeongeun Lee6

There were three rookies that I strongly considered for this award: Jeongeun Lee6 was the Rookie of the Year on the LPGA tour; Ayean Cho was the Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA; and Hee Jeong Lim finished second in the Rookie race on the Korean tour.

Below: LPGA Top Rookie Lee6 vs. KLPGA Top Rookie Ayean Cho at the 2019 LPGA vs. KLPGA team event

In the end, it wasn’t much of a contest. Lee6 actually played Cho in singles at the OrangeLife Champions Trophy, the annual LPGA vs. KLPGA tournament. And just like she easily beat Cho in that event, Lee6 convincingly won our award for Korean Rookie of the Year.

Lucky Six (as she is known) came into the season with a gaudy record: twice the top player on the KLPGA money list, twice the top scoring average, and the only player to break 70 twice in league history for season scoring average. She had two top tens in LPGA Majors before joining the tour, and won the LPGA Q-Series in 2018.

Still, in 2019 she managed to surpass even the expectations placed on her based on that record. Yes, she had only one win in 2019 compared to two for Cho and three for Lim. But she had to get used to travel, language, new cuisine, and loneliness as she played all over the world. And as she did that, she time and again put up great results.

Here are some of her notable achievements:

  • She became one of the only Koreans to ever break $2 million in LPGA season earnings, and did it as a rookie, which is even rarer.
  • She won the most important women’s golf event in the world, the US Women’s Open.
  • She notched three other second place finishes and six other top tens for a total of 10 top tens. Among those top tens were a tie for 6th at the ANA Inspiration and a tie for 9th at the British Women’s Open. This allowed her to finish second to Jin Young Ko in the Annika Majors award race.
  • She had a scoring average of 69.74, good for 6th in the league.
  • She finished third in Player of the Year points.
  • She got as high as third in the world rankings and finished the year in 7th.
  • She started the season with 7 straight top twenties, missing just two cuts all year. Other than those missed cuts, her worst finish was a tie for 33rd.
  • She was 6th in birdies, 5th in rounds under par, and third on the money list.
  • Her rookie total of 1,438 points was over 800 points ahead of the second ranked rookie.

Jeongeun finished the year giving her Rookie of the Year award speech in English, a language she could barely speak a few words in just a year earlier. The determination with which she tackled that challenge is typical of the way she embraced all challenges she faced this year. For all these reasons, she has earned our Rookie of the Year award!

Other Nominees:
Ayean Cho + entire KLPGA rookie class

The KLPGA Rookie Class of 2019 was one of the most impressive in the history of the league. Four rookies – Ayean Cho, Hee Jeong Lim, Seung Yeon Lee and Kyo Rin Park – managed wins during the season, while So Mi Lee, Hyun Kyung Park and Ga Young Lee all came close.

In the end Ayean Cho won the Rookie of the Year award after leading pretty much wire to wire, but even with one of the highest point totals ever amassed, she still found herself in an epic struggle with Lim right until the last event of the year. Just as impressive, *five* rookies managed to break 2000 rookie-of-the-year points, a feat never even approached before in history.

It’s arguable which of the top two KLPGA rookies was most impressive. Cho was more consistent than Lim and won the top Rookie award. She also led Lim in scoring average by half a stroke, a fairly impressive margin. But Lim edged Cho in Player of the Year points and money list total (Lim was 4th, Cho 5th).  In the money race, Lim was helped a lot that the BMW Championship, the LPGA’s Korean event, this year counted for official KLPGA money; it normally does not. Lim had a good week at that tournament, and Cho did not, and that event is worth a ton of cash to top finishers. More importantly, Lim had three wins including a Major, while Cho had two.

Though they were close in so many of these statistics, we’ll give Ayean the edge for actually winning the Rookie of the Year award, with a strong tip of the cap to Lim for a well fought campaign. It should be a great sophomore season for this fantastic class of young future stars!

Most Improved Player

And the Winner Is: MJ Hur

Mi Jung ‘MJ’ Hur has been on the LPGA tour since she was a teenager in 2009. She has always been a solid golfer during that eleven-year span, managing two wins spaced five years apart in 2009 and 2014.

Last year, Hur got married, and traveling with her husband seems to have put her into a really good place. 2019 proved to be the best season of her career and a marked improvement over 2018. Thus, she wins our award for Most Improved Player.

2018 was in fact a fairly weak season for Hur. She made only $118,785, which left her 97th on the money list. Her best finish the entire season was a 21st. She might have been seriously considering retirement after those results.

But in 2019, she roared back in a major way. Firstly, she managed her third win, five years after her second, just as her second had been five years after her first. That win came at the Scottish Open. But just a few weeks later, she won again at the Indy Women in Tech Championship. She had never before had a two-win season.

On top of those victories, she managed four other top tens and missed just two cuts all year. She earned over a million dollars for the year, nearly a quarter of her entire career earnings, and was 14th on the LPGA money list. She was also one of the best putters in the league: 2nd in putts per green in regulation at 1.73, and 6th in putting at 29.03.

What a fantastic comeback year for the amazing veteran MJ Hur!

Other nominees:
Jin Young Ko

I very nearly gave this award to Jin Young Ko. She was one of the five best Koreans in the world in 2018 and won the Rookie of the Year award. But 2019 was still a massive improvement for her, as she became the uncontested best player in the world, won two Majors, and swept just about every award you can name. But we will be talking about Jin Young a little more next…

Player of the Year

And the Winner Is: Jin Young Ko

Hye Jin Choi had a really good season on the KLPGA: five wins including her first Major, swept all the awards (even Most Popular!), and broke a billion won for the season. And yet it wasn’t even a close contest: clearly, the Player of the Year among the Koreans was the player who did much the same thing, and more, on the LPGA: Jin Young Ko.

Below: LPGA Player of the Year Jin Young Ko and KLPGA Player of the Year Hye Jin Choi also met at the KLPGA/LPGA team event

Jin Young Ko started the year brilliantly by nearly defending her title at the Australian Women’s Open. She went from strength to strength after that. She almost won the HSBC Champions, then did win, convincingly, at the Founders Cup for her third career win. Little did we know what was in store…

The next week she finished tied for 2nd at the Kia Classic, then took her first Major victory at the ANA Inspiration. And just like that, Jin Young had risen from 10th in the world to #1 for the first time in her career.

Ko cooled off a little after that, eventually dropping out of the top spot in the world rankings, but still her play was fine: her worst finish during that stretch was a tie for 23rd. But in late July, now #2 in the world, she rebounded, teaming with Minjee Lee to finish 2nd at the Dow Great Lakes Team event, then capturing her second Major of the season at the Evian, taking advantage of a late mistake by Hyo Joo Kim.

She very nearly won her third Major just a week later but had to settle for third place. Still, she was #1 again and would not relinquish that ranking the rest of the year. And she claimed the Annika award for Best Performance in the Majors. It would not be her last award of the year.

The British started the most auspicious run of form she had all year. She made no bogies the final two rounds, then went all four rounds bogey-free at the Canadian Women’s Open, stretching her bogeyless streak to 106 holes. In the process, she claimed a dominating win at the Canadian, her fourth of the year. Eventually her bogey-free streak ended at 114 holes, beating Tiger Woods’ (and the PGA’s) career best streak by four holes.

During October, Ko returned to Korea and won the Hite Jinro Championship, a Major on the KLPGA tour and coincidentally her sponsor’s tournament.

Jin Young struggled a bit with injuries the final few events of the year, but she still managed some heady results. Here is a list of her accomplishments in 2019:

  • Her scoring average at one point was well under 69 and approaching the LPGA’s all-time best official scoring average set by Annika Sorenstam. Injuries hampered Ko’s efforts to break that record, but her eventual total of 69.06 not only secured her the Vare Trophy, it also was the lowest scoring average ever by a Korean (and second lowest of all time behind just Sorenstam).
  • Her money total of $2,773,894 was the highest ever achieved by a Korean (other than Lydia Ko, who had a slightly higher total in 2015 representing New Zealand). Of course she also led the tour money list.
  • She also easily won the Player of the Year award, crushing her nearest competitor with four events left to play in the season.
  • Ko became the first Korean to ever sweep all the major season-ending awards while also being #1 in the world.
  • She led the Greens in Regulation stat with 79.56%, the highest in history (sensing a trend?)
  • She was 9th in driving accuracy and 5th in putts per greens in regulation. She does EVERYTHING well.
  • She also won the award for most top tens and for most CME points.

As if that weren’t enough, she has become quite conversant in English and has started her own YouTube channel where she publishes videos about her tour life in English and Korean. At tournaments, she has consistently surprised people with her charming and funny comments, such as the time she suddenly confessed to having a crush on the men’s world #1 Brooks Koepka. She’s not only more talented than anyone in the world, she’s also more fun.

Below: Jin Young Ko with her many post-season awards

Oh, and when she met Hye Jin Choi at the LPGA/KLPGA team event in singles, she easily beat her, for what it’s worth (not a deciding factor in their competition here, but an interesting factoid nonetheless!).

For all these reasons, 2019 was the year of Jin Young Ko. Congratulations on another award for the virtual shelf: the Seoul Sisters.com Player of the Year!

Other Nominees:
Hye Jin Choi

Most other years, Hye Jin Choi would have been the easy choice for Player of the Year. She was actually not as consistent as she was in 2018, and her scoring average was notably worse. There were several stretches where she didn’t play all that well, and she didn’t have any really notable results in any of her LPGA tournaments in 2019.

None of that matters, because she STILL was able to sweep ALL six awards she was eligible for on the KLPGA tour. She won Player of the Year by a convincing margin over Min Ji Park, held off a surging Ha Na Jang to top the money list and break a billion won for the first time in her career, and led the scoring average with an admittedly worse average than she had had in 2018. She also had the most wins on tour; was chosen the Best Player by the Golf Writers in Korea; and was even voted Most Popular by the fans!

The 20-year old won five tournaments in 2019. It is pretty rare that a player wins that many events on the KLPGA in a season. Her first win came at the KLPGA Championship, her first career Major, and she followed that with a win at her next event, the NH Financial. Besides the wins, she had 8 other top tens, including two runner-up finishes and a third. Her career win total now stands at nine; in just two years on tour, she already ranks with some of the KLPGA’s greatest former stars!

Choi has said she hopes to join the LPGA in 2021, so next season will be the last chance the hot shots on tour have to knock her off her pedestal. Best of luck to them, they’ll need it!

Best Amateur

And the Winner Is: Yae Eun ‘Amy’ Hong

Yae Eun Hong had a very solid year on the golf course. One of her biggest highlights came early, when she won the Australian Women’s Amateur in January. She was the third straight Korean to claim this title. She was low amateur at the Vic Open, an LPGA tournament, shortly thereafter.

In April, she contended at the Women’s Amateur Asia Pacific Golf Championship before winding up 4th. She also played a bunch of KLPGA events and one JLPGA event. She was low amateur at the JLPGA event for the first few rounds, but in the final round was passed by Yuka Yasuda. Still, her 12th place finish was quite good.

Hong turned pro at the end of 2019 and will be a rookie on the KLPGA next year!

Other nominees:
Uhjin Seo

This amateur had a bunch of great finishes in 2019 and will continue to challenge the world’s best as an amateur in 2020.

She started the year by winning individual honors at the Queen Sirikit Cup, an annual team competition that features teams from several Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand. She led a 1-2-3 sweep of the individual standings by Korea, as well as helping them to win the team title.

Among some other achievements: second at the Taiwan Amateur Championship, 12th at the KLPGA’s KG EDaily Ladies Open, and a win at the National Sports Festival.

Jeong Hyun Lee

Jeong Hyun Lee was one of the members of the Korean squad at this year’s edition of the Spirit International. This is a biennial amateur tournament where countries send teams of players to compete against each other. There are both male and female competitions as well as a combined title.

Lee helped lead the Koreans to the women’s team title. She also won the individual women’s title, making more birdies than any other woman and all but one of the men.

Oh, did I mention that she is 12 YEARS OLD?

Lee has been quietly collecting accolades all year. She had three top three finishes at top junior amateur events in the Fall in Korea, finished 48th at the Seokyung Open on the KLPGA, and was 7th at the Korean Women’s Amateur. Her hero is LPGA star In Gee Chun.

Watch out for this girl! She could be the second coming of Lydia Ko!

Best Hot Streak

And the Winner Is: Jin Young Ko’s 114 bogey-free holes

Jin Young Ko did some amazing things in 2019, but perhaps the most incredible was her stretch of 114 straight holes without a bogey. The streak started during round 2 at the AIG British Women’s Open. She played the final two rounds bogey-free, then went through the entire Canadian Women’s Open without a bogey, the first LPGA golfer to win a tournament without making a bogey since Inbee Park in 2015.

She made it all the way to the ninth hole during the first round of the Cambia Portland Classic before she finally made a bogey, ironically by missing a rather short par save on the 9th hole.

Golf writers looked through the records and could not find a longer bogey-free streak (although admittedly, this is not a record that people carefully kept). The closest they could find was 110 straight bogey-free holes by Tiger Woods in 2000. Jin Young beating a record held by Tiger was big news indeed!

One commentator on Golf Channel dismissed it as a relatively unimportant achievement, implying that it was somewhat easier to do that than, say, a streak of not missing cuts or top ten finishes. I disagree. In those kinds of streaks, a player can make a mistake here and there and still keep the streak going. As well, there will be many events during those streaks where things are going so well that there is no pressure at all (for instance, the player is ten shots above the cut line, so there is no pressure that week). In a bogey-free streak, there is pressure on every single hole, almost every single shot, every single time a player tees it up. One bad shot could end it. No wonder Jin Young seemed more relieved than annoyed after the streak ended!

Best Victory Celebration/Tradition

And the Winner Is: The Indy Women in Tech Championship

This event is ending after three years, which is sort of a pity, because it has some very interesting aspects. For instance, the final four holes are played in the field in the middle of the Indianapolis 500 racetrack. I had no idea there was even a golf course in there!

The event also had some really interesting victory celebrations, some based on the ones the racers did following a victory. For instance, the winner drinks a little milk, after which she dumps the rest on her head! She also bends down and kisses the bricks at the finish line. And she gets a chance to take a literal victory lap in a race car.

Here’s this year’s winner, MJ Hur, taking part in those celebrations.

Rookie to Watch in 2020

And the Winner Is: Yealimi Noh

Last year, I chose as my rookie to watch Jeongeun Lee6. It was a no-brainer choice, to be honest: she was clearly the class of the rookie field. Still, as I’ve detailed elsewhere in these awards, it’s amazing how ignored she was compared to several other rookies.

Anyways, I wrote:

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 this year.

Final result: Jeongeun Lee6 doubled the point total of her nearest rival in the rookie race. It was an utter blowout.

The Koreans have won the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year race the past five years, but all things come to an end, and I predict that the few Korean rookies on tour in 2020 will not be able to keep that streak alive. Unlike Lee6, next year’s Korean rookies are decent college players with little pro experience, not the types I expect great things from, at least right away.

Fortunately, there is one really interesting American of Korean ethnicity coming onto tour next year, Yealimi Noh; the teen star is my Rookie to watch in 2020.

Noh is obviously talented and is bursting with the kind of star power that the LPGA dreams about. The Koreans have already noticed, showering her with lucrative sponsorships the minute she turned pro early in 2019. She spent much of 2019 playing in events through Monday qualifying and sponsor’s exemptions. She wasn’t consistent, missing several cuts in the process, but she also managed a few great weeks as well. She put herself into contention at the LPGA’s Thornberry Classic, notching a top ten. But it was at the Cambia Classic in late August where she really made noise. At that event, she led much of the weekend, but stumbled late and finished second. Still, she showed a surprising amount of short game prowess for one so young, and coupled with her sheer power, it makes her a definite threat for 2020.

I suspect that she will have some struggles next season. She is coming straight out of high school to go into the pro ranks, without any college golf or significant professional experience to fall back on. She will have her poor weeks. But as she has shown the past two years, when she is on her game, she is explosive in a way none of the other rookies have yet shown they can be. She will have a few great results, perhaps even a win or two, and if so, Rookie of the Year is a strong possibility indeed.

Other Nominee:
Yae Eun ‘Amy’ Hong

Last year, I also predicted great things for Ayean Cho, who went on to win the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year race. This year the KLPGA It Girl going into the season seems to be Yae Eun Hong. Hong has not had the level of success previous to her rookie season that Cho did, so I’m going to be a little more cautious about her and not predict 100% that she will win the Rookie crown. She also has at least one great rival we know about, Hae Ran Ryu, who has already won on the KLPGA. But I suspect Hong will do quite well and get noticed. She has tons of star quality, kind of like the Yealimi Noh of the KLPGA (as it turns out, they are friends!). It will be fun to follow her progress!

It’s About Time Award

And the Winner Is: Song Yi Ahn wins at ADT Caps

Song Yi Ahn has been a mainstay on the KLPGA for ten seasons. She has played well over the years, but though she had come close to winning several times, she was never able to get a trophy.

Finally, at the ADT Caps Championship, the final event of the 2019 KLPGA season, Ahn broke through and got her first win. It was an emotional moment for the longtime pro. Old friend In Gee Chun was following in the gallery, and even she broke down and cried.

Congratulations to Song Yi Ahn, and here’s hoping she doesn’t need ten more seasons to get her second win!

Round of the Year

And the Winner Is: Minjee Lee + Jin Young Ko team to shoot 58, final round, Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational

When the teams were announced for the LPGA’s first team event, one of the most impressive paired world #2 Jin Young Ko and world #3 Minjee Lee. They called the team ‘Holy Ko-Lee’.

Most expected the team to contend for the title, and though they only finished second, they still managed one unforgettable round in the process. That came on the final day, when ‘The Minjee’ (as Ko comically referred to her) and Jin Young combined to shoot 58, the first such score in the history of the LPGA. Yes, it was a pair and not an individual who did it, but it was still impressive and showcased the two young superstars to awesome effect.

Other Nominees:
Jin Young Ko, final round, ISPS Handa Australian Women’s Open

Jin Young was defending her Australian Women’s Open crown this year. She shot a final round 64 to almost catch Nelly Korda, but in the end just missed out on the successful defense.

Sung Hyun Park final round 64 to catch and beat Jin Young and Minjee at HSBC

Park’s final round at the HSBC allowed her to win that important event, in the process catching and beating two of her top rivals, Jin Young Ko and Minjee Lee. It was inarguably the best round Namdalla produced in 2019.

Jeongeun Lee6, first round 63, ShopRite Classic

Just a few days after her US Women’s Open win, Lee6 was feeling it. She produced a first round 63 at the ShopRite Classic. She would be in the hunt for this title right until the end, when Lexi Thompson made an eagle on the final hole to beat her by a shot.

MJ Hur, round 2, Scottish Open (62)

MJ Hur’s second round at the Scottish Open helped her to get the eventual win there.

Sei Young Kim, round 2, Cambia Portland Classic – 61

Sei Young Kim didn’t have that great a week in Portland this year, with one exception: she shot a phenomenal 11-under par 61 in the second round, the all-time lowest score ever shot in the long running tournament.

Ji Hyun Kim, rd 1, KLPGA’s All For You Renoma Championship, 61

Ji Hyun Kim made 11 birdies in the first round of the All For You Renoma Championship. She would go on to lose the tournament in a playoff to rookie Hee Jeong Lim.

Most Controversial Moment

And the Winner Is: Hank Haney comments during US Women’s Open

Really, the winner of this category and the next one (‘Biggest Diss’) could qualify for either category, so I arbitrarily decided to make this one most controversial and the other the Biggest Diss. But make no mistake: Haney’s comments were most certainly a diss to women’s golf and the Koreans in particular.

Hank Haney is mostly known for being one of Tiger Woods’ early coaches. He has parlayed that into a career that includes hosting a podcast where he pawns himself off as an expert on golf.

The week of the US Women’s Open, he decided it was a good idea to crap all over professional women golfers. Don’t let any Haney apologists fool you: Haney was clearly looking to say things that would irritate or infuriate anyone who loves women’s golf. And like most bullies, when the blowback was worse than he anticipated, he claimed he was being unfairly victimized. He did not deserve any sympathy.

Below: Haney and his co-host during their podcast

Haney and his goonish co-host started by claiming that they were not aware that the Open was being played that week and knew nothing about where it was being played. If true, Haney should immediately have been fired from his job for being too ignorant to be an ‘expert’ on golf; if you don’t even know simple facts about the most important women’s golf event in the world, you cannot reasonably claim to be an expert on the sport. More likely, those comments were their simpleton way to beat up on the women for a few very cheap laughs. Doubling down, he then claimed that he only could name two or three women pros anyways. Again, if true, an automatic disqualifier as an expert.

The worst was yet to come. What would attacking the women be like without dumping on the Koreans? He scoffed that the league was just a bunch of Koreans, and that the event would be won by ‘someone named Lee’. In other words, to him they were a group of interchangeable anonymous faces that he couldn’t tell apart and couldn’t be bothered to try. The idea of Asians all looking alike is a particularly horrible racist trope.

Of course, what happened was that a Korean named Lee DID win the Open, which meant that among the thousands of well wishes for Jeongeun Lee on the internet after her win were an alarmingly large number of idiots crowing about how Haney was ‘right’ and, amazingly, that those who criticized him should apologize to him (!). It was inexcusable that the wonderful Miss Lee, achieving the greatest feat of her career, should be forced to share the spotlight with all of this ill-considered swill.

Below: the overjoyed woman below should have been the ONLY story coming out of Charleston this year

And of course, the idiots were wrong. Haney gets NO points for simply guessing a Korean would win; that had happened five times in the previous eight years. And the name Lee is fairly common in Korea, so if you are going to guess that a Korean would win, it’s one of the names you would suggest. I think it highly unlikely he had even heard of Jeongeun Lee6 before she actually won. And of course, the main reason not to give him credit is that he obviously meant his comments to be hurtful and dismissive, not predictive.  It’s so obvious this is true that you can only conclude that Haney’s defenders are being as purposely obtuse and trollish as Haney himself.

That’s all I want to say about this nitwit ever again.

Other nominees:
Rule change: Flags now allowed in the hole all the time

Before 2019, golf rules stipulated that you needed to remove the flag from the hole before putting while on the green. This rule was changed in 2019 to allow a player to putt with the flag in. The idea was to speed up the game and remove needless penalties. But almost immediately, at the ANA Inspiration, Jin Young Ko kept the flag in almost all the time, winning the very first Major contested in 2019 while taking advantage of this rule. Some thought it gave her an unfair edge, but the fact is, there are many rules in golf that give unfair advantages to some over others. Everyone was allowed to do the same thing; it just so happened that in Ko’s case, it was the way she felt most comfortable.  That’s the way the ball rolls!

Aon Risk Reward Challenge: players dropping out to preserve lead?

The Aon Risk-Reward challenge was a new bonus program on the LPGA in 2019. Each event, one hole would be singled out as the ‘risk/reward’ hole. Players would have their scores on that hole recorded, and a leaderboard developed over the season, with the top players being the ones who had the best overall results on those specific holes. The top of that leaderboard at the end of the year stood to earn a 1 million dollar bonus.

There were several issues with this contest. One was that it seemed pretty arbitrary at times which hole was chosen as the special one; players didn’t seem to change their approach on the hole because frankly there usually was no compelling risk/reward scenario there.  Another issue was that it was pretty impossible to follow who was leading and why. We more or less knew who the top five or so were, but what they needed to do to move up in the standings each week and, more importantly, what they needed to do to avoid slipping, was sometimes unclear.

At other times, it was all too clear. Players would drop out of or skip tournaments and ‘coincidentally’ help maintain their good position in this contest. One particularly egregious example came when Lee-Anne Pace, who was leading the contest at the time, made a big number on the risk hole, then dropped out of the event due to ‘injury’ before the round became official. Thus, the big number was not factored in to her total and she maintained her lead.

Pace said, “I know what it looks like, but I can guarantee that’s not the case. It’s all legitimate.” But many still thought she was gaming the contest, which left a stink on the whole thing much of the rest of the year.

Biggest Diss

And the winner is: the ANWA takes eyes away from ANA

Without question, the biggest week in golf every year is the Masters. For the women, they have always just tried to get out of the way of the event, knowing they cannot possibly compete with it. For a while, the tradition has been for the LPGA to have its first Major, now called the ANA Inspiration, the week before the Masters. It isn’t ideal; this gives the winner of that event basically Sunday night to be the focus of news stories before the Masters completely takes over all golf media coverage Monday morning. But it basically worked for the LPGA.

Then, a few years ago, the folks at Augusta National — who run the Masters — decided to host an event called the Drive, Chip and Putt. This was a skills match divided into age groups played at Augusta National. The problem: they scheduled it the Sunday before the Masters, or, in other words, the same day as the final round of the ANA. This sucked some of the attention and media away from the ANA, but because Augusta is east coast and ANA is west coast, the two events did not occur at the same time at least, so the broadcasts didn’t interfere with each other.

In 2019, however, Augusta introduced another new event, and this one was FAR more problematic for the women: the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. This was a three round women’s amateur golf tournament, with the last round played on the famed course on the SATURDAY before the Masters. Now the media who covered golf, and specifically the one who focused on women’s golf, were asked to make a choice: cover the LPGA Major, or cover the women playing at Augusta National.  Having women play at the famous course for the first time ever was such a big story in their eyes that most felt they HAD to cover that to the detriment of the LPGA’s Major. As well, the top amateurs in the game had been usually invited to play at the ANA, but this year, most of them skipped it to play the ANWA instead. And of course, Augusta National did not include the LPGA in the decision-making process concerning this tournament, or even warn them that they might create such a thing.

It was a disaster for the LPGA, and it isn’t going to go away. So far, the LPGA has resisted moving the ANA, but it looks like they might have no choice.

Meanwhile, the ANWA has become such a big talking point in the women’s game that the commentators on LPGA broadcasts can’t shut up about it. Making it worse, the top two players at this year’s event happened to be two amateur favorites of the American golf media, and ever since, the amount of hype these women have received in broadcast after broadcast has been insane.

Let’s keep in mind that Jeongeun Lee 6, this year’s Rookie of the Year on the LPGA, had a brilliant record on the KLPGA, and also won Q-Series to earn her LPGA tour card. Where were the glowing previews of her arrival on the LPGA, the detailed biographies about her potential and proven ability? Those stories were not written over here. But the top two at the ANWA, Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi, received otherworldly plaudits almost constantly from the American golf press.  And their success at ANWA was almost always the first thing they mentioned.  You’d think they had been the first women to walk on the moon.

Especially Fassi. Keep in mind that Fassi did not win the ANWA, nor is she even American, she’s Mexican (the excuse the American press usually give for ignoring the Koreans is that the American media wants to focus on American golfers, so how do they explain the Fassi love?). The media seem convinced that she is literally the next savior of the LPGA. Here are some samples from earlier in the year:

Golfweek asked Suzy Whaley about Fassi, and she replied that “Fassi can single-handedly grow the game among Latinos, a segment of the population where golf struggles”. So according to Whaley, former world #1 Lorena Ochoa wasn’t able to do that, nor Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lopez, but Fassi alone can? To put it mildly, that is a bold statement.  Another way to describe it: a crazy one.  Karen Stupples, Golf Channel commentator, said Fassi has a ‘movie star quality’. Fassi’s caddie compared her to Tiger Woods (!) and believes she could dominate the tour. Stacy Lewis called her a ‘once in a generation talent’.

“This may sound weird,” said Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor. “I think Fassi was born to do this.” This article came out the same week that Fassi missed the cut at the LPGA tournament in Arkansas, where she went to college.  And yes, Estes-Taylor was correct: it DID sound weird indeed.

Now a reality check. While all this endless blather was going on, Fassi started her LPGA career with a decent tie for 12th, followed by a 34th, then a 48th. She then missed the next 7 cuts before managing a tie for 70th in her final event of the season.

The point is not whether Fassi is or will be good or even great, the point is that the second the American golf media see someone with some talent who isn’t Korean they get out of control with praise for her (‘once in a generation talent’). But if a Korean star comes over and does amazing things, crickets.

The ANWA is annoying because it allows a fawning golf media an excuse to give far too much credit to an organization (Augusta National)  hardly known for their forward thinking on women’s issues. Meanwhile, those guys help the amateurs only to badly hurt one of the women pros’ most important events, and they never even thought to involve the LPGA in this decision. And the media plays along by relentlessly promoting the event and giving too much importance to the result.

Other nominees:
Golf Channel LPGA broadcasts

The Golf Channel does show more LPGA coverage than they used to, but they still show far too many on tape delay, and far too often skimp on the hours of coverage.

Example: they delayed the BMW Championship broadcast nearly a full day; then they cut out most of the regulation action to show the entire playoff in the small window they had. Then, they cut down that small amount of coverage even further, ending it a full hour early.  Why? To show even more of Golf Central talking about Tiger Woods winning a tournament. Not to actually show the tournament, just to talk about it. The LPGA should be REALLY pissed about that move; I know I am.

Mike Whan Disses his Number One Player

LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan is in a frustrating position: he has done wonders to keep the tour viable in the States, but feels he still has relatively few chances to showcase his tour here.  Other than the five Majors, the women almost never show up on network TV, and few casual fans saunter over to the Golf Channel and turn into LPGA fanatics.

But in June, he was interviewed in Golfweek magazine about the perpetual money gap between the earnings on the women’s and men’s tours, and seemed to partially lay the blame at the feet of the Koreans. He usually does not do this, so it was a bit startling. “Does it (the popularity gap) frustrate me? Virtually every minute of every day” he said. He then took the responsibility for finding the answer. OK, so far so good. But then came this:

“If you gave me 39 weekends a year, I promise you I could make you love Jin Young Ko. You’re going to get to know her story and swing. You see her five times a year, she’s just a name I can’t pronounce. That’s a shame.”

It is a shame, but not for the reason Whan thinks. He just laid the blame, intentionally or not, for the LPGA’s ratings woes at the feet of Ko. A name you can’t pronounce? WTF? Which part? ‘Jin’? ‘Ko’? Certainly not ‘Young’? And what’s this crap about ‘make you love’ her? Would he EVER say anything like this about blond Brooke Henderson?  The implication that you could only love Ko by forcing her down your unwilling throat is super insulting.

The irony is that Jin Young is an uber-charming number one player: engaging, pretty and really, really good. The LPGA has far worse problems than having her as the top player on tour. Whan really whiffed it this time.

Happiest News

And the Winner is: Bo Mee Lee got married

Bo Mee Lee is one of the biggest stars in Korean Women’s golf. The top player on the KLPGA in 2010, she later moved over to Japan, where for several years she was the dominant superstar there. She became so popular in Japan that she was even featured in non-golf programming like game shows, cooking shows and even cartoons. Barely a week went by without another magazine cover featuring Ms. Lee.

In November of 2018, she announced that she was dating actor Lee Hwan, the younger brother of the uber-popular actress Tae-Hee Kim. The groom (real name: Hyung Soo Kim) and bride announced their engagement in September of 2019, and tied the knot on December 28.

A bunch of popular golf stars participated in her bridal shower, including Jiyai Shin, Ha Neul Kim, and So Yeon Ryu.

Congratulations to the happy couple!

Most Touching Moment

And the Winner Is: Jeongeun Lee6’s Rookie of the Year speech

Lee 6 suspected for several months that she might win the Rookie of the Year award, and clinched it with at least five weeks left in the season. But even before that, she had been preparing for the acceptance speech she would have to give when she received her award at the year’s final event, the CME Group Tour Championship.

There was one tiny problem. Lee barely spoke English. But with grit and determination, she studied hard so that she not only could give the speech in English, but be perfectly articulate as well.

She succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Her English was amazingly good, and she received a standing ovation at the end. Her look of relief after finishing was one of my favorite moments of the year. See for yourself!

Jeongeun Lee6’s Rookie of the Year acceptance speech

Other nominees:
Lee6’s interpreter breaks down in tears

Left: Jeongeun Lee6’s manager Jennifer Kim takes notes during the Open’s trophy presentation

We’ve seen many players break down in tears after winning a big event, but how many times have you seen a player’s interpreter cry?

It happened at the US Women’s Open. While Jeongeun Lee6 was receiving her trophy, she was interviewed, with her manager Jennifer providing translation. After one question, Lee broke down and cried. Jennifer paused for several seconds, then admitted she was becoming weepy herself: ‘I’m just so proud of her’ she said while choking back tears.

Most Fashionable

The KLPGA and LPGA feature a lot of wonderful golf fashions every week. The players always find ways to be different and interesting. Here are a few of our favorite outfits from this season!

Ayean Cho favors black and white patterns. Here’s a nifty example:

KLPGA player Chae Eun Lee stood out in these vibrant pants and matching sleeves.

Char Young Kim is part of the “Master Bunny” family. This company spends a lot to showcase their fashion line on their ladies. Here’s a nice example from a 2019 photo shoot for the company:

Min Sun Kim is another Master Bunny

Of course, the most famous Master Bunny sponsoree does not play currently on the KLPGA, but always turns heads whenever she shows up as a sponsor’s exemption. Hyun Ju Yoo is her name.

Da Na Kim was back on the KLPGA in 2019. I liked this striped top:

Da Yeon Lee is not only one of the top players on the KLPGA, she also knows how to dress in cold weather.

Eun Jee Lee is an obscure KLPGA golfer who turned heads in 2019. She seems to favor skorts and shorts that are a little bit shorter than most players. Examples:

Ha Neul Kim is a long time Korean golf superstar. These days she usually plays in Japan.

Yoon Kyung Heo returned from a lengthy injury this season. Glad to have her back! She shows that it can be very easy being green, provided you match your colors well!

Everybody loves Jeongeun Lee6, the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year. Don’t you?  Below, her Lucky Six branded clothing has a wonderful repeating ‘6’ motif that works perfectly for her!

Ji Hyun Oh has a classy and graceful style that she expresses well with her Pearly Gates clothes. She didn’t have a great 2019 on the course, but was still killing it in the fashion stakes.

I especially love this skirt, one of my faves of the year. What is that pattern? Hieroglyphics?

Another all time star, So Yeon Ryu.  Her sock game is always A+.

So Hye Park is Nike’s gal on the KLPGA. I’m not sure what I think of this outfit, but it’s certainly unusual.

Youngin Chun was the youngest player on the LPGA in 2019. She likes snappy colors, and this outfit is a good example.

Yul Lin Hwang is a decent KLPGA player who often brings something different to the course. I could have picked several of her outfits, but I have to admit this skull shirt is so bada*s that it seemed liked a perfect way to finish our retrospective!

Best Playoff

And the Winner Is: Danielle Kang vs. Ha Na Jang, BMW Championship

Danielle Kang, the Korean American star, had a fantastic playoff battle against Ha Na Jang at the first edition of the new KLPGA/LPGA co-sanctioned event, the BMW Ladies Championship.

Halfway through the third round, this event was turning into a complete free for all. At that point, there were *12* players tied for the lead, with another dozen or so within two strokes. Among those players were Korean Major winners, KLPGA rookies, and many other Sisters besides. Even In Gee Chun, who had not played well most of the year, was poised to steal a win.

But in round 4, Danielle Kang put the hammer down. Kang had won the previous week in Shanghai and was looking to capture back-to-back wins. She went out strong on Sunday, and by a few holes after the turn, had a big lead and seemingly had put the win away. She cooled off at that point, but still was making pars and keeping everyone else at bay.

That’s when Ha Na Jang decided to make a run at the lead. She had a lucky break on the back nine when a shot she hit towards a tree bounced into a favorable lie. She took advantage with a birdie on that hole. She made a birdie on the 17th hole to tie Kang and after that forced a playoff.

Ha Na messed up on the first playoff hole, hitting a fairly poor long putt and leaving herself about twenty feet for par. But she made that putt to extend the playoff. Finally, on the third playoff hole, Jang striped a beautiful iron to three feet and made the birdie to claim the victory.

Ha Na’s win came just a few weeks after she had won on the KLPGA. Her victory at BMW is all the more amazing when you consider that she was dealing with a hairline fracture in her foot that had sidelined her right after that KLPGA win.

Alas, although she had been talking about possibly returning to the LPGA, she decided not to take the tour card that she had earned. We’ll have to wait to see Ha Na again regularly on tour, although I think we can expect her at least to play in many of the Majors going forward.

Other Nominees:
Sei Young Kim vs. Jeongeun Lee6, Mediheal Championship

British player Bronte Law got into the house at 7 under. Korean star Sei Young Kim seemed to be having trouble closing out the win.

Then, out of nowhere came the rookie superstar Jeongeun Lee6. She made an eagle at a par 5 to move to within two strokes, hit a great approach on 16 to make another birdie, then just missed a birdie on 17 to tie. Fortunately, the final hole was a par 5, and though she just missed an eagle for the win, she sank the birdie to tie Law.

Kim, meanwhile, was now one back, but still had the two par fives to play. She birdied one of them to tie the lead, but then, on the par 3 17th, she inexplicably aimed right at the flag. Had she put her tee shot in the middle of the green and made par, she almost certainly would have made birdie on the final par 5 to win. Instead, she went for the flag, wound up in the bunker, then hit a poor bunker shot and was lucky to escape with a bogey. She did birdie 18 to force the three way playoff.

Fortunately for Kim, she never loses playoffs. No kidding: she’s 4 for 4, and she won the Mediheal on the first playoff hole. But Law wouldn’t have long to wait for her trophy: she won the very next tournament, while Lee6 won the one right after that, which also happened to be the US Women’s Open. Longer wait than Law, but worth it!

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is: Sei Young Kim final putt of season, CME Group Tour Championship, for $1.5 million

We already mentioned Sei Young Kim’s win at the CME Group Tour Championship in our Clutch Performance of the Year award. But in terms of drama, her final winning putt at that event, which was also the final shot of the LPGA season by any Korean, is a fitting choice for Shot of the Year.

Kim came into the final hole tied for the lead, after having led the event most of the previous several days. A birdie there would give her the biggest check in women’s golf history; a par, and she was headed for a playoff.

She hit her approach a bit offline, and the ball settled about 25 feet from the green. It was not a putt she would have been expecting to make: it took a sharp turn as it fell towards the hole. Nonetheless, Kim stepped up to the putt and hit it absolutely perfectly: it died into the hole on its last roll, and the huge winner’s check was hers. It was literally a million dollar putt, as the second place prize was $480K.

Other Nominees:
Jeongeun Lee 6, 4th round, 11th hole tee shot, US Women’s Open

We’ll talk more about this awesome shot in our next category!

Lee6, third shot, 18th hole, final round, ANA Inspiration

Rookie star Jeongeun Lee6 had been hovering around a top ten at the year’s first Major all day. On the last hole, she hit her second shot just off the green, then chipped in for eagle. The shot moved her into an eventual tie for 6th, which also tied her with her main rookie rival Kristen Gillman.

Jin Young Ko, birdie, 17th hole, round 4, Evian Championship

Jin Young finally got into a position to win this event after longtime leader Hyo Joo Kim made a crushing triple bogey on the 14th hole. But Ko did not truly lock this one up until she made this lengthy birdie putt on 17. It was the final dagger to the heart of the field.

Mi Hyang Lee hole in one, third round, ANA Inspiration

Lee’s ace earned her a spot in the final group on Sunday and an eventual second place finish. But the best part about it was her hysterical scream of joy when it went in; it literally blew the microphone into the red. It was so memorable that the next day, she was featured in a clip watching the ace on playback with several kids.

Ha Na Jang hits ball to 6 inches on final hole, Hana Financial Group Championship

The Hana Bank was the biggest money event on the KLPGA this year. Ha Na Jang hit a superlative approach to less than a foot on the final hole, insuring her a birdie.

Meanwhile, Da Yeon Lee had just a few holes before possessed a three-shot lead. But she made a double bogey on 16 following a plugged lie, and with Jang’s certain birdie on 18, Lee needed a par to force a playoff. Alas, she missed a four-foot par saving putt by inches, and Jang walked off with the improbable victory and biggest winner’s check of the season.

Most Dramatic Hole

And the Winner Is: the 11th hole, US Women’s Open

The US Women’s Open was held this year at Charleston Country Club, home of a notorious par 3, the 11th hole. No less a PGA legend than Ben Hogan once said of it, “Your greens are beautiful, but what you need for that eleventh hole is about five sticks of dynamite”. The green has a massive slope in front of it, and another leading into a deep bunker on the left. Miss the green, and par was not only a challenge, but it also brought a large number potentially into the equation.

During the week, there was a thunderstorm. A lightning bolt shattered a tree near the 11th green. Beth Daniel joked that ‘even God can’t hit the 11th green’.

Not surprisingly, the hole proved pivotal at the Open. The eventual winner, rookie sensation Jeongeun Lee6, played it fantastically, making birdie there twice in the first three days. On Sunday, she came into the hole just a shot out of the lead. The flag was perched on the left near the death bunker. Lee boldly hit her tee shot right at it. It went slightly left and slightly short, rolling off a mound back towards the hole to within ten feet. She then drilled the birdie to take a share of the lead. It was hands down the bravest shot of the week and earned her a well-deserved victory.

Other Nominees:
Jin Young Ko, 9th hole, final round, Canadian Women’s Open

In the final round in Canada, Jin Young Ko was leading but still had not put the tournament away when she reached the par 5 9th. She missed her drive into the woods and was forced to take an unplayable. She dropped near the trees, then proceeded to nail her third shot to within a few feet of the hole, from where she made birdie. It was an insanely good shot from where she was, kept her bogey-free streak alive, and saved the tournament for her.

Cinderella of the Year

And the Winner is: Yealimi Noh

Normally I give this award to a player who had an amazing and unexpected breakthrough win. Yealimi Noh did not manage such a win in 2019, but her success was such that she has set herself up for a massive career.

At the start of the year, Noh was a teenage amateur who had managed some great victories during her career. Her most impressive win streak came in the summer of the previous year, when she ripped off, in successive weeks, wins at the Junior PGA Championship, the US Girls Junior and the Canadian Women’s Amateur. Based on this, she decided to skip college and turn pro. In February of 2019, she signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Hana Bank, who also sponsors several other top Korean female golf stars.

So even by the start of the year, she had already tried on the glass slipper as a worthy Cinderella. But her performance in a couple of LPGA events as a pro proved that she was more than worth the attention she was getting.

In July, she contended at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic, finishing tied for 6th at 23 under par. But it was a later LPGA appearance, at the Cambia Portland Classic, where she really thrilled the crowds. In round three, she shot a scintillating 64 to grab a three shot lead going into the final round. She struggled a lot on Sunday, but somehow held onto the lead most of the day anyways. Alas, at the very end of the round, Hannah Green managed to get her act together and cruise past Noh, who finished second. Still, it was a fabulous week for the teen.

She later finished third at Q-Series to earn her tour card for 2020. Look out for this rookie star!

Best Breakthrough

And the Winner Is: Hee Jeong Lim

Hee Jeong Lim was a rookie on the KLPGA in 2019. She did not win the Rookie of the Year; she was edged out by Ayean Cho, who was more consistent in 2019. In the spring and early summer, Lim managed an occasional top ten sprinkled among more pedestrian efforts. But starting in August, she caught fire. Her breakthrough win came at the High One Resort Women’s Open in late August. She followed that up with two more wins, including a Major, a second, a third, and several more top 15 finishes. She has really established herself as one to watch in 2020!

Great Performance that came up short

And the Winner Is: Hyo Joo Kim, Evian Championship

Hyo Joo Kim has three LPGA wins, including a Major, yet has always flown under the radar, mainly because she is a short hitter in a world that celebrates bombers. In 2019, she had a great season, notching 12 top tens (as many as world #1 Jin Young Ko) while finishing tenth on the money list and second in scoring average behind Ko. She was also first in putting average at 27.59 and first in putts per greens in regulation, a sizzling combo.

But despite all her success, wins eluded her. She had several chances this season, but always seemed to be outplayed when it counted most. Perhaps her best opportunity to get the win came at the Evian Championship, the Major she had previously won in 2014. Hyo Joo shot a third round 65 to take a one-shot lead over Sung Hyun Park, the world #1, going into the final round. On Sunday, she found herself paired with Park and the ANA Inspiration winner Jin Young Ko. Despite that daunting pairing, and in spite of not playing her best, Kim held on to her lead while Park imploded and Ko was not able to move ahead of her.

But Ko did hang close, and thus could take advantage when Kim had a disastrous triple bogey on the par 3 14th. Ko went on to grab her second Major of 2019, while Kim had to settle for a tie for 2nd.

Other Nominees:
Jin Young Ko, AIG Women’s British Open

Jin Young Ko had just the previous week won her second Major of the year and ascended to the number one spot in the world rankings. She had another great week in Britain, hoping to grab a third Major in 2019. But perhaps it was a bit too much to try to grab two Majors in two straight weeks. Though she played well, she only managed a third place.

Jin Young Ko, Australian Women’s Open

Jin Young had a great title defense early in the season in Australia. She shot a final round 64 to nearly steal the win away from American Nelly Korda, but Korda managed to hang on for the victory.

A zillion Koreans at the Kia Classic all just missed the win

Nasa Hataoka of Japan won the Kia Classic this year, but otherwise it was a fantastic week for the Koreans. Jin Young Ko, Sung Hyun Park and Inbee Park all tied for 2nd, three shots back, while Hyo Joo Kim, Chella Choi and MJ Hur tied for 7th.

I.K. Kim, ANA Inspiration

This one really hurt. In Kyung Kim notoriously lost this Major back in 2012 when she missed a one-foot par save on the final hole. She had achieved a measure of revenge by claiming the 2017 Women’s British Open for her first career Major. But in 2019, she had a chance for an even better karmic comeback. After two rounds, she led the ANA Inspiration, and it looked like she might be in position to at last make up for that miss.

She struggled a bit in round 3, but still was close enough that a great Sunday round could give her the crown. Alas, nothing much went right for Inky on Sunday. She did have a couple of good moments, but luck and skill were both not hers this day. She even ended up having a tree eat a wayward drive on one hole; the ball sat lodged in the branches 12 feet above the ground. How often does a golfer get victimized by a ball-eating tree?  If we gave an award for worst break of the year, it would be hard to beat that.

Clutch Performance of the Year

And the Winner Is: Sei Young Kim, CME Group Tour Championship

All season, the LPGA had been hyping the CME. The first prize would be the largest in the history of women’s golf, $1.5 million. Second place was more than a million dollars behind that. If at all possible, you wanted to get yourself in a position to possibly win that jackpot.

Sei Young Kim did just that. She played great, and for much of the week was in or near the lead. But on Sunday, her game was not sharp. Several players closed the gap. Danielle Kang made an incredible eagle late, then came within one roll of tying Kim on the final hole. Then Charley Hull made three straight birdies to finish her round and catch Kim.

Sei Young made several mistakes on the back nine, but somehow managed to hang onto her lead despite all the challengers. She reached the 18th tied for the lead with Hull, who was waiting in the clubhouse. Kim’s approach was not great and left her with a dicey, winding 25-foot putt for the win. But Kim saved the best for last, draining the birdie to defeat Hull and claim the big payday. Look in the dictionary, and the definition of clutch may have a new photo of Sei Young next to it!

Other Nominees:
Jin Young Ko, Evian Championship

While all around her lost their nerve, Jin Young Ko stayed patient and steady, chewing gum to keep herself relaxed. When Hyo Joo Kim made triple on the 14th, Ko took the lead, then iced it with a clutch birdie on the 17th hole.

Biggest Disappointment

And the ‘Winner’ Is: Jin Young Ko/Jeongeun Lee6, AIG British Women’s Open

Coming into the home stretch at the final Major of the season, Jin Young Ko and Jeongeun Lee6, the two Koreans who had already won Majors in 2019, were tied for the lead. Their main rival was a Japanese player who was having a great rookie season on the JLPGA, but who had not only never been in a position to win a Major before, she had been completely unknown less than a year previously. Ko in particular seemed primed to win, having won a Major just the week before at the Evian.

Alas, this time luck was not on their side. Lee chose a bad time to hit a poor iron shot on the 12th hole, rolling her tee shot into the water and ending her chances. Ko hung in there until the end but didn’t get the one or two breaks she would have needed to get the win. Still, it’s hard to be too disappointed; both women had fantastic 2019 seasons and won post-season hardware.

Other nominees:
I.K. Kim, ANA Inspiration

As mentioned before, Inky put herself into position to get the biggest monkey off her back and finally win the ANA Inspiration, but her ‘inspiration’ left her on the weekend, and she never mounted a serious challenge to Jin Young Ko after a fantastic first two days.

Most Dominating Performance

And the Winner Is: Jin Young, CP Canadian Women’s Open

Jin Young Ko won four LPGA events in 2019, and none were more convincing than her brilliant decimation of the field at the Canadian Women’s Open. She played fantastically the first three rounds and found herself in the final group with Canada’s favorite daughter, Brooke Henderson. It was going to be a tall order for Ko to shut out the screams of Henderson’s zillion home fans and claim the win. She also faced Nicole Broch-Larsen, a journeyman player who seemingly could do no wrong for the first three rounds.

None of that mattered. Jin Young went in for the kill with surgical precision, utterly unfazed by all around her. Even when she made a mistake, she quickly recovered. It was one of the greatest performances ever by a Korean, and that takes in a lot of ground.

Let’s see, where do we start? Her 64 in the final round tied the best round of the week. Her 72-hole total beat the all-time Canadian Women’s Open record by three shots. Oh yeah, and she didn’t have any bogies the entire week, the first LPGA player to have a bogey-free tournament since Inbee Park did it in 2015. And she did that without a practice round, without her caddie until Wednesday, and with having played only nine holes total in the pro-am.

Even when she made a mistake, she recovered magnificently. She hit a drive on one par five into the woods and took an unplayable. She hit her third shot from the rough to a few feet and made birdie. On another hole, she hit over the green, leaving herself a horrendous long shot up a hill to a small landing area. She pitched it to a foot for an easy par. What must her opponents have been thinking?

In the end, she claimed a five shot win and a well-deserved award from us for her awesomely dominating performance!

Other Nominees:
Jin Young Ko, ANA Inspiration

At this year’s ANA Inspiration. Jin Young Ko did not play like someone looking for her first Major win. She put on a clinic, easily handling the pressure and cruising to a 3-shot win.

Queen Sirikit Cup

This annual event pits teams of amateurs from different Asian countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand, against each other.  The Koreans have won this repeatedly over the past 15 years, usually by big margins, and this season was no exception.  Coached by former US Women’s Open winner Birdie Kim, the team of Uhjin Seo, Ye Been Sohn and Ye Won Lee crushed the other teams by 16 shots.  They also finished 1-2-3 on the individual leaderboard, with Seo winning the gold medal.  It doesn’t get more dominating than that!

With the 2019 Season in the books, it’s time once again to give out our annual SeoulSisters Awards for top moments of the year. Let’s Go!

Best Start to the Season

And the winner Is: Ayean Cho wins first event as KLPGA full time member

It’s always exciting to see a new player succeed when she gets to the next level. Ayean Cho was one of the great crop of teenage rookies who joined the KLPGA in 2019, and she got off to the best possible start. The KLPGA started its main season in April at the Lotte Rent-A-Car Championship, and Cho stunned the veterans by capturing her first win in her first event played in Korea as a KLPGA member (there was one previous event several months earlier in Vietnam which she also played and did not win, but it is quite temporally isolated from the main season, occurring in December). She followed that win with a 5th and 6th place in her next two starts, and wound up leading the Rookie of the Year race wire-to-wire.

Other Nominees:
Eun Hee Ji wins Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions

The new Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions is an event that pairs recent LPGA winners with celebrity golfers. Both the celebrities and the pros compete in their own tournament against each other, but because they play in the same groups, the event has a loose party atmosphere to it that is quite unique.

Eun Hee Ji claimed the win in the LPGA portion of this event, becoming in the process the oldest Korean (at 32) to ever win on the LPGA tour. She followed up the win with a 5th and a 7th place result in her next two starts, showing that she had more in her than just the one good week.

Hae Ran Ryu wins debut event, Samdasoo Masters

Hae Ran Ryu turned pro in the middle of the KLPGA season, played the Samdasoo Masters, and won. She won’t even be an official rookie until 2020!

Biggest Disappearing Act

And the ‘Winner’ is: Ji Hyun Oh

This category talks about the player who unexpectedly had the biggest downturn in her game in the past season. I try not to ding someone too badly if I know that the downturn is largely caused by injuries, because that is beyond someone’s control. In this case, I am aware that Ji Hyun Oh did have injuries in 2019, but based on what I know, they are not in and of themselves responsible for the struggles she had. They did definitely affect her, though, and there were a few instances of her dropping out of events because of them, so take this ‘award’ with a grain of salt.

Ji Hyun Oh has had a pretty steady upward career trajectory since she joined the KLPGA in 2014. She won her first event late in 2015, then won again in 2016. But it was the next two seasons where she really took off: she won multiple times both years, and in 2018 was in the conversation for all the season ending awards.

In 2019, however, she finished just 35th on the money list, with just three top tens all season. Compare that to 2018, where she won twice, both times in dominating fashion (she won the Korea Women’s Open, for instance, by 8 shots) and finished third on the money list.

2019 wasn’t a complete disaster for Oh; she did have some decent rounds sprinkled in there, and managed her best finish, 5th, at one of the Majors. And, as I said, she did have injury issues which no doubt impacted her results. But it was still an unexpected downturn from a player who had never had one before. Hopefully it is one she will quickly recover from in 2020.

Other nominees:
So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu’s downward slide the past two seasons has been mysterious. From her LPGA rookie year of 2012 until 2017, she was one of the most consistent golfers on tour. She never finished below double-digit top tens in any of those seasons, and in 2017, she was co-Player of the Year.

2019 was her worst season yet. She still had some highlights, notably a tie for second at the US Women’s Open, but more often than not, she struggled. For a player who would regularly go an entire season without missing a cut, it was startling to see her miss three straight cuts, like she did at one point this year. She had only five top tens, the worst total of her career, and four of those top tens were 9th or worse. And of course, she did not win in 2019.

Still, her downturn really started in 2018. Although she had a worse season in 2019, she did not have a great 2018, either, and so does not qualify for this category as much as Miss Oh did.

In Gee Chun

In Gee Chun fans have continued to hope for In Gee’s return to the top ranks of the league. 2019 was not a very good year for her again; she only notched two top tens all year, and one of those came at the team event. Like So Yeon, In Gee has struggled for the past few seasons, so this isn’t a case of a sudden downturn, but 2019 was definitely worse than 2018. For the most part, she was lodged somewhere in the 20 – 40th spot on most leaderboards all year. She did not manage to qualify for the CME Tour Championship, nor did she win like she did in ’18. Her driving distance continues, mysteriously, to be among the worst in the league, a notable downturn from the distance she had when she joined the tour.

Hopefully, she is working through her long game issues and will return to, or even exceed, her former driving distance when she returns in 2020.

Best Korean Confrontation

And the Winner Is: Ayean Cho/A Lim Kim/Hye Jin Choi, Pak Se Ri Invitational

What do you get when you match the top rookie in the league, the top player in the league, and the longest hitter on tour, all duking it out for the title named after the legend of the sport, Se Ri Pak? You get one of the most exciting Korean battles of the season! It all happened at the KLPGA’s Pak Se Ri Invitational.

Long bomber A Lim Kim almost stole this one. She made a massive final round push, chipping in for eagle on 17 and making birdie on 18 to post at 17 under total. Player of the Year leader Hye Jin Choi made her own birdie on 17 to move to 17 under, but Rookie superstar Ayean Cho made birdie as well to eke out a one-shot lead. Cho seemed to have her second win in hand, but she lipped out a four-foot par save on 18, and the result was a three-way playoff!

Kim hit her drive too far on the first playoff hole and bogied while the other two parred. On the second playoff hole, Choi had the win in hand but had her own lipout to miss the birdie.

Finally, on the third playoff hole, it was the teen star Cho who hit her approach close and made birdie to claim the win. And all while Se Ri watched!

Other nominees:
Ha Na Jang vs. Danielle Kang, BMW Championship

Danielle Kang was looking for her second straight win in consecutive weeks. She made a massive run early in round 4 and seemed to have the win, but Jang caught her and forced a playoff, which she won in three holes.

Sei Young Kim vs. Jeongeun Lee6, Mediheal

Rookie Jeongeun Lee6 got into her first LPGA playoff at the Mediheal Championship in early May. She had her chances, but was not able to win in regulation. She then lost to Sei Young Kim in the playoff; Kim has yet to lose a playoff on the LPGA tour. This was her fourth playoff victory.

Ayean Cho vs. Hee Jeong Lim, all year, but especially at All For You

Ayean Cho was the Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA, but she had to work for it every single week. Her main challenger was fellow teen Hee Jeong Lim, who won more tournaments than Cho but was not as consistent most of the season.

They battled constantly in the Fall, but their best match up came at the All For One Renoma Championship in September. Lim had a six-shot lead over Cho going into the final round, but Cho nearly caught her, climbing to within a shot. Lim pushed herself back into a three-shot cushion over Cho and forced a playoff with Ji Hyun Kim, which she won. It was Lim’s second win of the season, while Cho finished tied for third.

Best Korean Finish

And the Winner Is: Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

The Sisters had a number of great leaderboard finishes this year. Hard to pick the most impressive, but this was one of them. Sung Hyun Park got the win, with Danielle Kang, Inbee Park and Hyo Joo Kim tied for 2nd and MJ Hur tied for 6th. The top 4 on the leaderboard were Seoul Sisters.

Other nominees:
Honda Thailand LPGA

Amy Yang won this event for the third time, Minjee Lee finished 2nd, Jenny Shin was 4th, and Eun Hee Ji was 5th.

HSBC Women’s World Championship

Sung Hyun Park won, Minjee Lee was solo 2nd, Jin Young Ko was tied for third, Hyo Joo Kim tied for fifth, and Eun Hee Ji tied for 7th. Lee6, Inbee Park, In Gee Chun and Mi Hyang Lee were in the top 15.

ANA Inspiration

Perhaps the best Major result for the Koreans in 2019. Jin Young Ko won, Mi Hyang Lee was solo 2nd, I.K. Kim was t-4th; and Hyo Joo Kim, Jeongeun Lee 6 and Danielle Kang were t-6th.

HUGEL-AIR Premia LA Open

Minjee Lee won, Sei Young Kim was 2nd, Annie Park was t-3rd, and Amy Yang, Jin Young Ko and Inbee Park were t-5th.

Queen Sirikit Cup

Below, the three teenagers who played for Korea at the Queen Sirikit Cup and their coach, 2005 US Women’s Open Champ Birdie Kim

It doesn’t get more impressive than this. The Korean team destroyed the other teams in this annual competition, winning the team event by 16 shots. They also finished 1-2-3 on the individual leaderboard.

Posted by: happyfan08 | August 7, 2019

Jin Young Ko Superstar

When Jin Young Ko sank her final putt at the Evian Championship in late July of 2019, she achieved a feat that only two Korean golf stars had managed before her: she claimed two Majors in a single season. Those other two stars were also the two biggest stars Korea had ever produced: Inbee Park and Se Ri Pak, the only Korean golfers to ever qualify for the Hall of Fame. Ko was in august company indeed.

The victory at Evian was her second career Major and set her up for an even rarer feat: the possibility of three Majors in one season. She would not have long to wait: for the first time in decades, the LPGA had scheduled two Majors in back-to-back weeks. And so, she set off for Woburn to play the AIG Women’s British Open.

In the end, she just came up short, finishing solo third, but she was very much in the hunt for that elusive third Major right up until the end. Her performance was far beyond what almost anyone was expecting of her even as recently as the start of the year. So what happened to elevate her game like that? How did Jin Young Ko rise so swiftly to become the best Korean golfer of her era?

Ko turned pro and joined the Korean LPGA in 2014. It was a tough year to be a rookie: among the great players in her class were Sung Hyun Park (who is currently the #2 women’s golfer in the world behind Ko); Ji Hyun Oh (a big star to this day on the KLPGA); multiple KLPGA winner Min Sun Kim; and Kyu Jung ‘Q’ Baek, who would not only win the Rookie of the Year title that year, but would also win an LPGA tournament and move on to the LPGA tour before the season was out.

Ko finished second in the top rookie race behind Baek, but it was a close battle much of the year. Baek won more events, but Ko’s consistency allowed her to stay with and even lead the race on several occasions. In fact, with just a few events to go, the two were exactly tied atop the rookie standings. Baek finally beat Ko at the last event of the season, but Ko’s 14 top tens allowed her to finish 8th on the money list, a great result for a 19-year-old.

Below: Jin Young Ko with fellow rookie stars Min Sun Kim and Kyu Jung Baek in 2014

Over the next few years, Jin Young continued to impress on the KLPGA. In 2015, she won three events and finished fifth on the money list. But it was at the LPGA’s Women’s British Open that she truly made her name. Using a local as a caddie, she charged into the lead after three rounds. Despite pressure from Inbee Park, Ko led most of Sunday, until a bad shot on the 16th hole led to a double bogey. Park won the title, but Ko finished second and marked herself as a player to watch.

Below: Jin Young bundles up at the 2015 Women’s British Open

In the off season, Ko hired legendary caddie Dean Herden for her bag. Her third season (2016) was truly great, but she had the bad luck of dealing with Sung Hyun Park at the height of her powers. Park won seven times that season on the KLPGA tour to Ko’s three. Even so, Ko managed her first KLPGA Major win at the Hite Cup, and earned over a billion won for the season, one of only a handful of players to ever do that. It still wasn’t enough to top Park on the money list, although she did edge Park by a single point in the Player of the Year standings.

So after three years on tour, Jin Young Ko had done just about everything short of win on the LPGA tour or have one season where she was the hands-down best player on the KLPGA. She obviously had the potential to be a big star on the LPGA, and with Herden on her bag, it looked like she now was ready to try her luck overseas. And it was quite common for a KLPGA star like her to leave the tour after three years.

But 2017 arrived and Ko did not leave Korea. It’s not clear why, but perhaps she was not yet convinced that she was good enough for the big leagues, which seems frankly incredible. Or perhaps she still wanted to have that dominant year on the KLPGA tour? With Park having departed to the LPGA, perhaps she would have that chance. But, alas, luck was again not on her side. This time her main rival was the previous year’s top rookie, Jeong Eun Lee 6. Lee had had a solid rookie year in 2016, but in 2017 she suddenly became a record smashing superstar, blasting all in her path. She broke a billion won that year and captured all the year ending hardware. Ko once again was not the biggest name, even though she ended up fourth on the money list with two wins and many top finishes.

Perhaps Ko would have remained on the KLPGA in 2018, but as it turned out her mind would soon be made up for her. At the 2017 KEB Hana Bank, the annual LPGA event in Korea, she wound up in an epic battle in the final group on Sunday with two of the most popular Korean golfers of all, In Gee Chun and old rival Sung Hyun Park. An insane number of fans showed up to watch this battle of titans, most of whom were fans of Park and Chun, who have the two biggest fan clubs among the Seoul Sisters. But in the end, it was Ko who claimed the trophy. In so doing, she earned an LPGA card for 2018, and decided, after some consideration, to take it.

Below: Jin Young and her first LPGA trophy

In 2018, Ko immediately showed she was the rookie to beat: she won her very first tournament as a member, the Australian Women’s Open. It was the first time an LPGA player had won her first event as a member in over 60 years. That was her only win in 2018, but she had 13 total top tens, the most of any of the Koreans, and finished 10th on the money list. A star was born.

As great as her career had been to date, however, she was still not one of the very best Koreans on tour. How did she manage to take such a quantum leap upward in 2019? In the off-season, she focused on two things: one, increasing her driving distance and two, improving her short game. She made huge strides in both areas and has reaped rewards for this all year. She also teamed with a new caddie, Dave Brooker, who had had a lot of success on the bag of Lorena Ochoa and Grace Park in the past.

Below: Jin Young Ko, 2018 LPGA Rookie of the Year

Right from the beginning of 2019, Ko announced that she was ready to challenge for the top of the league. She shot a final round 64 in defense of her Australian Open crown, finishing second. Soon after, she finished tied for third at the HSBC, then won her first event of the year at the Founders Cup, coming from four back in the final round to capture her third career trophy.

She grabbed a ‘mere’ tie for second the next week, then dominated the field to capture her first career Major at the ANA Inspiration, her fourth straight top three finish. The win also moved her to #1 in the world for the first time in her career. She would stay there for the next couple of months.

Below: Jin Young takes the victory dive at the ANA Inspiration

Her next couple of months were not as successful, but she still played very well, finishing no worse than 30th in any event. She resumed her great play just in time for the final two Majors: in the Dow Great Lakes team event, she paired with Minjee Lee to shoot a blistering 58 in the final round and finish second. The following week saw her capture the Evian, her second Major of the year. She spent most of the week trailing Hyo Joo Kim, herself a former champion of the event. Ko seized control when Kim had an unlucky break that saw a bad tee shot plug in a greenside bunker.

Below: Jin Young kisses her second Major trophy of 2019 at the Evian Championship

And so, she had the chance last week to grab the Women’s British Open, and her third Major of the year. And she made the best of it. Entering the final round four back, she would shoot a 66, her best round of the week. At the turn she found herself locked in battle with her old nemeses Sung Hyun Park and Jeongeun Lee 6, but she outlasted both of them. Alas, she missed a couple of crucial putts in the final four holes, including one by an inch, and wound up third. Still, a fantastic effort for the player who was once again #1 in the world.

She isn’t just #1 in the world, she is currently number one in almost every significant race on the LPGA tour. She leads the money list with over $2.2 million, leads Sung Hyun Park in Player of the Year by 90 points (that’s the equivalent of three tournament wins), and leads the low scoring average with a scintillating 69.03 (if she stays near that value she will have the all-time lowest scoring average for a Korean). She also just claimed the Annika award for best record in the Majors in 2019. And just this year, she has become so good with English that she no longer uses a translator to answer her questions, entertaining reporters with her humor and welcoming smile.

Jin Young Ko has well and truly elevated herself to superstar levels; it will be exciting to see what she can accomplish as golf heads towards the 2020 Olympics and International Crown.

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!

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!

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