Posted by: happyfan08 | April 7, 2021

2021 KLPGA Primer

It’s April and the KLPGA is preparing for the start of the season. It’s time once again for the SeoulSisters annual article about what to expect on that tour this year.  We call it the KLPGA Primer.

Without any question, the pandemic had an enormous impact not only on the KLPGA in 2020, but on society everywhere.  The KLPGA canceled several events at the start of the year, suspended its slate of international tournaments, and saw another group of events leave the schedule in the Fall even after they had managed to get the tour functioning again.  Fans were banned from the events and, as of this writing, still are.  But the tour also took the lead in golf worldwide by starting play in mid-May at their first Major, the KLPGA Championship.  Almost no other sports leagues were playing at the time, and no other golf tours, male or female, were.  They provided English language coverage all four days on YouTube, introducing an international audience to Korean stars like Hyo Joo Kim, Hye Jin Choi, and the eventual winner Hyun Kyung Park.

The outbreak also resulted in LPGA players from Korea staying put in Korea, which meant that KLPGA events often featured several of them in the field well into the summer and even in some cases the Fall.  Jin Young Ko, So Yeon Ryu and Jeongeun Lee6, all Major winners on the LPGA, even skipped some of the LPGA’s delayed Majors and did not return to the States until October or November, while Hyo Joo Kim went on to play her entire season in Korea, winning the scoring title and leading the money list in the process.

So Yeon Ryu won the league’s biggest event in 2020, the Korea Women’s Open

As things slowly get back to normal, what can we expect in 2021?  Let’s take a look!

Those Who Have Left

In most seasons, you can count on a few players leaving the KLPGA to try their luck in Japan or the US, but due to the pandemic, almost nobody tried that this year (the fact that there was no Q Series on the LPGA in 2020 didn’t help).  There was one notable exception:  A Lim Kim.  Kim got her LPGA card the old-fashioned way: by winning an LPGA event.  And not just any tournament, but the biggest of them all, the US Women’s Open, which took place in December last year. 

Because the qualifying for this event was also hit by the disease, they decided to open up the field to players in the top 100 on the Rolex Rankings.  As a result, a record number of KLPGA stars gave it a shot (although just as many who were eligible, such as Hyun Kyung Park, still skipped it).  One of these players was long bomber A Lim Kim, who would be playing in her first ever LPGA event in the States.  It paid off: she put herself in contention, then won the event by making birdies on her final three holes.  She was given just a week to decide if she wanted to join the LPGA for 2021.  She decided to try, and has played twice so far in 2021, missing both cuts.  But hopefully she is just warming up and will soon be putting up great results on the big tour.

A few other players lost their tour cards in 2020.  Perhaps the most notable was Char Young Kim, who has been on tour for many years.  Kim is not intending to retire, but she did announce that she would be taking a year off to retool her game in the hopes she could get back on tour for 2022. 

Yoon Kyung Heo had been a popular star on tour since joining in 2009.  At one point she was among the top players in the league, but injuries and parenthood slowed her down, and she finally decided to call it a career in 2020.  We’ll miss the Electric Smile Warrior!

Top Player(s)

The big awards this season were split between two players, only one of whom was a KLPGA regular. Hye Jin Choi won the Player of the Year award for the third straight year, although it was something off an off year for her.  LPGA star Hyo Joo Kim, who spent the entire year playing on the KLPGA, led the money list and achieved the lowest scoring average in KLPGA history, 69.56.

Hye Jin Choi

Kim will be back on the LPGA in 2021, but Choi, who probably would have left the KLPGA for the LPGA by now in normal circumstances, will be back to try for a 4th straight Player of the Year award.  She had only one win all year, and it came at the final event of the season, the ADT-CAPS (Choi was leading another event, the S-OIL, when it was canceled due to weather.  She received the trophy for it, but it was it was not considered an official event because only one round was completed).  Choi also played at the US Women’s Open in December but finished just tied for 30th.  In Korea, she grabbed an insane number of top tens: out of 17 events played, she only missed the top ten twice.

So she might not have been as dominant last year as she was in 2019, but she is still unquestionably the top gun on the KLPGA.  I would be surprised if she plays on tour past this year, so she has one more year to accumulate more wins and hardware before she is unleashed on the world.

The Sophomore Stars Who Emerged (And Those Who Faded)

The KLPGA’s 2019 Rookie Class was arguably the greatest in tour history, with fully half a dozen of them becoming legit stars that year.  As they played their sophomore year in 2020, some soared and others struggled.

The breakout star among that crop turned out to be Hyun Kyung Park.  Already popular after finishing third in the 2019 Rookie race, she came into 2020 still winless.  Over the off-season, she became friends with world #1 Jin Young Ko, who became a mentor to her.  As the 2020 season prepared to restart following the Covid stoppage, she told the press that her number one goal was to finally break through with her first win on the KLPGA tour.

It didn’t take her long: facing a field stacked with LPGA stars at the KLPGA Championship in mid-May, the first event after play resumed, she claimed the win and the hearts of the fans.  She managed a second win not longer afterwards, and her popularity soared.

Park wound up finishing 7th on the money list with around 530 million won earned.  She had only two other top tens outside of her two wins.  So she did show herself capable of hanging with the top players, but unlike in 2019, did not maintain her consistency while doing it.  Doubtless she will be looking to challenge for the top spot and post-season awards in 2021, which will require her to improve her consistency while still winning.

She won’t have to improve her popularity, though.  She has one of the biggest fan clubs of the young KLPGA stars, and has more than 45 thousand Instagram followers as of now, which puts her well above most everyone else on that tour.

Hee Jeong Lim was the #2 rookie in the 2019 class, and she finished that year with three wins, including a Major.  But her 2020 campaign was the mirror image of her good friend Hyun Kyung.  She was far more consistent than Park, but was not able to get a win.  In the end, she finished 8th on the money list, just behind Park with 526 million won earned.  She had nine top tens with no wins, two seconds and three thirds.  Two of her near misses came against Park; she looked poised to win the KLPGA Championship only to falter on the final day with a 71 after shooting 65-64 the two previous rounds. She finished second.  Her other runner up finish also came in Park’s other victory. 

But though Lim was not a winner in 2020, her world ranking ended up improving more than Park’s:  She got as high as 16th in the world in the Fall.  She has the potential to become one of the top challengers to Hye Jin Choi in 2021.

So Mi Lee is another sophomore who has become very popular in Korea, so much so that she finished second in fan voting for the Most Popular award, ahead of even Park and Lim.  She finished 10th on the money list with a little more than 400 million won earned.  Lee broke through with her first career win last season at the Huon Care Women’s Open.  She had six other top tens, including a pair of seconds.

On the flip side, there were a couple of stars from that vaunted class who struggled in 2020.  Perhaps the most perplexing case was that of Ayean Cho, the young star who had won the Rookie of the Year in 2019.  Not only had Cho won twice that season, she started the 2020 season on fire.  Playing two LPGA and one LET events in consecutive weeks in Australia, Cho got into the final group on Sunday in all three events.  She finished tied for 6th at the Australian Women’s Open, playing with none other than Inbee Park, who won.  Shortly after that, the pandemic canceled action, and when she resumed a few months later she wasn’t the same.  She did have three top tens and a few other decent weeks, her best being a 7th at the Korea Women’s Open.  But she only finished 35th on the money list, well behind her rivals Park and Lim.

Even her popularity seemed to take a hit.  At the start of 2020, she was not only featured in a weekly show with her rivals from her Rookie class, she also had a second TV program dedicated entirely to her, showing her Winter training regimen in New Zealand.  She started the year with 5,000 more Instagram followers than Park, but by the end of 2020 had about a third of Hyun Kyung’s total.

Cho seems to have all the tools to become a huge breakout star.  She showed Down Under that she could compete on the LPGA, even if she wasn’t able to get a win.  Hopefully she will right the ship and re-establish her credentials in 2021.

Struggling even worse was one-time winner Seung Yeon Lee.  Lee finished just 87th on the tour money list in 2020.  Her best finishes were a pair of tenth places.  Though a second tier talent among that incredible Class of 2019, she still did manage a win in her rookie year, and her complete collapse came as a surprise.

The Comeback that Stalled

Speaking of players who have struggled of late, we arrive at Ji Hyun Oh.  For a while, Oh had improved every year since arriving on tour in 2014.  In 2018, she was one of the top players in the league, winning the Korea Women’s Open that season by 8 shots.  But she virtually disappeared from leaderboards in 2019, and though 2020 was an improvement, her comeback was still not complete, and she remains a question mark for 2021.

Oh did have a few highlights last year.  Perhaps her best showing was at the Korea Women’s Open, where she was among the leaders going into the final day.  This was an event seriously impacted by the presence of LPGA stars.  So Yeon Ryu won it, Hyo Joo Kim finished 2nd, and Sei Young Kim tie for 4th with Oh.  What really killed Ji Hyun was not the LPGA stars, though, but the fact that she shot a 75 in the final round, which took her right out of the contest. 

Her only other top ten was a third a bit earlier in the year.  She finished 19th on the money list, better than 2019 but still not close to the top five finishes she was getting before.  So her big task will be to get back to her top form in 2021, which would put her in the hunt for the post-season awards.

Always the Star

Ha Na Jang continued to be a top presence on the KLPGA in 2020.  She seems to peak in the Fall, and last year was no exception.  From late July through to the end of the year, with the exception of one event, Jang was always in the top ten.  During that run, she collected a 4th, a third, two seconds, and a win at the SK Networks event, as well as two other top tens.  In all, she had ten top tens and made nearly 625 million won, which placed her third on the money list.  Although Jang occasionally talks about returning to the LPGA, she seems for the moment to be content in Korea, which means she should once again be a major force in 2021. 

New star

Every year there is at least one player who seems to come from nowhere to become a major presence on tour, and last year the Cinderella was no doubt Na Rin An.  A long hitter, An got her first win in 2020 with a thoroughly dominating performance at the Autech Carrier Championship.  An climbed to an insane TEN shot lead after back-to-back 65s in rounds 2 and 3.  She only shot a 72 in round 4, but still easily won the event by 4 shots over rookie star Hae Ran Ryu.  A month later, An won her second event at the lucrative Hana Financial Championship.  She finished fourth on the money list with 607 million won earned.  She also got a chance to play on the LPGA, making the cut and finishing 63rd at the US Women’s Open in December.

Na Rin is the biggest question mark in this primer.  Is she for real, or will she return to the middle of the pack in 2021?  Only time will tell.

Some more top players

Min Ji Park

Min Ji Park is one of those players who has consistently finished well on the Korean tour, has a number of wins, and yet is never really in the hunt for the big awards at the end of the year.  In 2020, she finished 5th on the money list with nearly 600 million won earned.  She had nine top tens including a win, two seconds and two thirds. She has gained some notoriety for her dancing skills as displayed at the annual KLPGA/LPGA team competition.  Doubtless she is pretty happy with her solid showings year after year, but the next step in her career needs to be to seriously challenge the top guns for the post season hardware.

Da Yeon Lee

Da Yeon Lee had a somewhat weaker season in 2020, but still finished 11th on the money list with around 385 million won earned.  For her, she will want to be getting back into the top five again like she was in 2019.  Her only win of the 2020 season actually came at the end of 2019, at the Vietnam event before the pandemic hit (this event counted towards the 2020 season).  She did have a pair of third places in 2020, but her overall results were not up to her usual standard.

Rookie Superstar

Hae Ran Ryu has quickly established herself as a force on the Korean tour.  She won the Samdasoo Masters before she even joined the tour in 2019, and in 2020, as a rookie, she defended her title despite the presence of superstars like Jin Young Ko, Inbee Park and Jeongeun Lee6.  Ryu managed to finish second on the tour money list, the highest full time KLPGAer on the list (Hyo Joo Kim won the money list, but she’s usually on the LPGA tour).  Ryu earned 628 million won.  Although she only had the one win, she had ten total top tens, including three runner ups.  She also finished tied for 13th at the US Women’s Open in December; as a result, by the end of the year she was the highest ranked KLPGA player in the world rankings, even surpassing Hye Jin Choi. 

Ryu is a fairly long hitter, consistent, and young.  She seems poised to have a massive season sometime soon, and perhaps 2021, still just her second year on tour, will be her chance.  If anyone can take down Choi, I think it will be her.

Rookies to Watch

As usual, the KLPGA is hyping several rookies who will be joining either the big tour or the minor league tours in 2021.  The one who seems to be getting the most ink is Jae Hee Kim.  Kim won the Dream Tour money list title in 2020, although in the few times she played the big tour last year she wasn’t all that strong.  Still, she has game, is just 19, and has a goofy personality that has already endeared her to fans and sponsors in Korea.  It’s not yet clear that she has what it takes to be a top player (at least not right away), but she certainly has the looks, personality and style to dazzle the fans.

Jae Hee Kim offers you a cake

Some other names: 18-year-old Ye Won Lee (will play the Dream Tour) was one of the top amateurs until she turned pro this year.  Ye Been Sohn was signed by Nike last year and might be on the big tour; she was another mainstay of the National team as a teenager. Uhjin Seo led Korea to a title at the Queen Sirikit Cup a few years ago (Sohn and Lee were also on that team, which crushed the competition by 16 strokes).  Ji Hyun Ahn has already garnered sponsor interest and at least one magazine photo shoot.

Uhjin Seo
Ye Been Sohn
Ye Won Lee
Ji Hyun Ahn

The Glamor Girls Dazzled

The KLPGA is a serious tour, one of the best in the world, but it has its fun side as well.  Like anywhere, there are popular players who are loved as much for their personalities, looks or style as for their games.  As it turned out, three of the most popular of these glamor girls also happened to have tour cards in 2020, meaning they had a chance to play a lot during the season.  It’s a pity fans were not allowed on site, as these ladies are all huge attractions to the paying customers.  And alas, they all lost their memberships for 2021, but perhaps one or more of them might make it back.

Hyun Ju Yoo is the most popular of these players.  As of this writing she has over 300,000 followers on Instagram, the most of any Korean golfer, LPGA or KLPGA.  Yoo is the sex symbol of the tour, and has attracted numerous sponsorships.  But how’s her game?  Well, she did play better in 2020 than the last time she had a tour card a few years ago, but still missed out on maintaining membership for 2021.  Her strength is her long game; she has a great swing and is decently long.  But her short game and mental strength still need more work.

The other two players, So Hyeon Ahn and Keung Young An, have considerably less fame than Yoo, but Ahn still has roughly as many followers on Instagram as So Yeon Ryu, one of the most popular Korean stars on the LPGA, while An is roughly at the same level as Jeongeun Lee6.  Ahn had her moments in 2020, including one tournament where she was in contention for a while.  An struggled a lot more, and both missed their cards for 2021.

So Hyeon Ahn
Keun Young An

Will Hye Jin Choi be able to win the Player of the Year for a record-breaking fourth time?  Will Ji Hyun Oh or Ayean Cho make their comebacks?  Is this the year Hae Ran Ryu becomes a superstar?  Which of the sophomore stars will have the best year?  The KLPGA season is starting now, so soon we will get answers to those questions and more!


Rookie of the Year

And the Winner Is: Hae Ran Ryu

Hae Ran Ryu, still a teenager, destroyed the competition in 2020 in the KLPGA rookie race.  Unlike in 2019, where the KLPGA saw multiple rookie winners, only Ryu was able to break through as a winner in 2020.  That win came at the Jeju Samdasoo Masters in late July; it was a successful title defense of an event she won in 2019 before even joining the tour.

The event was star-packed in 2020, featuring among others recent Korea Women’s Open winner So Yeon Ryu, Hall of Famer Inbee Park, and world #1 Jin Young Ko.  Hyo Joo Kim and Jeongeun Lee6 were other LPGA golfers in the field.  But Ryu got off to an amazing start with a first round 65 to tie for the lead.  She followed that with a 67 to take a one-shot lead, then a 67 to move to five shots ahead of Lee6.  She finished the week with a 68 and a 23 under total, one of the lowest under par results in the history of the KLPGA tour.  It was good for a three shot win over Hot Six.

Ryu had started her year with an 11th, and by late May just missed her first win of the season with a second at the E1 Charity Open.  She had nine total top tens, including the win, three runner-up finishes, and a third.  She wound up 2nd on the tour money list with about 628 million won earned.  Only Hyo Joo Kim, normally an LPGA golfer, made more money in 2020 on the KLPGA.  She was 6th in Player of the Year standings, and 6th in scoring average.

Ryu also played her first LPGA Major, the US Women’s Open in December, where she finished tied for 13th.

A fantastic rookie year all around for Hae Ran Ryu!

Other Nominees:

Yealimi Noh

As mentioned before, Yealimi had a solid rookie year on the LPGA.  Had they awarded a Rookie of the Year award, she would have won it.

She didn’t win like Hae Ran Ryu did, but she did manage two top threes, including a tie for second at the Volunteers of America.  Still just 19, she finished 25th on the money list with nearly half a million dollars earned in just 16 events. 

Andrea Lee

Andrea Lee was a surprise Rookie star, especially at the start of the year.  Late in the season, she tested positive for Covid and was forced to drop out of the US Women’s Open.  She seems to have recovered just fine, as she played the following week at the CME.

Her best results were a tie for 5th at the Marathon Classic, and a tie for 7th at the AIG Women’s British Open.  The 22-year-old, a Stanford graduate, finished 48th on the LPGA money list with around $242,000 earned.

Most Improved Player

And the Winner Is: Song Yi Ahn

Song Yi Ahn joined the KLPGA in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2012 when she earned enough money to maintain her tour card.  She continued to play decently over the next few years, but though she had a few close calls, did not win her first event until the final event of 2019.

Afterwards, she told the press that she was planning on staying on tour until she won ten times.  Given that it had taken her nearly a decade to get her first win, the idea that she would ever win nine more times seemed a bit farfetched.

But in 2020, Ahn has improved enough to earn our Most Improved Player award.  Perhaps ten wins is not so crazy after all?

Ahn grabbed her second career win in late September at the Fantom Classic.  She followed that up with several more top tens, including a fifth at the Hana Financial Group Championship.  She then proved tough in defense of her ADT-Caps title; in fact, she held the second-round lead before she struggled to a 79 in the third and final round and fell out of the top ten.

Ahn made 250 million won in the short season, good for 15th on the money list.  She also finished 15th in 2019, but if you consider that much of the money she earned that season came in her final event of that year, you can see that the past season + one event has been a major improvement in her game.  She isn’t quite in the top ranks, but she’s getting closer!

Other Nominees:

Na Rin An

The ‘Breakthrough Player of the Year’ could also be considered as the most improved; after all, she went from zero wins before 2020 to two this season.

Da Been Heo

Da Been Heo joined the KLPGA as a teenager in 2017.  Although she hasn’t had too much trouble maintaining a tour card, she really hadn’t done many impressive things in her first three years on tour.  For instance, in 2019 she finished 50th on the money list, with a couple of top tens.

But she had a great leap forward in her career in 2020.  That year she made over 200 million won in the shortened season, good for 18th on the money list, by far her career best.  She had four top tens, including a 7th at the year’s first Major and a career best 2nd at the Fantom Classic (behind this category’s winner Song Yi Ahn in fact!).  Even when she was not in contention, she often put together a good week.  She only missed one cut all year, and had four additional top 20s.

Another sign of the heightened level of respect for her game: in 2020, she was featured in an SBS golf competition TV program for what I believe to be the first time in her career. 

Player of the Year

And the Winner Is: Sei Young Kim

Sei Young Kim has for years been the secret weapon of the Koreans.  She won a lot of tournaments, more than any golfer other than Inbee Park the past seven years, but she wasn’t winning Majors or the post season hardware.  And she was not nearly as consistent as the big stars, producing more than her share of dud tournaments.  So she tended to fly under the radar.

In 2020, however, she finally got past that roadblock, claiming her first career Major – the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship — with a record setting score and a five-shot margin.  A few weeks later, she claimed a second win at the Pelican Women’s Championship, the 12th of her career.  In all, she played nine LPGA events in 2020, had two wins, a runner up, two more top fives, a tie for 7th, and three more top twenties.  Her WORST finish of the year was a tie for 20th at the US Women’s Open.  She rose to second in the world rankings, best of her career, and finished second on the money list with $1.4 million earned.  She also won the LPGA Player of the Year award for the first time in her career.  She did not play enough rounds to qualify for the Vare Trophy, but her average was an astounding 68.69 strokes, close to the all-time best score ever achieved on the LPGA, and more than a stroke better than Danielle Kang, the player who actually won the Vare.  Kim was #1 in Greens in Regulation (77.62%), first in putts/Greens (1.73), and first in rounds in the 60s and rounds under par. 

Kim also played five events on the KLPGA before returning to the LPGA in late August.  She had a 46th place finish in the first of these events, the KLPGA Championship, but other than that was always well within the top 20.  Three of the finishes were top tens, including a playoff loss to Hyo Joo Kim at the Lotte Cantata; the remaining event was a 19th place.  Other than Hyo Joo, she was the most consistent of the LPGA golfers who played in Korea in the summer.  

For all those reasons, Kim thoroughly earned our Player of the Year award.

Other Nominees:

Hyo Joo Kim

Hyo Joo Kim is an LPGA star who, like Sei Young Kim, played on the KLPGA while the LPGA was out of action in the Spring and early Summer.  But unlike Sei Young, Hyo Joo never returned to America this year.  When she finished her KLPGA season, she simply stayed in her home country.

Part of the reason she did that was because she was having so much success in Korea.  She wound up leading the KLPGA money list, making nearly 800 million won in just 15 events played.  She started the year with a 4th at the KLPGA Championship, and two events later beat Sei Young Kim in a playoff to win the Lotte Cantata.  She notched a second dominating win at the year’s final Major, the KB Financial Group Star Championship, which she won by 8 shots over Jin Young Ko in mid-October (see ‘Most Dominating Performance’ for more details).  In all, she achieved 8 total top tens: those two wins, two seconds, two thirds and two fourths.  Besides leading the money list, she also led the league in scoring: her 69.56 average was the lowest in tour history, beating the record previously held by Sung Hyun Park.  She was second in the Player of the Year race, and even won the Most Popular award as chosen by the fans.

She finished the year in 9th place in the world rankings, which allowed her to bump Sung Hyun Park off the Olympic team for the time being (Park, now 10th in the rankings, is the fifth ranked Korean in the world, and only the top four will make the team).

I chose Sei Young Kim over Hyo Joo because Hyo Joo chose to limit herself to the KLPGA this year.  With the way she was playing, she had a great chance to win or at least contend at the US Women’s Open or the CME Championship (provided she could have qualified for the event, which would have been hard).  To be frank, she is too good a player to spend her time beating up on the KLPGA players.  So even though she had a great year in her own right, it does not compare to what Sei Young Kim achieved on both sides of the Pacific in 2020.

Hye Jin Choi

Hye Jin Choi managed to win the Player of the Year award on the KLPGA for the third straight year, despite the constant presence of Hyo Joo Kim and many other LPGA players.  Despite being the top player, wins were harder to come by for the young star in 2020.  In fact, she did not get her first and only win on tour this year until the very last KLPGA event she played, the ADT-Caps.

Make no mistake about it, she might not have gotten as many wins as usual, but it was another great year for her.  She did not finish outside the top ten until her 8th event of the season.  She played 17 events and notched 15 top tens.  The other two events were a 17th and a 33rd.  Besides the win, she had a second tournament that she “won”, the S-OIL, that didn’t count because it was reduced to one round due to heavy rain.  Surprisingly, she had no runner-up finishes and just two thirds, with the majority of her top tens in the 7th – 10th place range.

Besides her Player of the Year, she also finished 6th on the money list and third in scoring average with 70.17, more than half a stroke behind Hyo Joo Kim.  So despite being consistent, it was a weaker-than-normal year for Choi in some ways.

Choi also played at the US Women’s Open in December, but she never contended, finishing tied for 30th.

Clearly, although it was another strong year for Choi, she just didn’t have the numbers to compete with Hyo Joo or Sei Young Kim for our Player of the Year honor.

Jin Young Ko

Jin Young Ko did not play enough to match the numbers we saw this year from Sei Young or Hyo Joo Kim, but when she did play, she was almost always great.

Her first action in Korea came in early May, when she played a special Skins Game against (then) World’s #2 Sung Hyun Park.  The two stars split the money evenly, although Ko won two more skins than Park.

She focused on the KLPGA much of the year, although she only played six events and took several breaks in that stretch.  She started poorly with a tie for 45th at the Lotte Cantata in early June.  She finished 6th at her next event, the Korea Women’s Open.  After a 20th at the Samdasoo Masters, she did not play again until mid-October, when she finished her KLPGA run with a third, a second and an 8th.

She came to the States in mid-November, playing her first event of the year at the Pelican Women’s Championship.  She finished just tied for 34th there.  But she turned it around massively in December.  She contended at the Volunteers of America, finishing 5th, then came within one shot of forcing a playoff at the US Women’s Open, finishing tied for 2nd.  In just three events, she accumulated enough points to qualify for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, which she would go on to win by five shots, destroying Sei Young Kim in an epic match-up of #1 vs. #2.  This also gave her the LPGA money list title for the second straight year.  Amazingly, she made the most money on tour in just four events played!

Ko spent the entire year at #1 in the world.  She only had two bum events all year.  But despite this, she just didn’t play enough to qualify for the Seoul Sisters Player of the Year award.

Happiest News

And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu Keeps on Giving

In February, So Yeon Ryu lost a playoff in Australia at the Vic Open.  Rather than sulk about it, she decided to give half her winnings to a charity fighting the effects of the deadly wildfires that were sweeping Australia at the time.  That donation totaled about $45,000.

But that’s So Yeon Ryu – one of the kindest and most giving professional athletes in the world.

She wasn’t done.  A few months later, she won the Korea Women’s Open on the KLPGA tour.  It was, amazingly, her first ever Korean tour Major victory.  Then and there, she gave her entire check, amounting to more than $225,000, to charities battling the Covid pandemic.

Not long afterwards, she was featured on the cover of JTBC Golf Magazine in Korea; they called her The Perfect Woman.  They weren’t far wrong!

Other Nominees:

Lee 6 keeps kicking butt in English

In 2019, Jeongeun Lee6 impressed everyone with a masterful, nearly flawless English language acceptance speech for her Rookie of the Year award.  It was all the more amazing when you consider that she could barely speak a word of English at the beginning of the year.

When she won the US Women’s Open that June, she gave her press conference in Korean, but vowed she would give the next one in English.  True to her word, when she played in Australia in February of 2020, she gave several post-round interviews entirely in English, even endearingly shooing away her translator and laughing afterwards that she had pulled it off.

Keep up the good work, Hot Six!

KLPGA Identical Twin Se Ro Mi Kim

An interesting player who has started showing up on KLPGA leaderboards is 22-year-old Se Ro Mi Kim.

Kim is unique not only for having one of the few four syllable Korean names, but also for having an identical twin sister, Ah Ro Mi, who is also a professional golfer. They are the first identical twins in KLPGA history.  The Sisters began playing golf in 4th grade, and both joined the Dream Tour in 2018.

Ah Ro Mi has caddied for her twin sister from time to time, for instance at the KB Star Championship.  Se Ro Mi Kim was a rookie in 2020 on the KLPGA, having finally made it off the Dream Tour after two years. Interestingly, her sister was the first of the two to win professionally when she claimed a title on the Dream Tour in 2018, and Ah Ro Mi played on the KLPGA in 2019, only to lose her card at the end of the season. But then Se Ro Mi earned her card, and managed to keep it in Q-School in the Fall. 

Hopefully at some point, both twins will make the tour at the same time and hijinks will ensue!

Most Touching Moment

And the Winner Is: Yoon Kyung Heo Retires

KLPGA golfer Yoon Kyung Heo announced her retirement from professional golf at the end of the 2020 KLPGA season. She is a three-time KLPGA winner who peaked about six years ago. She struggled with massive injuries that required her to miss over a year of golf at one point. She got married and had a child in the interim. Now 30, she decided it was time to focus on her family rather than the rigors of a golf career.

Heo joined the KLPGA in 2009 as a 19-year-old. She finished a respectable 18th on the money list that year.

2012 was her breakout year. She had a great run that season where she managed repeated close calls without getting a win. It’s apt she was teamed with So Yeon Ryu in the final round of her career, because she had had a memorable battle with Ryu in 2012 at the Hanwha. Heo and Ryu duked it out all day until a late OB shot cost Heo the title. She would make second place the next two events, then a 16th, then another second. But wins continued to elude her. One of those seconds came to none other than Se Ri Pak herself.

Heo wound up second to Ha Neul Kim on the money list for the season.  A win at just one of those events probably would have given her the money title.

Heo finally got her long-awaited first career win in 2013 at the Woori Ladies Championship.  2014 was her career-best year. She again finished second on the money list, this time to Hyo Joo Kim, who was literally unstoppable that year (Heo made over 700 million won and still finished nearly half a billion won behind Kim). Heo won twice in 2014 and had nine top fives. She also had two runner-up finishes where she had three-shot leads going into the final day only to lose on the final hole (once in a playoff).

After that, injuries became the story of her career. She had to miss a lot of the 2015 season. She had OK years in 2016 and 2017, but not at her previous level. Around this time, she also got married, and missed a lot of the 2018 season for maternity leave.  She returned in 2019, but again struggled in the middle of the pack.

She finally decided it was time to call it a day and retired.  She had an emotional goodbye to the press, the tour and her fans at the end of her final event, the Hana Financial Group Championship in early November.  We’ll miss her!

Rookie to Watch in 2021

And the Winner is: A Lim Kim

At the start of December, A Lim Kim had her 2021 well planned out.  She would enjoy a relaxing Christmas break, then prepare hard for the KLPGA season.  If she could play well enough at the upcoming US Women’s Open, perhaps she could qualify to play it again the following year.

In a span of 20 minutes, Kim’s life changed completely.  She went from contending for that Open title to sitting with the clubhouse lead, courtesy of an epic three birdie barrage to end her day.  No one was able to catch her and the title was hers.  Now she had a decision to make: would she take the LPGA card and join that tour in 2021?  She didn’t have a lot of time to wrestle with her options; due to the late date of the Open, the LPGA gave her just one week to make the life-changing decision.

Kim decided to take the card and will be a rookie on the tour in 2021.  But with that decision comes chaos: she not only needs to wrap up her KLPGA commitments, she needs to find coaches, a caddie, a house in the States, and someone who can help her navigate over here; she doesn’t speak a lick of English.  And she has about a month to make it all happen.

She is an unusual KLPGA rookie in that, unlike most of the women who have won Majors to gain tour cards, she was far from the biggest name on the KLPGA when she shocked the world.  It would not be a bit surprising to see her struggle with all the changes, and perhaps she won’t have the kind of rookie year that players like Sei Young Kim, In Gee Chun, Jin Young Ko and Jeongeun Lee6 had.  Earning the Rookie of the Year will also be challenging in that, because of the pandemic, they have decided to make that award a two-year process.  She will be the only newcomer joining the tour in 2021, competing against the rest of the rookies who have already had a short year to gain points.

I will be comparing her results to what the other rookies do in 2021 only, so she won’t have that limitation for me.  I still pick her to be the Rookie to watch because she has two qualities I think will see her through.  One, she showed at the Open that she can be fearless in pursuing a win, a trait she shares with world #2 Sei Young Kim.  And two, she is very long off the tee, in fact the longest golfer on the KLPGA the past few years.  Length is far more of a factor on the LPGA than the KLPGA; over here, many courses are set up to benefit bombers. 

A good player to compare her with is Mirim Lee, who, like Kim, was a good but not great player when she joined the tour several years ago.  And like Kim, Lee is a long hitter.  Lee had a fantastic rookie campaign that included two wins against two of the top players in the world at the time, Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis.  I think Kim has the potential to win again on tour in 2021, but even if she doesn’t, she should be able to maintain a tour card and contend now and again.

Last year I chose Yealimi Noh in this category.  She is still in the middle of her rookie year because of the aforementioned two-year competition, but at this point she would clearly be the top rookie.  Still just 19, she finished 25th on the money list with nearly half a million dollars earned in just 16 events.  She is just 21st in the Solheim Cup race, but has a lot of time yet to make a run at the team.  She managed two top three finishes: a tie for third at the Cambia Classic in Portland, where she was one agonizing bogey on the final hole away from making the playoff; and a tie for 2nd at the Volunteers of America, where she tied her idols Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu and got a chance to play with them on Sunday.

Last year I said of Noh:

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.

Pretty much spot on!

Other Nominees:

Jae Hee Kim, KLPGA

There are several teens who were too young in 2020 to play on the KLPGA, but who might be able to do so in 2021.  Among them is Uhjin Seo, a mainstay of the Korean National Team when she was an amateur, and Ye Been Sohn, whom Nike quickly snapped up when she turned pro.  I’m not sure if either one will be a KLPGA rookie in 2021 or will still be on the Dream Tour, so for now I’ll assume they are still working their way up.

The young KLPGA rookie to keep an eye on is Jae Hee Kim.  Kim, also just 18, led the Dream Tour money list in 2020 and is getting a lot of hype for her KLPGA rookie year in 2021.  She has played a few times on the KLPGA and so far has not done particularly great, but she shows a lot of promise and, unless Seo and Sohn join her, should be the big rookie name to watch in 2021 on that tour.

It’s About Time Award

And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu Wins a KLPGA Major!

This award was a toss-up between two events that seem to have taken forever to occur.  I decided to go with this as the winner of this award because So Yeon Ryu’s fans have waited patiently for her to win a KLPGA Major since 2008!  It finally happened in 2020 when So Yeon claimed the biggest title in Korea, the Korea Women’s Open.  She had already claimed 2 Majors on the LPGA and the Japan Women’s Open on the JLPGA, but KLPGA Majors eluded her.  But back when she was a rookie, it seemed like there would be no wait for a Major win at all!

You see, back in So Yeon’s rookie season of 2008, just a few months after joining the tour, she played brilliantly at this very event.  In fact, going into the back nine on Sunday, she had a four-shot lead.  But unfortunately for her, the player she led was Jiyai Shin, the biggest superstar the KLPGA had seen in years.  Shin managed to fight back and catch Ryu, forcing a playoff which she won in three holes.  It was a bitter disappointment for the 18-year-old Ryu.

After So Yeon left the KLPGA in 2012, she rarely played KLPGA events again, let alone Majors, so it’s not like she was missing out four times a year.  But it always bugged her.  She even mentioned in her post-win interview at the US Women’s Open in 2011 the fact that she had not yet won a Major in Korea.

Thanks to the pandemic, however, Ryu played more often on the KLPGA in 2020.  And so, she had another chance to grab the elusive Open title, and this time she didn’t falter.  Pursued by a gaggle of great players, including world #1 Jin Young Ko, KLPGA money list leader Hyo Joo Kim, and 2020 Player of the Year-to-be Hye Jin Choi, Ryu held fast, eking out a 1-shot win over Kim.  (See ‘Best Korean Finish’). In celebration of her win, she gave her entire paycheck, around $225,000, to charity (see ‘Happiest News’).  This win was certainly worth the wait!

Other Nominees:

Sei Young Kim finally wins Major on the LPGA

Sei Young Kim has been a perpetual winner on the LPGA since she claimed three wins in her epic rookie season of 2015.  But in all that time, she had one glaring hole in her resume: she had never won a Major on that tour.  Coming into the 2020 KPMG, the year’s third Major, she had amassed 10 wins but still no Majors.

It wouldn’t be easy.  Coming into the back nine, she was trying to shake Inbee Park, the most relentless Major winner in the history of Korean golf.  Park had won this very event three other times in the near past.  But though Park came close, she was never able to catch Sei Young, and on the back nine, Kim made four birdies in five holes to decisively put the event away and finally claim a Major as her 11th career win.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 8, 2021

2020 SeoulSisters Awards (5 of 7): Controversy, Biggest Diss

Biggest Controversy

And the Winner Is: Erecting a wall on final hole of ANA

The way the 18th hole normally looks at the ANA Inspiration.  Yeah, the wall is always there.

As mentioned previously, the ANA Inspiration Mission Hills course usually has a grandstand on the back of the 18th green.  This wall has a second ancillary purpose: it encourages longer hitters to go for the green in two, since it will prevent long shots from going into the water beyond.

But this year, the organizers had a dilemma: since there were no fans invited to the event, there was no need for a grandstand.  Should they forget about erecting the wall?  How would that affect players’ willingness to go for the green in two?

They decided to put it up anyway.  As more than one player remarked, had they skipped having a wall, no one sane would have gone for the green in two in most cases; it would be too risky.  And since the selling point for that hole was the risk-and-reward aspect, they didn’t want to do anything to make it too risky.

There were a few comments about the wall during the week, mostly negative, but in general it was not a big talking point.  But once Mirim Lee — and not the American Nelly Korda or the Canadian favorite Brooke Henderson – won the event, the gloves came off.  Suddenly the wall was an outrage that had screwed over the most talented players in the field.  No one seemed to remember the comments of the players earlier in the week that the wall was the only reason most would even think of going for the green.

I’ll address the situation further when I talk about the ‘Biggest Diss’ next.

Other Nominees:

Rankings Frozen because of Covid19

The Rolex Rankings people decided to freeze the rankings for players who were skipping tournaments because of the pandemic.  This had the effect of allowing players like Jin Young Ko to play relatively little golf yet still remain high in the world rankings.

It’s arguable whether this was the best solution, but this really was an unusual situation.  If you really believe that players should have an option to not play if they feel their safety is at risk, then you shouldn’t punish them for that choice.  But this choice did have its drawbacks as well.

Victim” Sophia Popov

Sophia Popov’s improbable win at the year’s first Major, the AIG British Women’s Open, made her a darling of the fans and press.  But almost immediately, they complained about what they deemed unfair rules that prevented her from participating in other Majors and the CME.

It started when they whined that her win should have earned her a longer tour membership than she received.  A little history: back ten or more years ago, a win at a Major earned a player a five-year tour card on the LPGA, while a win at a normal event earned a player a two-year card.  But an interesting situation developed: most of the non-LPGA players who won these events were KLPGA stars.  So, mysteriously, they changed the rules, reducing the exemptions to just the end of the next year, which impacted primarily Korean players and the occasional Japanese player like Hinako Shibuno.  Yet nobody complained on Twitter, no PGA pros decried how unfair this new rule was – until a Western woman won a Major and she got the same crummy deal the Koreans had.  Then suddenly, it became an “outrage”, an issue that had to be solved AT ONCE.  Typical.

Sorry, Sophia, but if In Gee Chun had to live with those rules, so do you.  A retroactive change at this point would be a complete slap in the face for all those other players who didn’t have PGA pros to advocate for them.

2015 US Women’s Open winner In Gee Chun earned just one year of membership following her win at that Major

After that kerfuffle, the issue became Popov not getting added to the field of the next Major, the ANA Inspiration.  It had been established long before the British Open that the field would not change for the ANA, regardless of what happened at the British, because originally the ANA was to have been played in March, months before the AIG, and the field was set at that time.  But the golf pros, writers and others argued that they should make an exception for Popov.  When pressed for a reason, their argument was basically that hers was a great story and that fans wanted it.  Or in other words, we should change the rules based on popular opinion.  Sorry, the rules might suck, but they apply equally to everyone.  I have no doubt that if a Korean had won at Royal Troon that week, none of these same people would have cared that she wasn’t in the ANA field; heck, some of those arguing for Popov basically said as much.

They weren’t done looking for freebies.  Next it became about getting her into the field at the season ending CME tournament.  This event normally requires a player to collect points during the season to earn a place in the field.  In fact, a number of Korean stars were not able to earn enough points and were not present, including 2019 Major winner Jeongeun Lee6.  World #1 Jin Young Ko only earned enough points by finishing 2nd the previous week at the US Women’s Open.  Had she played even a little worse, say a 6th place finish, she wouldn’t have been able to play the CME.  By the way, Ko would go on to win the event she barely qualified for.

Popov did not earn enough points, largely because her British win points did not count (she was not on tour at the time).  Again, this rule has been in place forever, and it affected A Lim Kim, who won the US Women’s Open in 2020, as well as Popov.  But the twitterati still argued that an exception should be made in Popov’s case (sometimes they threw Kim in there as well, but basically as an argument to bolster their complaint about Popov).

Adding to the controversy, CME had two sponsor’s invites this year (they usually don’t have any, but Covid caused them to make an exception this year).  They used one on a player they sponsor, and the other on Natalie Gulbis, a player who has literally not been a factor anywhere in the golf world in at least five years.  At the time they gave Gulbis this ridiculous invite, Jin Young Ko was not yet qualified for the event.  Yet they decided that it was more important to get Gulbis into the field than Ko.

Popov naturally wanted that invite and went on Twitter to complain about not getting it.

Would Popov, Lee6, Jin Young Ko or A Lim Kim have been a better invite than Gulbis?  Of course; Gulbis finished dead last and was not to my knowledge even shown once on TV all week (so even her utility as an attraction to the fans was wasted).  But sponsor’s invites are inherently unfair anyways; to ask them to make sense is a losing battle.  Look at the bright side: the sponsor is paying a ton of money to stage the event.  Giving them a couple of ridiculous invites is the least the LPGA can do.

Biggest Diss

And the Winner Is: Mirim Lee “Unfairly” used a Wall to Win the ANA Inspiration

As mentioned in ‘Biggest Controversy’, the ANA Inspiration was played this year without fans.  Every year, they erect a grandstand on the green of the 18th hole which has the secondary effect of preventing long hitters from overshooting the final green and ending up in the water.  This year, although there were no fans in attendance, they still put up a wall that was used by most of the players to keep their approach shots from going in the drink.  For the most part, nobody in the press or on Twitter complained about it too much – until Korean Mirim Lee — and not the American or Canadian favorite — won the event.

Mirim Lee meets the press after winning the ANA Inspiration in September

After that, the not-so-subtle insinuation became that Mirim Lee, the Korean player, had either cheated by using the wall in her approach on Sunday or had at least taken advantage of it to get a win she did not deserve.  To be clear: she had in fact bounced the ball off the wall in regulation on Sunday, but her approach to the same green during the playoff stayed on the green and did not come near the wall.  And even in the first case, the ball had all but stopped before it hit the wall and might have still stayed dry were it not there.  But Lee freely admitted at the post-event press conference that she used the wall in her approach like everyone else.  The more honest commentators admitted that it would be foolish not to; a golfer should play the course as it is set up.

And so, on Sunday evening and Monday morning, Twitter was full of fulminations from various golf writers.  One CNN golf reporter flat out said that Lee’s ‘far left’ approach shot would have certainly been wet had it not been for the wall.  This was a total rewrite of history: it was HENDERSON who hit her ball left, not Lee (Lee’s shot went straight at the flag), and had the wall not been there, Lee simply would have changed her strategy before hitting.  Certainly this long-time golf writer knew that. Judy Rankin said she had ‘held her tongue’ about the wall until after the tournament, but that just made it look like she had waited until she saw who won before talking.  Would she have been so outraged had her favorite Korda gotten the title?

Beth Ann Nichols of Golfweek was even more transparent.  Her article Sunday night was titled ‘Wall Overshadows Dramatic Finish’.  I would argue that in fact the tournament’s finish was incredibly dramatic, with a chip-in for eagle being a deciding factor.  No, the wall only “overshadows” the finish because the media made a choice to focus on it. They could have gone a different way. No doubt if Korda or Henderson had won, they would have. But when yet another Korean won, and not even one of the bigger names, they took the easy way out and threw her under the bus. Heaven forbid they focus on a miraculous win by a Korean when there is something else they can nitpick about.

Who is Mirim Lee? Why did she take up golf? Was she a city or country girl? Rich or poor? Who were her parents? What are her challenges, her injuries, her dreams? Did you know her coach was a former LPGA player named Song Hee Kim, who once upon a time was one of the top Koreans on tour (do those writers even remember her)? I could not find ONE article in the American press about any of that. I know much more about Sophia Popov, the utterly obscure winner of the previous Major, even though she wasn’t 1/10th as accomplished as three-time winner Lee, because the writers actually bothered to do their research on her and wrote articles about that research. They made her “Cinderella” storyline the focus and did the work to back it up.

And yes, I know it’s harder to do research about a golfer who does not speak a lot of English. If anyone knows that, it’s the American guy who writes a blog about Korean golfers! But as a professional writer, you do the work that’s required. If sometimes it takes more digging, tough on you, choose another career if you can’t hack it. The information is out there, I guarantee it.

Look at this telling line from the Golfweek article:

But the LPGA had a dreamy finish in store, and it all came to a crashing, truly comical halt.

Again, I would say two chip-ins in the final three holes, and a playoff won by a birdie, IS a dreamy finish. What could she be implying? Well:

But Lee’s eagle came on the heels of a 5-wood that might have found the water had the wall not stopped it cold.

Yes, if the course had been set up differently, different things might have happened. So what? Are you SURE none of your faves benefitted during the week from that wall, a wall set up exactly like it always is when it doubles as a grandstand? Her comment could literally be said about any aspect of the setup any week at any event. So therefore, it’s meaningless. And also, clearly, Lee (and the rest of the field) would have clubbed down if the risk of overhitting was there. Who is Golfweek trying to fool?

But then Nichols really tips her hand. She imagines the excitement of a potential viewer. This is what goes through that viewer’s head.

Tune in for the big finish! Nelly Korda! Brooke Henderson! Lexi Thompson!

Ah. Now we understand. Blonde, Blonder and Blondest. You didn’t get the finish you wanted, so the wall is the reason. Good grief.

The article she had written the previous day had focused on the “dreamy” finish she was hoping for.  In her mind, it was going to be all about the Americans and Henderson. In that article, she tells us a little personal background story about each one of her chosen few. According to her, it was to be a “long awaited” showdown. In the article, she talked as much about long-retired Karrie Webb and Lorena Ochoa as about Mirim or any other Korean.

But then her “dreamy” finish didn’t happen, and instead of pivoting and talking about what really happened, she chose to make the story about how her dreamy finish didn’t happen. Yeesh.

Other Nominees:

Yealimi Noh Got Little Focus on Broadcasts

Teenage Korean American rookie Yealimi Noh seemed like the kind of player who was going to get big attention in 2020.  Tall, long hitting, attractive, and American, she had already come close to winning twice in 2019.  But despite her obvious star quality, she was rarely featured on golf telecasts in 2020, even when she was playing well.

To be fair, she finally started to get a little play towards the end of the season, notably at the Cambia, which she nearly won, and the US Women’s Open, where she was in one of the final groups on Sunday (but, alas, played poorly).  But she was rarely put into feature groups the rest of the time, as the Golf Channel mysteriously decided to focus on the same old players they usually featured.

Then there’s the weird case of Mexican player Maria Fassi.  For unfathomable reasons, the Golf media have decided that this is the next superstar of women’s golf.  No matter where she is on the leaderboard, you can guarantee Fassi will get ample coverage.  I understand that she is a long hitter and was a college star, but in 2019, she literally went more than six months without even a single decent result – it was all missed cuts and bottom of the leaderboard finishes.  Yet still, they would show her make bogey after bogey, making excuses about how she was learning and improving and what not.  Now, I’m not saying that she doesn’t have potential to be a great player one day, but shouldn’t she earn her coverage?  And shouldn’t other players with great potential like Noh get a little more coverage if they are outplaying her?

Yealimi at the Korea Women’s Open in June

At one event, Noh’s only appearance on the broadcast was when she nearly dunked an approach for an albatross.  Fassi finished dead last at 11 over par and was repeatedly shown.  When she finally finished, they still found a way to compliment her, saying she was trying real hard.  Sure, but so is everyone else who is not finishing at 11 over. 

Noh is producing some solid golf.  If there were a Rookie of the Year race this season, she would have easily won it.  She finished 25th on the money list.  She might very well qualify for the Solheim Cup next year.  She has earned more attention than the media is giving her.

KLPGA Ignored when it is literally the Only Sport in the World

Once the pandemic hit hard last Spring, sports ground to a halt everywhere in the world.  Baseball, NBA, the Masters, March Madness – all of it was suspended.  The LPGA and PGA were out of action for months as well.

Then in late April, the KLPGA announced that they would stage their first scheduled Major, the KLPGA Championship, in mid-May.  At the time it seemed like a pipe dream, but they were as good as their word.  There were no fans, but still the event went off without a hitch.  And because the LPGA was out of action for another month and a half, many of the top Korean stars from that tour attended the KLPGA event, giving it a genuine star power it wouldn’t have normally had.

Jeongeun Lee6, Sung Hyun Park and Sei Young Kim were among the big LPGA stars in the field at the KLPGA Championship

Even better, the tour produced an English language broadcast, which was available on YouTube.  Some Western networks, desperate for content, showed the tournament, including the CBC in Canada and I believe an Australian sports channel.

So what did the American Golf Channel do?  The same week, there was a goofy golf event featuring Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and… two NFL players.  You guessed it – that’s all they talked about.  OK, they did show a brief report of the KLPGA results each day on Golf Central; but keep in mind, this was the ONLY real golf event being played ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, men or women (and a Major with top-ten-in-the-world stars familiar to American LPGA fans!).  Giving it less than thirty seconds of coverage per day was a BIG insult, especially so they could focus on an utterly meaningless made-for-TV golf event where half the players were celebrities, not pros.  And it looks like they never even considered actually airing the KLPGA event, which was even more of an outrage.  Again, there already was a made-to-order English language package, with several players LPGA fans would know, and some really great golf even from the KLPGA players who were less familiar.  What a missed opportunity!

Sophia Popov deserves special treatment that the Koreans did not get for winning Major

I talked about this in the ‘Biggest Controversy’ category.  The upshot is that these commentators only cared about the lackluster rewards for a non-LPGA player winning a Major when a non-Asian was affected; all the Koreans who had been screwed in the past never received the benefit of similar Twitter outrage. 

The latest I’ve read is that they are looking hard at changing the rules in the future, and perhaps even making them retroactive.  So if they change the rule so that a non-member winning a Major gets a five-year exemption, then Popov would receive that exemption, even though she won her event before the rule was in effect. This reminds me of how the rules governing rules infractions called in by TV viewers changed once Lexi Thompson was affected, but no one cared when it was just some ordinary player or non-American who might be busted.

Most Fashionable

Even in a shortened season, with more golf than ever played in very cold conditions, the Sisters found a way to be fashion forward.  Here are some of the more colorful looks of the year. 

Char Young Kim

Gyeol Park

Ha Neul Kim has been sponsored by Le Coq Sportif for years.

Yoon Kyung Heo retired this year

Hyun Ju Yoo

Hyun Kyung Park had a breakout season in 2020

Rookie Se Rin Hyun

Ju Yeon In

Ji Hyun Ahn

World #1 Jin Young Ko

Keun Young An

Jeongeun Lee6

Teen star Yealimi Noh

Ji Hyun Oh

Rookie Ri An Kim

So Yeon Ryu

So Hyeon Ahn

Song Yi Ahn

World #2 Sei Young Kim

Ye Rim Choi

Yul Lin Hwang finds a way with her Elle Golf golfwear sponsor to stand out in the crowd most weeks.

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is: Mirim Lee chip-in on 72nd hole, ANA Inspiration

Mirim Lee needed an eagle on the final hole of the ANA Inspiration to have any chance of getting her first Major win.  She wound up just past the green in two shots, then proceeded to hit a perfect chip-in for eagle to post the score she needed.  Eventually, it was enough to get her into the playoff, which she won.

An eagle chip-in on the final hole of a Major?  Yeah, that’s the shot of the year!

Other Nominees:

Lee6 hits Albatross on KLPGA tour

Lee6’s great shot came in the first round of the IS Dongseo Busan Open.  On the second shot on one of the par-5 holes, Six landed the ball just on the green and it rolled right into the cup.  It was the 7th Albatross in KLPGA history!

Minjee Lee saves par on Postage Stamp hole, British Women’s Open

The Postage Stamp is the nickname of the 8th hole at Royal Troon; you can imagine how it got that nickname! 

In the final round, Minjee Lee was in the hunt for the title, but got herself into a world of trouble on this hole.  She was mired in terrible rough, well above the green.  A bad shot could do anything from not move at all to go over the green and put her in even worse shape.  Somehow, she managed to punch out and get the ball onto the green, just 25 feet from the hole.  She then made the par, one of the great par saves of the year.

Yu Jin Sung makes ace at US Women’s Open

Yu Jin Sung reacts to an ace at the KLPGA’s ADT-Caps event

Yu Jin Sung is one of the more obscure KLPGA golfers who competed at this year’s US Women’s Open.  She did not make the cut, but she left the event with one priceless memory.  In the first round, she made a hole-in-one on the fourth hole.  She could not contain her excitement, jumping up and down with sheer joy.

She then proceeded to show her shoes to her two playing partners.  Why?  Because her shoes had the English words ‘hole-in-one’ written on them!  Even more weirdly, at her previous event a few weeks earlier, the KLPGA’s ADT-Caps, she had also made an ace, giving her holes-in-one at two consecutive events.

She joked that she should get a new pair of shoes with the word ‘champion’ written on them.  Who knows what might happen if she did!

Most Dramatic Hole

And the Winner is: the 18th hole, ANA Inspiration

As usual at this event, all the action came down to the 18th hole on Sunday.  A par five that is reachable to the longer hitters on tour, it usually has a grandstand at the back of the green that hides the water beyond from the players.  This year there were no fans, but they still controversially put up a wall to mimic the grandstands, which allowed players to use the wall to stop their longer shots.

The wall played into all sorts of weird scenarios on that hole.  Longer hitters like Lexi Thompson used it all week to stop their approach shots.  When Brooke Henderson hit into the wall on Sunday, she lost her ball underneath it.  Fortunately, she still got a free drop and was able to make birdie, which got her into the playoff.  Eventual champ Mirim Lee used the wall in her final approach, positioning her for the Shot of the Year as we just mentioned.

But it wasn’t just the wall that made a difference here; the rough off the tee was also pivotal.  Nelly Korda seemed primed to get her first Major win, but she hit two terrible drives on 18 on Sunday, one in the playoff, and both times she wound up in the rough, preventing her from going for the green in two.  In fact, she only made par on the hole both times, losing two shots to Mirim Lee in regulation and one in the playoff.

Best Stretch of Holes

And the Winner Is: A Lim Kim, Final Three Holes, US Women’s Open

When A Lim Kim reached the 16th hole on Monday at the US Women’s Open, she was two shots out of the lead and almost certainly out of the running for the title.  She finished with three straight birdies to grab a one-shot lead that turned out to be enough to win the title.

How rare was this?  In the Se Ri era, there have only been a few times when a player has made even one birdie on the final hole to win the tournament by a shot.  The most famous example of that was Birdie Kim’s hole-out from the bunker at the 2005 Open.  Eun Hee Ji also dunked a 72nd hole birdie at the 2009 Open.  And of course, Se Ri birdied her final hole during the epic 1998 playoff that started the Korean Wave.

But no one could find any example of the US Women’s Open ever being won by a single shot after the champion birdied the final three holes.  In fact, this might not have ever happened at any women’s Major.  At the most important time in her entire career, Kim pulled off a birdie run for the ages.

Other Nominees:

Sei Young Kim, round 3, Pelican Women’s Championship

Sei Young Kim was looking for her second straight win following her first Major triumph a few weeks earlier.  In round 3, she was in a pitched battle with Ally McDonald at the Pelican Women’s Championship.  Then McDonald made an ace to move to within one shot of Kim.  Sei Young’s response?  She immediately made four straight birdies to establish her biggest lead yet.

Round of the Year

And the Winner Is: Sei Young Kim’s final round at the KPMG

Sei Young Kim had 10 LPGA wins coming into this season but had never won a Major.  Without question, she was the best active player who had yet to win one.  The course for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship this year was a par 70 with only two par fives, and it wasn’t giving up a lot of birdies.  Sei Young Kim carved out a 54-hole lead and looked primed to get that Major win at last.

But in her rearview mirror was Inbee Park.  If Sei Young was the player with the smallest number of Majors compared to other wins, Inbee is probably the one with the greatest Major win percentage, at least among players with more than ten wins.  She already had seven Majors, and she was playing really well on Sunday.  She made a run at Kim, getting to within one shot at times.  Inbee would shoot a 65, which was an incredible score for this course.  She hardly made a mistake all day.

Kim responded with a *63*, turning the event into a laugher.  Even Inbee, the best golfer of her generation, playing a great final round, was no match for Kim on this day.  Kim’s final score was the lowest total score in the history of the tournament.

Other Nominees:

Mirim Lee final round, ANA Inspiration

See ‘Clutch Performance of the Year’ for more details!

Ayean Cho, 2nd round 64, Geoff King Motors Australian Ladies Classic

Ayean Cho played great in all three of her Australian events in February (see Best Start to the Season for details!).  In the second round of this LET tournament, the third event of her trip, she made 8 birdies and an eagle against just two bogies for a sizzling 64. This gave her a six-shot lead after the morning wave.  However, two other players caught her in the afternoon.  She wound up finishing second in the event.

Clutch Performance of the Year

And the Winner Is: Mirim Lee, Final Round, ANA Inspiration

This battle for this award was between three amazing performances.  Mirim Lee’s Major win gets the prize because the score at that event was close on Sunday the whole way; just one more mistake by Lee or one fewer great shot, and the result would have been very different.

Mirim Lee had won three times on the LPGA before 2020, but she still has had a tough time of it in her career.  She has frequently been sidelined, sometimes for long stretches, with debilitating injuries.  She made just two top tens on tour in 2019, and had not won an event since the Kia Classic in 2017.

This year, the ANA Inspiration, traditionally played in March, was postponed by Covid19 until mid-September.  Despite the delay, many of the Korean stars still chose to skip the event, including the defending champ Jin Young Ko and recent winner So Yeon Ryu.  And so it was that, going into the final round, Mirim Lee was the only Korean with a decent chance of winning.  But would she be up for the challenge?  Despite her three wins, she had never claimed a Major.

On Sunday, Mirim dug deep, coming up with a magical combination of luck, skill and guts to stay in the hunt the whole day.  An early inkling of what was in store came on the sixth hole, when she chipped in for birdie.  She hung tight during the middle of her round, but it always looked like American Nelly Korda had the advantage and was going to hang on to her slight lead and claim the title.

Then Lee reached the 16th hole.  Faced with a 90-foot chip across the green, she somehow, improbably, chipped it in for birdie!  On the 17th, however, she could not get up and down, and fell two shots behind Korda.  She knew she needed an eagle on the par-5 18th to have any chance.

She reached the green in two, using her length and the back stop wall to her advantage.  Still, she had missed the green and faced another lengthy chip.  Incredibly, as if by a miracle, Lee chipped it in, made eagle, and put herself into the house tied for the lead.  THREE chip-ins in the same round, and she had needed every one of them.

Still, Korda had yet to play 17 or 18, and it seemed unlikely that she would not make birdie at least on 18.  But amazingly, she did not, and the result was a three-way playoff between Lee, Korda and Brooke Henderson.  This time, Lee did not depend on good fortune.  She reached the green in two without using the wall, while her two opponents were not so fortunate.  Lee put her third close to the hole and drained the birdie to win her first Major.  The biggest win of her career was also the most clutch and least likely.

Other Nominees:

Sei Young Kim, final round, KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

Sei Young Kim went toe-to-toe with the greatest Korean golfer of her generation, Inbee Park, with her first Major on the line, and produced four late birdies and a five-shot win.

A Lim Kim, Final Round, US Women’s Open

Kim hung tough all day, then made three birdies to finish the round, winning the biggest event in women’s golf by one shot.  It was her first ever LPGA Major competition.

Biggest Disappointment

Four Sisters losing at the Volunteers of America

It took most of the season before a large percentage of the Korean stars had arrived in the US to play on the LPGA.  By the time the Volunteers of America tournament was played in December, almost all of them were in action.  Not surprisingly, this resulted in a leaderboard covered with Korean stars.  So Yeon Ryu, playing her first LPGA event since February, felt right at home in Dallas, where she lives when in the States.  She shot a third round 6-under 65 to move into a share of the lead.  Her best friend Inbee Park was also tied for the lead after three, and would play with So Yeon on Sunday.  The third player in their group would be Korean American teen sensation Yealimi Noh, also tied for the lead and looking for a breakout win while playing with two of her idols.

Yealimi Noh. This outfit would have been appropriate at the chilly Volunteers of America tournament.

On top of that, Jin Young Ko, in her second LPGA event of the season, was just a shot back, and Jeongeun Lee6 shot a Saturday 66 to move to within three.  What a lineup!

Alas, Sunday was not the story the fans of the Sisters wanted to see.  Texan Angela Stanford, who had not played all that well all year, excelled on what amounted to her backyard course and grabbed the win.  Ryu, Park and Noh finished tied for second.  Jin Young finished a shot behind them in fifth.  Lee6 never got it going on Sunday and finished tied for 16th.

So four of the top five were Sisters, but none of them won.

Other Nominees:

Ji Hyun Oh’s and In Gee Chun’s Comebacks Peter Out

In Gee Chun

Ji Hyun Oh and In Gee Chun both had had weak 2019 seasons, and early in 2020, both looked like they were on the road to a major comeback.  But they both finished the season less impressively, never quite completing their comebacks as it looked like they would.

In Gee Chun kicked her 2020 season into gear in the UK, where she managed back-to-back top tens at the Scottish and British Opens.  It was the first time she had managed back-to-back top tens in several years.  She followed that with a solid top 20 at the ANA Inspiration.  Signs were good that In Gee was about to take a big step forward.

But that was as good as her season got.  Her best finish the rest of the year was a tie for 20th.  She had a number of good rounds sprinkled in there, and some good stats, but she never was able to maintain her strong play for an entire event.  She finished the year 37th on the money list.  This was certainly an improvement over the 67th place finish she had had in 2019, but not a patch on her 26th place finish in 2018 or her top 15 finishes the two years before that.

On the KLPGA tour, Ji Hyun Oh had a similar downturn in her fortunes in 2019, after several years where she improved year-over-year.  She managed a better comeback in 2020 than Chun, but still got nowhere near where she had been in 2018 and before.

Ji Hyun Oh

Unlike In Gee, Ji Hyun legitimately contended several times early in the year.  For instance, she notched a third place at the Lotte Cantata, just a shot out of the playoff between heavyweights Sei Young Kim and Hyo Joo Kim.  Indeed, in a normal season, neither of those players would have been in the field and Oh would have probably gotten the win.  Her best 2020 performance came a few weeks later at the Korea Women’s Open, a Major she had won easily two years earlier.  Oh entered Sunday one shot behind So Yeon Ryu.  Alas, she struggled, falling into a tie for 4th with Sei Young Kim.  But again, almost everyone who beat her was an LPGA regular: Ryu for the win, Kim tied for 4th with her, and Hyo Joo Kim in second.  Hye Jin Choi was the only KLPGA player ahead of her, and she is the biggest star in the league.

Alas, this was as good as it got for Oh.  She had several more top 20s, but did not seriously contend again in 2020.  In the end, she finished 19th on the money list.  Not terrible, certainly better than the 35th she had in 2019, but not close to the top five money list positions she was achieving the years before that.

Inbee loses playoff at the Diamond Resorts

Inbee Park put herself into the perfect position to win the first event of the year back in January.  But in the final round, she just didn’t seem to be able to make the key putts or shots she needed.  She wound up in a playoff with Gaby Lopez, a player with little previous success, and got a bad break on the third playoff hole to lose.  Fortunately, soon afterwards she claimed her 20th win at the Australian Women’s Open.

Yealimi Noh at Cambia

Yealimi Noh seemed to have the 2019 Cambia Classic title in her hands, only to see it slip away in the final few holes to Hannah Green.

In 2020, she once again put herself into position to get the win at the same tournament.  In fact, she just needed a par on the final hole to get into a playoff.  Alas, she hit her drive into a fairway bunker and made bogey. She finished third.

Most Dominating Performance

And the Winner Is: Hyo Joo Kim at the KB Financial Group Star Championship

Hyo Joo Kim is normally a full-time golfer on the LPGA tour, but due to the pandemic, she wound up playing her entire season on the KLPGA tour.  She quickly established herself as a force there in 2020, winning the third event she played, the Lotte Cantata, and nearly winning the Korea Women’s Open not long after that.  Hovering near the top of the money list all year, she entered the year’s final Major, the KB Star, with something to prove.

She got off to a great start, shooting a 66 to tie for the lead with Ha Na Jang and Ju Young Park.  She followed that up with a 69 to take a four-shot lead into the weekend.  In round 3 she shot a 69 in tough conditions, and just like that her lead had ballooned to *10* strokes.  She finally had a bad round on Sunday, but it didn’t matter; even after a 75, she still won by 8 shots.  In second place?  World #1 Jin Young Ko.  When even the best player in the world can’t hang with you, that’s domination.

Other Nominees:

Sei Young Kim, KPMG Women’s PGA Championship

As mentioned before, this tournament was fairly close until Sei Young Kim turned on the jets, beating Inbee Park by five shots.

Jin Young Ko, CME

Jin Young Ko showed the world who was the #1 golfer.  As mentioned in Best Korean Confrontation, she went toe-to-toe with world #2 Sei Young Kim and beat her by five shots.  Phenomenal.

Cinderella of the Year

And the Winner Is: A Lim Kim Wins US Women’s Open

It’s very likely that, in a normal year, A Lim Kim would not have even been in the field for the US Women’s Open.  She was ranked 94th in the world coming in.  Generally, the KLPGA is given a few invites into that Major’s field for the very top players on tour.  But Kim has not managed to finish in the top five on the KLPGA in any of her seasons to date.  She has two wins in her career, but had none in the KLPGA’s 2020 season.  And she had not only never played the US Women’s Open or any other Major before, she had never even played an event in the United States.

But in 2020, all the rules changed.  With no way to conduct the usual qualifying events for the Open, they opened up the field to players ranked in the top 100 in the Rolex rankings.  This allowed 27 Korean players, including many from the KLPGA, to compete.  A fairly large number of big names from that tour, including winners Hyun Kyung Park, Ayean Cho, Song Yi Ahn and So Mi Lee, turned down the invite, not wanting to have to deal with mandatory quarantine on their trip to Houston and their trip back to Korea.  But A Lim Kim eagerly took on the challenge.

She got lucky in another way.  Because the event took place in December instead of the summer, the temperatures were biting cold, and the course played longer than usual.  This knocked some of the shorter hitters, like multiple Open winner Inbee Park, out of the running.  Kim, meanwhile, has been the longest hitter on the KLPGA for the past several years, and her length definitely enhanced her chances to win.

A Lim featured in a magazine in Korea

But in the end, this Cinderella made her own luck, too.  She hung around the leaderboard all week, but as the event entered its final day on Monday morning, she was five shots back, and would need a record-tying comeback to contend.  She ran off several birdies early to get into the hunt, then made a couple of bogies to fall back.  With three holes to play, she was two shots out of the lead and seemingly would have to settle for a top five.

But this is where the Cinderella became the hunter.  Rather than be intimidated by the situation, she attacked the flags.  She hit a brilliant tee shot on the par 3 16th, nodding as she watched the shot roll to within about five feet of the hole.  She made birdie to cut the deficit to one.  On the next hole, after another bombed drive, she hit her approach even closer, to perhaps two feet, and the birdie moved her into a tie for the lead.  After another great drive on 18, she hit her approach under the flag about eight feet.  Even a two-putt par would put her in the house at 2 under, and given the tough conditions, that might be enough to win.  But she sealed the deal with yet another birdie, pumping her fist in glee as it dropped.  She had to wait about an hour, but no one was able to catch her.  The win was hers.

How unlikely was this victory?  She was the lowest ranked player to win the event since the Rolex Rankings started in 2006.  Every other KLPGA star who had won any Major before joining the LPGA had been either the top player on the KLPGA tour that year (In Gee Chun in 2015, Hyo Joo Kim at the Evian in 2014) or had been in the top three for several years (So Yeon Ryu in 2011).  A Lim is the only exception to those patterns.

A Lim returns to Korea after her triumph

A Lim decided to take the card she earned with the win and join the LPGA in 2021. It remains to be seen how much of a fluke win this was, or how ready she is to become a star at the top level.  But given her length and the advantage that length gives golfers on the LPGA, it wouldn’t be surprising to see her excel over here on a regular basis!

Other Nominees:

Mirim Lee, ANA Inspiration

Mirim Lee was a multiple tour winner coming into this year’s ANA Inspiration, so her win wasn’t exactly the utter surprise A Lim Kim’s was.  However, Lee has struggled with injuries for years, resulting in inconsistency and long stretches of futility between the moments of brilliance.

Everything seemed to align for Lee the week of the ANA.  She hit her drives long, she hung around the lead, and on Sunday, she had some incredible luck, chipping in three times to tie the leaders and force a playoff, which she won.  The luck came paired with a bunch of great shots she produced at just the right time.

Alas, shortly after the win, her health seems to have messed with her again, and she did not manage to have another really good result in 2020.

Parasite Wins Best Picture, three other Oscars

OK, this isn’t golf, but I just had to mention this incredible result.  Parasite, a movie by Korean star director Bong Joon Ho, racked up a wealth of awards through 2019 and early 2020, including the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.  They saved the best for last, winning four Oscars in February, including Best Picture and Best Director.

How unlikely was this?  A Korean film had never even been nominated for an Oscar before Parasite.  Even in the Best International Film category, the Koreans had never scored so much as a nomination, let alone a win.  No foreign language film had ever won Best Picture, either.  Every win Parasite had was unprecedented.

Also deserving a shout-out was the Parasite team’s fantastic translator Sharon Choi. Through ten months of work under intense scrutiny, she had an uncanny knack for instantly translating everything Bong said into relatable colloquial English with nary a pause.  Contrast this with Ayean Cho’s horrible translator down under, who kept interrupting her mid-sentence to badly translate, much to her obvious annoyance.  Is Choi available to work for the Koreans on the LPGA?

Best Breakthrough

And the Winner Is: Na Rin An

Who is Na Rin An?  It’s some measure of just how obscure she was before 2020 that her two wins this season were such a surprise.

Born in 1996, An turned pro in 2015.  She finally qualified for the KLPGA in 2017, and that year she finished 43rd on the money list.  She had a few top tens that season, including a runner up at the Caido Women’s Open.  She was 47th on the money list in 2018 (with another runner-up result) and 36th on the money list in 2019.  Not terrible, but hardly a record that suggested a star was soon to be born.

An got off to a good start in 2020, with a third place and a couple of other top tens, but none of that compared to what she did at the new Autech Carrier Championship in October.  She started her dominance there with a second round 65 to take a three-shot lead.  She followed that with another 65 in round three, and just like that, her lead had ballooned to ten shots.  All the more amazing was that the player in second place was none other than world #1 Jin Young Ko.

An had the event in the bag, but she struggled a bit on Sunday on the back nine, while super rookie Hae Ran Ryu made a huge charge.  Ryu wound up shooting a 63, which put her within just a couple shots of An, but An regrouped and made two late birdies to shoot a 72 and win the event by four.  What almost was the biggest collapse of the year turned into An’s Cinderella moment.

But An was not done.  A month later, she put together another strong bid at the Hana Bank event, one of the most lucrative of the year.  An shot two 69s to move to within a couple of the leader.  After a third round 71, she was tied for the lead with two top players, Ha Na Jang and Min Ji Park.  But in tough conditions, it was An who held strong.  Park shot a 77 and Jang a 74, while An shot a 71 to claim a three-shot win.

Na Rin finished the year with a 10th at the ADT-Caps, then got a chance to play at the US Women’s Open, her first Major, where she finished tied for 63rd.  An finished 4th on the KLPGA money list, and looks poised to continue her newfound excellence in 2021.

Other nominees:

Hae Ran Ryu

Hae Ran Ryu had already won an LPGA event before even joining the tour in 2020.  The teen continued to break through this season, dominating the Rookie of the Year race while notching a second career win.  She had nine top tens and finished second on the year-ending money list.

Hyun Kyung Park

Hyun Kyung Park had a great rookie season in 2019, but she was not able to get a win.  She changed that big time in 2020, grabbing the first win of the season at the KLPGA Championship, and following that up with another win shortly thereafter.  She wound up finishing seventh on the tour’s money list with over 500 million won earned.

Great Performance that came up short

And the ‘Winner’ is: Inbee Park doesn’t Win a Major

How did Inbee Park finish the 2020 season without winning a Major? 

In many ways, 2020 was a return to form for the legend.  She lost a playoff in her first event of the year, then won at the Australian Women’s Open.  By the end of the year, she had risen to 3rd in the world rankings.  And she was a serious factor in three of the four Majors she played.  But somehow, she didn’t manage to get any wins at those big events.

Inbee Park had a final round 66 at the AIG British Women’s Open to finish solo 4th.  But the winner was a player who not only no longer had an LPGA card, she had never even won an event on the Symetra Tour.  Didn’t matter; that week in the UK, Sophia Popov was unstoppable, and Inbee had to settle for a top five.

At the KPMG, an event Inbee had won three times, it seemed like it was finally her chance to grab a Major in 2020.  She was in a tight battle for the title on Sunday with Sei Young Kim, a great Korean who had never won a Major before.  But just when it looked like Park was going to reel her in, Kim stepped on the gas, made four birdies in five holes, and won the event by five.  Inbee finished second.

The US Women’s Open was a supreme challenge for Park.  Played in December, the course played long, a real problem for the short hitting Inbee.  On the final day, she did manage to rally as the course played shorter, shooting a 3 under 68.  But by then she had fallen too far behind and was only able to get a tie for 6th.

Even the post-season awards were denied her.  In order to win the Vare Trophy, she needed to play 48 rounds of golf, but had only played 45.  Park’s average of 70.07 was third in the league.  Had they reduced the required total a little (Park was hardly the only player who could not reach that number of rounds), she might have won the Vare, as the actual Vare winner, Danielle Kang, finished with an average of 70.08 strokes but played 49 rounds, just enough to qualify.  Meanwhile, Inbee was at the top of the Player of the Year standings entering the final event, but Sei Young Kim finished second there and passed her.  Park also finished third on the money list behind her fellow Koreans Jin Young Ko and Sei Young Kim, after leading at times not too long before.

So 2020 was a great year for Inbee Park, but it was close to being a sensational one.

Other Nominees:

In Gee Chun and Inbee Park at the British

In Gee Chun

It was a good week for Inbee Park and In Gee Chun at the year’s first Major, the British Women’s Open.  Both had great final rounds.  In Gee shot a 69, which placed her in a tie for 7th. Believe it or not, that was her first top ten in a Major since she won the Evian back in the 2016 season.  Inbee Park sizzled with a 66, but she had too much ground to make up and only finished 4th.  Minjee Lee finished at 4 under, solo third.  But everyone finished behind unlikely winner Sophia Popov, a player not even ranked in the top 200 in the world at the time.

It’s time once again to review the highs and lows of the just-finished season in women’s golf!  Time for the annual SeoulSisters Awards, aka the Seoulies.

It’s an understatement to say that 2020 was the most unusual golf season the women have ever seen.  Women’s golf was hit even harder than most sports by the global pandemic.  The disease started to ravage Asia just as the LPGA tour was about to begin their annual Spring Asian swing; the result was that the entire swing was canceled.  Then, just as that swing would have ended and they prepared to play in America, the disease reached here, and several months of tournaments were postponed or outright canceled.  For a while, it was questionable whether the women would tee it up at all for the rest of the year.

Once again, it was the Koreans who led the way back.  The KLPGA also suffered several setbacks, but they committed to starting play again with their first Major, the KLPGA Championship, in mid-May.  The event not only was played (without fans) at that time, it was pretty much the only golf event, male or female, being played anywhere in the world.  They even presented an English-language broadcast available on YouTube to allow a golf-hungry world to watch the action.

Eventually the LPGA was able to play golf again, and both tours were able to stage enough events to make for a decent if short season.  With luck, 2021 will start to inch back to normal, with the Olympics a possible highlight in the summer.  Stay tuned!

Now, on to the awards!

Best Start to the Season

And the Winner Is: Ayean Cho in Australia

Fresh off her Rookie of the Year campaign in 2019, teen KLPGA star Ayean Cho went Down Under to Australia to compete in several events, joined by fellow KLPGAers Hye Jin Choi and Hee Jeong Lim.  Ayean very quickly established herself as a force.  At the first event, the LPGA’s Vic Open, played in early February, she shot a second-round 66 to move to within three of the lead.  The conditions got brutal in round 3, but Ayean still shot a 70.  At one point late in the day, she literally had to hold onto her hat to prevent it from blowing away.  She made some clutch par saves and a late birdie to grab a one-shot lead with one round to go.  She would play in the final group on Sunday for the first time at an LPGA event, with a tour card on the line!

Alas, it was not a great final day for her; she struggled mightily, falling all the way to a tie for 16th after an 81. Still, she had shown a lot of promise in her first LPGA event outside of Korea.

The next week, she played at the Australian Women’s Open, and guess what?  She once again contended!  Playing at Royal Adelaide the week after Parasite unexpectedly won the Best Picture Oscar, it seemed like a golden time for the Koreans, and they delivered.  Ayean had three strong rounds to start, and on Sunday was once again in the final group, this time paired with Korean legend Inbee Park.

Sunday again featured tough conditions, and Inbee hung in there to score her 20th career win.  Ayean once again struggled, although not as badly as the week before, notching her career best LPGA finish: a tie for 6th.

The next week, Ayean tried again, this time at the Geoff King Motors Australian Ladies Classic on the Ladies European Tour.  And once again, she played brilliantly, getting into the final group on Sunday thanks to a 67-64 start.  This time she was a few shots back of an untested teen amateur.  She finally had a good Sunday, but the amateur surprised everyone by shooting a 62 and running away with the title.  Ayean finished second, though.  So three weeks in Australia, three final groups on Sunday, her best ever LPGA finish, and a runner-up.  Not too shabby!

Other Nominees:

Inbee Park

Inbee started the year by losing to Gaby Lopez in a playoff at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.  After a missed cut in the next event, she traveled to Australia, where she nabbed the title at the Australian Women’s Open, the 20th of her career.  Two top 2s including a win in her first three starts!

Biggest Disappearing Act

And the Winner Is: Sung Hyun Park

Sung Hyun Park exploded onto the LPGA tour in 2017, winning the Rookie of the Year, tying for Player of the Year, becoming the first Rookie to ever hold the #1 spot, and grabbing the US Women’s Open as one of her wins.  She followed that up with another sensational season in 2018 with another Major win, and in 2019 she briefly held the #1 ranking again with two more wins and mostly top 20s.  She struggled with injuries towards the end of the year, but still finished the year near the top of the world rankings.

Whether it’s injuries, rust, or pandemic start-and-stop schedules, something really affected Park in the 2020 season.  She hardly played on the Korean tour; other than a couple of starts and a special skins match against Jin Young Ko, she essentially did not play at all until she showed up at the ANA Inspiration in September.  In 7 LPGA events played, she did not have a better finish than 17th at the KPMG.  She missed the cut at the US Women’s Open on a course that should have been good for her length, and did not qualify for the season-ending CME.  Her world ranking fell from 2nd to 10th, and for the first time in ages, she is not one of the top four Koreans, meaning she would not make the Olympic squad if it were chosen today.  However, she is only fractions of a point behind Hyo Joo Kim, who is just ahead of her in the rankings.

Is this a sign of a serious problem in her game, or a mere blip?  For the time being, we’ll assume that she is dealing with a minor downturn, and with more rest and recuperation, will return to her world-beating style in 2021.

Best Korean Confrontation

And the Winner Is: Jin Young Ko vs. Sei Young Kim, CME Championship

It doesn’t get much better than this: the #1 and #2 women’s golfers in the world, swapping the lead back and forth over several days, competing for a 1.1 million dollar payday and several season-ending awards, with the #1 world ranking possibly up for grabs as well!

Sei Young Kim had a great 2020.  She won her first Major, grabbed another win in her next start, and had moved to #2 in the world, her career best ranking.  She had also greatly reduced the lead #1 Jin Young Ko held over her.  Ko was finally returning to the LPGA for the first time all season, and the #1 ranking was hanging in the balance.  Would Sei Young cap her year by taking down Ko, or could the superstar fight back?

Ko’s first event back was just a tie for 34th at an event Kim won.  The next time Ko played, at the Volunteers of America, she played much better, finishing 5th; but Kim was not at the event.

Then came the US Women’s Open, the year’s final Major.  And possibly Ko’s final event of 2020; she was not yet qualified to play in the Tour Championship and would need a top five at the Open to make it into the field.  Ko played clinical golf, put herself within five on Sunday, then charged up the leaderboard.  She finished tied for 2nd, just one shot from a playoff with winner A Lim Kim.  Sei Young finished t-20th, allowing Ko to gain a little breathing room at the top and to get into that final event.

The battle at the CME was everything you could hope for.  Ko grabbed the lead after the second round; Kim took it by one shot over Ko in the third.  They would be paired on Sunday.  So much was on the line:  Sei Young Kim could grab her first Player of the Year award with a top five finish.  She also would win the money list with a win, and, if she won and Ko fell out of the top ten, would become #1 in the world.

It was a great battle in tough conditions, with both staying tied at the top through 12 holes.

Then Jin Young Ko put the hammer down, showing that, at least for now, she was still the top gun in the women’s game.  She made birdies on almost every hole remaining, including the last one, and claimed a five-shot win.  The win gave HER the money list lead for the year in just FOUR events played.  She also, of course, maintained her number one ranking.  Kim managed to grab the Player of the Year and had the lowest scoring average on tour to boot (though not enough rounds to qualify for the Vare Trophy).  Two superstars finished the year in style.

Other Nominees:

Sei Young vs. Inbee, KPMG

Much like at the CME, Sei Young Kim and Inbee Park, two of the top Koreans in the field, slugged it out on Sunday at the year’s third Major, the KPMG Championship. For much of the day, the gap between them rarely was greater than two strokes.  Then Kim stepped on the gas, made a gaggle of birdies, and won by five shots.  Inbee shot a 65 and still lost big, while Sei Young shot an insanely good 63.  Kim’s total score was the lowest in tournament history.

Hee Jeong Lim vs. Hyun Kyung Park

Hee Jeong Lim and Hyun Kyung Park were two of the great rookie stars on the KLPGA in 2019.  Lim had won three times and finished second in the Rookie race to Ayean Cho.  Park was consistent but hadn’t managed to win.  Still, she told the press at the start of 2020 that none other than Jin Young Ko had taken her under her wing, and Park felt she had a good chance to get that first win soon in the coming season.

It took Park next to no time to make good on that promise.  She won the first event when the KLPGA started its delayed season, the KLPGA Championship, and it was a Major to boot.  Lim in fact had a three-shot lead coming into the final round but lost to Park by a shot.

They would continue to battle all year.  Park won a second event not long afterwards.  Lim continued to be consistent for months, notching a bunch of top tens, but was never able to get a win in 2020.

Park’s second win came at the IS Busan Open; the final round was canceled due to weather, and so they had a playoff between the players who were tied for the lead in the previous round: Lim and Park.  Park once again got the win, with Lim second.

Lim won the war, though, finishing with a higher world ranking at the end of the year than Park.

Sei Young vs. Hyo Joo, Lotte Cantata

Sei Young Kim and Hyo Joo Kim were not supposed to be playing on the KLPGA this year, but with the LPGA out of action for several months, both played several events on the home tour.  At the Lotte Cantata, both ended up in a playoff.  Sei Young is undefeated in playoffs on the LPGA, but at that event, Hyo Joo got the better of her, winning one of her two titles of 2020.

Best Korean Finish

And the Winner is: Vic Open

The Vic Open had a smattering of top LPGA stars from Korea, a few of the second-tier players, and a few big-name KLPGA stars.    Hee Young Park became one of the oldest Koreans to win an LPGA event when she captured the trophy, her third career win, at age 32.  She beat So Yeon Ryu and KLPGA star Hye Jin Choi in a playoff.  Three Aussies of Korean descent – Minjee Lee, Su Oh and Robyn Choi – finished tied for 6th, two back.  Christina Kim and Tiffany Joh, two Korean Americans, were t-9th and t-11th respectively.  Ayean Cho had the lead going into the final round, but a Sunday 81 knocked her down to t-16th.

Other Nominees:

Korea Women’s Open

Near miss at the Korea Women’s Open for Ji Hyun Oh
So Yeon Ryu got the win!

The KLPGA had a bunch of star-packed fields this year, as top LPGA golfers stayed in Korea during the summer rather than return to the States.  The tour’s second Major, the Korea Women’s Open, took place in June, and it had an amazing final leaderboard that included five LPGA stars.  So Yeon Ryu collected the win, amazingly her first ever Korean tour Major.  Right behind her was Hyo Joo Kim, who would go on to top the KLPGA money list in 2020.  Sei Young Kim, the eventual LPGA Player of the Year, was tied for 4th, while the LPGA’s 2020 money list leader, Jin Young Ko, was 6th.  Another LPGA star, Jeongeun Lee6, was tied for 9th.

The KLPGA was also well represented.  Hye Jin Choi, the tour’s 2020 Player of the Year, was third; Ji Hyun Oh, a multiple winner trying hard to come back from an off year, was tied for 4th; last year’s Rookie of the Year, Ayean Cho, was tied for 7th; and tour winner Min Ji Park and 2020 Rookie of the Year Hae Ran Ryu were tied for 9th.  Stars everywhere you looked!

US Women’s Open

A Lim Kim got the win, with World #1 Jin Young Ko tying for second, one shot back.  Two more big stars tied for 6th: Inbee Park and Jeongeun Lee6.  Lee6 had the best title defense at this event since Karrie Webb won it back-to-back in 2000 and 2001.

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 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!

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