Posted by: happyfan08 | July 4, 2022

Dumbo Flies Again

In Gee Chun has been one of the most popular Korean golfers since she broke into the pro ranks as a teenage KLPGA rookie back in 2013.  And for a while, she was also one of the very best, peaking as high as #3 in the world early in her LPGA career.  But since 2018, her record has gradually become spottier, and she fell as low as the 60s in the rankings by early 2021.  Yet last week, Chun shocked the world by claiming her third career LPGA Major at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.  By grabbing this win, she became only the third Korean, after Hall-of-Famers Se Ri Pak and Inbee Park, to collect more than two career Majors.    How did In Gee slip so low?  How did she manage this win, her first in nearly four years?  What does this mean for her career going forward?

In Gee returns home a champion a few days ago, receiving gifts including a Dumbo stuffie.  Her nickname is Dumbo

When she was still young, In Gee was discovered to be a math prodigy with a genius level IQ.  It looked for all the world like this would be the focus of her life.  But unexpectedly, fate had a different path in store for her.  When she was 11, she accompanied her dad and one of his friends to a driving range.  Dad put a club in her hand and asked her to try hitting a shot.  Having little idea what to do, she naturally duffed it, which caused her dad’s friend to laugh uproariously.  In Gee did not take kindly to that, and she spent the next several hours working with her dad to learn how to hit a shot.  By the end of that day, she was already hitting the ball decently, and this experience lit a fire in her that led her to become one of the best young golfers in the country.

What’s interesting about In Gee’s origin story is that the main element that drove her to succeed was the dismissal she received from her father’s friend.  Even at this early time, she proved herself to be susceptible to the judgment of others.  This issue would reappear later and threaten her success and happiness.

Eventually she became a nationally ranked amateur and, in 2013, joined the KLPGA as a teenager.  It didn’t take her long to establish herself as a future star: her first win on tour came at the tour’s biggest event, the Korea Women’s Open, just a few months into her career.  This started a stretch of several years where she continued to improve into a world class star.  In 2015, she managed a feat no one in women’s golf had ever managed: she won Majors on three different tours in the same year.  She collected two KLPGA and two JLPGA Majors on top of the win at the US Women’s Open.  That last win qualified her for the LPGA, and she won the Rookie of the Year the following year, winning another Major and the Vare Trophy to boot.  Her world ranking rose as high as third in the world.

In Gee after winning the 2013 Korea Women’s Open

But after that In Gee began a slow decline.  The next two years, she won only once, although she had other highlights, like a number of near wins and a brilliant MVP performance at the UL International Crown (in front of her home country fans).  By 2019, her game was much weaker; she only managed two top tens in each of the next two seasons.  She recovered somewhat in 2021, with eight top tens, but even then, she still rarely contended for titles and did not win.

In Gee had an early highlight in 2022 when she contended and nearly won the HSBC Championship, but that was her only top ten of the year coming into the year’s third Major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.  Based on her record over the preceding four years, it seemed very unlikely that she would be a factor in the outcome of that event, let alone win.  But at the end of the week, In Gee was holding the trophy.  How was she able to turn around her season so dramatically?

In Gee at this year’s HSBC Championship, where she contended for the title but lost

Well, first of all, her great talent never really went away.  Her main problems seemed to be mental.  Although she occasionally talked about it, most fans were not aware the degree to which she had battled depression when her results were not as strong as she had hoped.  Folks on social media and media types in Korea criticized her when she did not perform at her best.  Much like when she was eleven at that driving range, she took this to heart, so when she was not able to continually match their expectations, she found herself in a deep funk.  It got so bad that she seriously considered retiring from golf; in a conversation the week before the KPMG, she poured her heart out to her older sister, who suggested she quit rather than keep making herself miserable.  Interestingly, as soon as In Gee heard those words, she instantly realized that that was not what she wanted.  It strengthened her resolve to fight on and try to return to her top level again.

The results were immediate and stunning.  Congressional’s blue course was set up tough, and with a large amount of rain just before the first round started, was playing very long.  Some players were not able to reach some of the par fours in two and were hitting hybrids as third shots into par 5s.  This would seem to have been a terrible break for In Gee; she is not a long hitter.  Yet amazingly, she hit the ground running, playing the course as though it were a pitch and putt.  She ran off four straight birdies to end her front nine (which was the back nine of the course), including a birdie on the nearly impossible 18th hole.  After a bogey on 1, she made three more straight birdies.  She hit all 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens, and made 25 putts with ten birdies.  Her 64 was the new course record.  Even more amazing, not a single other player was able to come close; the next best score was a 69 by fellow Korean Hye Jin Choi and Thai player Pornanong Phatlum.  She gained an astounding 11.38 strokes on the field, the best result in this event in the past ten years, and that was even though she played in the harder conditions in the morning.  It was one of the greatest performances in the history of the LPGA.

In Gee always had this talent; it had never gone away.  She just needed a way to free herself of her mental baggage to fully show what she could do.

In Gee during round 1 of the KPMG

Of course, now that she had a five shot lead going into round 2, the pressure was on in a way that it had not been before.  And she responded with another good round: a 69 to move to 11 under and increase her lead to six shots.  She was close to breaking the tournament wide open.  Interestingly, when the men had played the US Open at the same venue, Rory McIlroy had a similar great start, posting a 6-shot lead after two rounds.  McIlroy went on to win his year; would In Gee be able to do the same?

One of the decisions In Gee made really helped her at Congressional.  She played the course a month before the event and decided that she would need to put 7- and 9-woods in her bag to help her stop approach shots on the greens.  She had not used these clubs in a long time, but they proved pivotal, especially the 7-wood, which she used to stop the ball close to the hole several times in her first round.

Things got tougher for In Gee in the third round, although she still played solidly most of the day.  The conditions were drying up, and the course was made shorter, meaning that longer hitters were now able to take advantage in a way that they had not been able to earlier.  Lexi Thompson shot a great third round to put herself into the final group Sunday.  In Gee looked like her big lead would make that irrelevant, but she made a couple of key mistakes late and her score ballooned.  The most important of these was a bad layup on the par-5 16th.  The shot wound up in some tall weeds.  She probably should have taken a drop or punched it out, but she went for the green, with the ball flying far left under a tree and into an unplayable lie.  She was forced to drop back near the weeds and try again, this time flying the green.  Somehow, she got up and down from there, giving herself a double bogey.

With her challenges she shot a 75 and her lead dropped to 3.  She was still in the final group and would be paired against the long-hitting Thompson, on a course that would play to the American’s advantage.  Could In Gee hang on?  Would the demons that had haunted her game for years rear their ugly heads again?

In Gee tries to find her ball during round 3

Alas, it took only a few holes on Sunday for Thompson to catch and pass In Gee.  Chun struggled to keep pace but made four bogies on the front nine and dropped to a two-shot deficit.  She remained focused, though, and made a birdie on 11 to slightly mitigate the damage.  But she couldn’t seem to close the gap on Thompson.  On 15, In Gee rolled off the back of the green and wound up in a bad lie.  Thompson had missed a short putt on 14, but she managed a birdie on 15.  It was imperative that In Gee get up and down, and she did.  But she still trailed by 2.  And the next hole was a par 5, Thompson’s specialty.

If In Gee had memories of the double bogey on this hole from the previous day, she didn’t show it.  She hit a great lay up this time, and put her third right next to the hole, where it snapped back to about seven feet under the flag.  But Thompson’s second was right next to the green.  It looked grim for In Gee.

Then the nerves got to Thompson.  She hit a terrible chip, which rolled past the flag and off the other side of the green.  She putted from there, below the level of the green, and rolled it ten feet past.  Suddenly, she was looking at a bogey.  She indeed did miss the par, following which In Gee nailed the birdie.  The two-shot gap was gone.

In Gee kept smiling even during the tough round 4

In Gee hit a great approach on 17, as did Thompson.  Thompson blew her birdie try past, giving In Gee a golden chance to retake the lead.  But she just missed, tapping in for par.  But then Thompson missed another short par save, handing a one-shot lead to Chun with one hole to play.  In Gee had done well on 18, and if she made a birdie, she would win.  But her approach hit a down slope and rolled to the back of the green, forty feet from the flag.  Thompson put hers within fifteen feet.  Digging deep, In Gee rolled her birdie try to within three feet. 

Meanwhile, Minjee Lee, who had won the previous Major, had made a big run up the leaderboard and finished at 4 under, where Thompson now was.  If In Gee, who was at 5 under, missed the par, she would end up in a playoff with Lee and potentially Thompson.  Definitely not what she wanted; there was no golfer at that time playing better than Minjee.  But first, she had to see if Thompson would make the birdie.  She did not.  So, it all came down to that final par save.  And with supreme confidence, In Gee drilled the par and won her third Major.

It was a tale of two Majors.  For two days, In Gee was playing some of the best golf of the decade.  For the last two days, she fought every demon she ever had, but always with a smile and a positive attitude.  Her 75-75 weekend was the worst total score a Korean Major winner had had since the brutally difficult 1998 US Women’s Open Se Ri Pak had won at Blackwolf Run.  But all that mattered was that her total was one stroke better than anyone else.  In Gee showed that she could handle tough, long courses and faster, shorter courses.  She was brilliant tee-to-green and had a wicked putter.  But when things went south, she maintained her poise and handled herself like the champion she has always been. It was her clutch putting under pressure in the final few holes that made the difference.

Her win moved her back to 12th in the world, the highest she had been since the week after her most recent previous win in Korea in 2018.  Is this the start of something big for her, or will she return to her usual form again?  One thing we hope happens: she does not allow others to inflict negativity on her, regardless of her results.  She is now a three-time Major winner; among the Koreans, this is something only Se Ri Pak and Inbee Park, both Hall of Famers, have previously achieved.  The negative talkers will still be there; the doubts will come back again and again.  But perhaps she has figured out a way to handle these challenges? If she can use what she learned about herself at Congressional throughout the rest of her career, then the sky is truly the place where Dumbo will fly again.

Posted by: happyfan08 | April 6, 2022

2022 KLPGA Primer

It’s April and the Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association (KLPGA) is preparing for the start of the 2022 season. Which means it’s once again time for the SeoulSisters annual article about what to expect this year.  We call it the KLPGA Primer.

2021 saw the KLPGA get back to a virtually full schedule after the challenges of 2020.  This also meant that there were far fewer LPGA golfers playing events, although they still were around and, in some cases, even winning.  LPGA player Hyo Joo Kim, who led the tour money list in 2020, captured two more KLPGA wins in 2021, although she mostly focused on the LPGA (she also won an event on that tour).  And Jin Young Ko denied an LPGA tour card to Hee Jeong Lim by beating her in a playoff at the BMW Championship.  But for the most part, the tour was dominated by domestic players.

Those Who Have Left or Retired

Every year a few familiar faces leave the tour for retirement or other tours.  2021 was no different.

Among the retirees was one former Player of the Year, Ha Neul Kim

Kim was a rookie in 2007, but her salad days were from 2008 – 2014.  She led the money list in 2011 and 2012, capturing the Player of the Year in 2011 and the scoring title in 2012.  She just missed repeating as Player of the Year in 2012 when Je Yoon Yang won the final event of the year to edge her in the standings.

Ha Neul means ‘Sky’ in Korean, and Sky Kim was not done with her success in 2012.  Although she never made it onto the LPGA tour, she decided to move to the Japanese tour in 2015, where she had a second successful career.  Like her friend Bo Mee Lee, she quickly became super popular, and matched that with success on the course.  She never reached #1 but was in the top five for a while.  She also learned Japanese and became so loved that they published a Ha Neul Kim photo book for her fans over there.

Sky retired at the end of the 2021 season, but she hopes to continue with her recently launched YouTube channel and making appearances on various golf-themed TV shows.

Shi Hyun Ahn was the original ‘Cinderella’, the very first KLPGA member to win an LPGA event and earn a tour card when she captured the 2003 CJ Nine Bridges as a teenager. 

She won the 2004 LPGA Rookie of the Year award and played here until 2011.  Around then, while playing an event in Korea, she met a TV personality and started a very public relationship.  They got married and Ahn took 2012 and much of 2013 off to have a baby.  She returned to action late that year, nabbed a top ten, and was back full time on the KLPGA in 2014.

Alas, the relationship didn’t last, and they broke up in acrimony around that time.  Ahn returned to golf with a vengeance, shocking the league by beating top player Sung Hyun Park at the 2016 Korea Women’s Open.  It was her first win in 12 years.  From there, she slowly faded, playing less and less until she bowed out at last year’s Korea Women’s Open.

In 2021, Ran Hong set the record for the most official rounds played on the KLPGA, becoming the first player to surpass the 1000 round mark.  She had been on tour since 2005 and had multiple wins over the years to her credit.

The LPGA gained two strong former KLPGA golfers as rookies in 2022:  Hye-Jin Choi and Na Rin An.  Choi is one of the most accomplished players of her generation. 

Hye-Jin Choi

Choi has already won more than ten events and won the KLPGA Player of the Year award three consecutive years from 2017 – 2019.  In the past two years she has not played as well, but she was nonetheless still one of the premier stars on tour when she left. 

An was not as strong a presence, but she still won several KLPGA events in the past couple of years. She made her mark by winning LPGA Q-Series last year to earn her card (Choi finished tied for 8th).  They have each managed top tens already in their LPGA rookie campaigns, with An nearly winning the JTBC a few weeks ago.

Na Rin An

The Unexpected Superstar

Min Ji Park was already a star before the 2021 season, but nothing prepared the tour for her explosive brilliance in the first half of last year.  She won an incredible 6 of the first 13 events she played, including the Korea Women’s Open and the Doosan Match Play.  She cooled down considerably in the second half of the year, but she still broke the all-time record for most money earned in a year with over 1.5 billion won. She collected the Player of the Year award as well. 

Interestingly, when asked for her goals for 2022, Park said she wanted to win at least (only?) one event.  Even she doesn’t seem to believe she has gone to another level.  But if she can get back to her form at the start of last year, we could see many more records fall.

Top Stars

Ha Na Jang continued to be a great star on tour in 2021. 

The five-time LPGA winner earned nearly 900 million won on the KLPGA in 2021, third on the money list.  She had two wins, one of which was a Major, the KB Star.  She also won the scoring title, beating even Min Ji Park.  In addition to the wins, she had three seconds, two thirds and fifteen top tens.  Although she has yet to lead the tour since returning full time to Korea, she certainly is capable of doing that; perhaps 2022 will be the year she accomplishes that feat.

Three of the other top stars on tour are part of that incredible rookie class of 2019 known as the Swing Girls.  Hee Jeong Lim finished second on the 2021 money list, just missing out on a billion won season by a small margin. 

Lim’s biggest challenge has been getting wins; although she contends often, she went winless in 2020.  She did get one victory in 2021 but had several more near misses, including three seconds, three thirds, three fourths, and 15 total top tens.  She was second in Player of the Year points and third in scoring average.  She was even voted Most Popular by the fans!

Lim’s greatest week came at the BMW Championship, the annual joint LPGA/KLPGA event.  She was nearly flawless: she didn’t have a bogey all week and missed just two fairways.  She climbed to a 4-shot lead entering the final round but was not able to hold off world #1 Jin Young Ko, who caught her and beat her in a playoff.  Still, Lim has world-class talent, and if she can find a way to get in the winner’s circle more often, she could easily be the top player in 2022.

Hyun Kyung Park may have lost Most Popular to Lim (she finished second), but there’s no doubt that she is massively loved by the fans. 

She’s also another great talent from the Swing Girls class and she showed it again in 2021.  She repeated as the KLPGA Championship winner (a Major), and very nearly won the Korea Women’s Open as well.  Tied with Min Ji Park going into the final hole, Min Ji made a birdie to defeat Hyun Kyung; Hyun Kyung was 8 shots ahead of third place.  She also had a runner-up result at another Major, the KB Star.  When it comes to Majors, she brings her A Game.

In all, she had the win, four runner-up finishes, one third and 14 top tens.  She was fourth on the money list with 844 million won.  Hyun Kyung is young, stylish, talented, and fast becoming the face of the tour.  If she backs it up this year with post-season hardware, she could become one of the biggest stars the KLPGA has seen in some time.

So Mi Lee is another Swing Girl who has risen to the upper echelon in the league.

She is not as consistent as Park or Lim, but she wins more often.  In 2021, she started the season by winning the first event, and went on to win a second event later in the season.  She also added a second, two thirds and two fourths with 12 top tens.  She finished 6th on the money list with 758 million won earned.  Lee’s on-course trajectory seems to be ever upward, and she is also loved for her quirky personality.  She is slightly older than Lim, Park and Ayean Cho, but it still looks like her best is yet to come.

Other Big Names

Da Yeon Lee finished 8th on the money list in 2021 with 665 million won earned.  She won the Hanwha Classic and had seven total top tens.  She also achieved her career best LPGA finish, a tie for third at the BMW Championship. Known as one of the shortest players in stature on tour, she has a good sense of humor about it.  She seems more willing to play overseas than many other KLPGA stars; she was the only KLPGA full timer to play the US Women’s Open in 2021 (she missed the cut).

Ga Young Lee is yet another Swing Girl with a good record.  She finished 14th on the money list in 2021 with 501 million won earned.  But unlike the others, though she contended a lot in 2021, she has yet to win her first event.  If she starts winning, she could quickly become one of the tour’s biggest stars.

Ji Hyun Oh has been in a bit of a slump the past few seasons. 

She started the 2021 season with a bunch of missed cuts but got her act together and won for the first time in three years at the Samdasoo Masters.  She had six top tens in total, made 452 million won, and finished 16th on the money list.  But the win and her career best LPGA finish at the BMW (a 10th) indicates that she might be back on the road to becoming one of the tour’s big stars again.

Ayean Cho is yet another Swing Girl, but after winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2019, beating Lee, Lee, Lim and Park, she has struggled the past few years.  2021 was another mediocre year for her.  She earned only 206 million won, just 36th on the money list.  She had only three top tens.  Can she return to her pre-pandemic form?  She still seems to have the talent to be a top tier star.

Former Rookies on the Rise

Hae Ran Ryu was a star as a rookie in 2020, and she extended her brilliance in 2021.

She earned 795 million won and finished fifth on the money list.  She grabbed two wins, including the year’s final event, and had 10 total top tens.  It was a bit quieter a year than her rookie campaign, but there’s every reason to believe that the long-hitting 21-year-old will keep it up this year.

Ga Eun Song won the tour’s 2021 Rookie of the Year award in a tight battle over Jung Min Hong. 

She finished 13th on the money list with 513 million won earned.  She had six top tens but really only seriously contended once: at the Hana Bank Championship.  There she ended up in a playoff with LPGA star Minjee Lee, who had just recently won her first Major at the Evian.  Amazingly, Song beat the Australian star for the title.  That win alone accounted for more than half her total winnings for the year.  So, it’s hard to know exactly how good Song is. 

Jae Hee Kim had a relatively weak rookie year in 2021; she finished 6th in that race. 

She had been the Dream Tour money list leader in 2020, but only finished 47th on the KLPGA money list in 2021, earning 168 million won.  But Kim has just turned 21 in March, so she might still have some tricks up her sleeve.  She also might be the single tour member with the most social media savvy; her hilarious Tik Toks and media posts made her so popular that there was a bidding war for her main sponsorship this year (eventually won by the ubiquitous Mediheal).  She might become more of a factor on tour this year, but she certainly will have many eyes on her to see what craziness she comes up with next.

Up and Comers & Fashionistas

There are several KLPGA stars who are not in the upper echelon of tour talent just yet, but who are bound to get attention in 2022.

Da Been Heo has been slowly gaining steam since her rookie year of 2017.

Like Jae Hee Kim, she was the focus of a sponsorship bidding war, won by QCells.  It’s easy to see why: she is pretty and charming, with an easy laugh that has made her very popular of late.  She is also a surprisingly good singer, which has been exploited in several made-for-TV events she has participated in.  In 2021, she made 300 million won and finished 26th on the money list.  She got into a playoff but lost.  It seems only a matter of time before she gets her first win and makes it into the top ten.

Hyo Ju You had an OK year in 2021, but had to go back to Q-School to earn full membership for 2022.  You might be the most striking of the fashionistas on tour right now: she wears her Descente outfits very well, and as a result always gets a lot of press attention. Is she more than a good dresser?  That will be something for her to prove in 2022.

Jee Hyun Ahn is another golfer who is for the moment better known for her looks than her golf, but she  actually finished 30th on the money list in 2021 – not bad at all – and had several top five finishes.  Another Mediheal star, she was named one of the 11 KLPGA spokesmodels this year. 

Rookies to Watch

The 2022 Rookie class might be the best since the Swing Girls.  No less than seven or eight ladies have been receiving a lot of preseason press.  Here are four I think are especially promising:

Ina Yoon was just 17 at the start of last season, too young to be a member of the KLPGA or Dream Tours.  Thus, she played as a semi-pro on the Jump Tour, the third-tier pro league. 

She quickly won several events and took over the lead on the tour’s money list.  In one event, she had a round where she made three eagles, the first time that had ever happened in any Korean golf league.  She turned 18 in May and advanced to the Dream Tour, where she again dominated, eventually winning the money list to earn a full KLPGA card.

Yoon is known for having huge distance off the tee, as evidenced by the three-eagle round.  The Dream Tour does not maintain stats for driving distance, but when she played on the KLPGA a few times in 2021, she was measured as hitting drives in excess of 300 yards on some holes.  Every sign is pointing to this young woman becoming a superstar; the only question is when. 

Yewon Lee had a similar trajectory to Yoon and is almost as promising. 

A few months older than Yoon, she was also too young early last year to play on the Dream Tour at first.  She also dominated early on the Jump Tour, turned 18 in February, and advanced to the Dream Tour, where she quickly became a top player.  She finished in the top five on that tour and earned a KLPGA card.  She also played a couple of KLPGA events in the Fall and did well.  And she, too, is known for her length.  It would surprise no one to see her become the 2022 Rookie of the Year.

Ye Been Sohn was a strong member of the Korean National team as a teenager. 

A year older than Yoon and Lee, she played on the Dream Tour in 2021, but amazingly did not earn a KLPGA card.  She went to Q-School in the Fall and won her regional qualifier, then won Q-School thanks to a 63.  She is sponsored by Nike, one of the few KLPGAers to be primarily sponsored by them.  This is a strong statement of belief in the teenager and her talent.

Uhjin Seo was another top member of the National team as an amateur.  She led Korea to a title at the Queen Sirikit Cup a few years ago. 

The same age as Sohn, she also was not able to earn a card through the Dream Tour and had to go to Q-School.  She earned a tour card by finishing 15th.  So far she has not had nearly the pro success of the other teens, but given her success as an amateur, it is wise not to count her out just yet.

Will one or more of the teens stars explode into the top reaches of the tour in 2022?  Will Min Ji Park be able to duplicate her success of last year?  Will one of the Swing Girls become the new Big Gun?  The season starts this week, and those questions will soon be answered!

Rookie to Watch in 2022

And the Winner is: Ina Yoon

Last year, I chose A Lim Kim as the rookie to watch.  I said:

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 [by winning the US Women’s Open].  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. 

A Lim Kim in Seoul with her US Women’s Open trophy

I was essentially correct.  A Lim finished 52nd on the money list; thus she easily maintained her tour card.  But she only achieved 4 top tens throughout the year, which isn’t bad for a rookie, but not the high level of the Koreans who had won the top rookie prize in the past.  She did have two ties for third, although one came in the team event and the other when she was playing in her home country.  All in all, a solid year and a good place to build from for the future.

This year, there are seven interesting rookies joining the KLPGA and LPGA.  The most accomplished by far is ten-time KLPGA winner Hye Jin Choi, who finished 8th at Q-Series and brings a gaudy three-time KLPGA Player of the Year record with her to the LPGA.  Hye Jin has been relatively quiet the past two seasons; but given all her amazing achievements in her young career, she is still the player to beat next year for the Rookie of the Year award.  Joining her will be multiple winner Na Rin An, who finished first at Q-Series, and teenager Yaeeun Hong, one of the better amateur players from Korea a few years ago.

Hye Jin bears watching for sure, but the Rookie I’m most interested in following next year has an absolute ton of untapped potential.  Her name is Ina Yoon, and she will be joining the KLPGA next year.

Yoon was too young at the start of 2021 to qualify to play on the KLPGA or the Dream Tour, so she played as a semi-pro on the Jump Tour.  Right away she showed she had special gifts.  In one event, she made three eagles in a single round, something that had never been done before in Korea.  Her secret?  Yoon is crazy long off the tee.  Her exact length is hard to gauge, as the minor league tours in Korea don’t keep track of driving distance.  But she also played a few KLPGA events later in the year, and on a few holes was measured at 300+ yards.

But Yoon is more than just a long hitter.  She has skills across her game, and as a result, she quickly came to dominate the Jump Tour, earning a promotion to the Dream Tour upon turning 18 in late Spring.  She formally joined that tour in June.  And within weeks, she was dominating again, quickly grabbing two wins and leaping to the top of the money list, even though she had played only half of the events most of the others had played.  Yoon went on to be the top player on the Dream Tour, earning playing privileges to the KLPGA in 2022. 

She also earned a couple of chances to play on the KLPGA late in the year.  She missed the cut at the S-OIL Championship in November, but the more fascinating event was the Pak Se Ri Invitational in September.  The first round leader was another 18-year-old whose career path has been nearly identical, Yewon Lee.  But Lee faded in round two while Yoon remained in contention.  In the end Yoon finished tied for 7th, not bad at all!

Other Nominees

Hye Jin Choi

As mentioned above, Choi is a three-time KLPGA player of the Year in just four seasons.  She also finished one bad swing away from winning the US Women’s Open as a 17-year-old.  If she can get remotely close to that form next year, she could be AWESOME.

Yewon Lee

As mentioned above, Yewon Lee had a remarkably similar trajectory to Ina Yoon this year, just a little less successful.  Lee was also too young at the start of the year to play the Dream Tour, so she started on the Jump Tour, where she quickly won multiple times.  A few months older than Yoon, she joined the Dream Tour first, and had already won an event by the time Yoon came along.  But Lee stalled a bit after that and finished 5th on the money list.  Still more than good enough to earn a tour card for the big leagues in 2022, however.

Lee also made a lot of noise in two KLPGA appearances.  She shot a first round 64 to take the lead at the OK Savings Bank Se Ri Pak Invitational but faded to 25th by the end.  She had had far more success the previous week at the KB Star Championship.  She moved into a tie for the lead after round 2, outplaying Min Ji Park in her group!  She struggled more on the weekend and finished tied for 14th, but it was still a great result for her.  

Rookie of the Year

And the Winner Is: Ga Eun Song

Ga Eun Song sneaked up on everybody on the KLPGA this year.  She didn’t have a lot of publicity at the start of the season, but quickly established herself as one of the three best rookies.  She was in a tight battle with Jung Min Hong in the latter half of the year but edged her (barely) to capture the crown.  Song made over 500 million won during the year, finishing 13th on the money list.  She had 6 top tens, four of which were top fives.

Her best result without question was her lone win of the year.  She achieved it in style.  The Hana Bank Championship was once the only LPGA/KLPGA co-sanctioned event, but that was changed to the BMW Championship a few years ago.  It’s still a big money event, though, and attracts big names.  One of those big names was Minjee Lee, who had recently won her first career Major at the Evian.  Lydia Ko and Yealimi Noh were two more LPGA stars in the field.  Noh missed the cut, but Ko would contend.

After two rounds, Song was playing well, but still in 16th place.  But she shot a fantastic third round 65 that moved her into a tie for second, just one shot behind Minjee Lee.  They fought hard all Sunday, with Song making a clutch birdie on the final hole to tie Lee and force a playoff.  On the third playoff hole, Song hit her approach to 2 feet and made birdie, while Lee missed her chance from 12 feet.  Song got her first career KLPGA win by beating an LPGA Major winner head-to-head.  Very impressive!

Most Improved

And the Winner Is: Su Ji Kim

Su Ji Kim turned pro in 2015 and spent her first two years on the Dream Tour.  She finally made it to the big leagues in 2017, where she finished 37th on the money list.  She had similar results in 2018 and 2019, maintaining her tour card, but only rarely notching top tens, and almost never contending for wins.

In 2020, however, she struggled, only finishing 84th on the money list.  She had to return to Q-School, where she earned back her card for 2021.

In 2021, however, her game finally clicked, and she managed two wins, the first of her career.  She made nearly 750 million won, more money than she had made in all her other years combined.  That was good for 7th on the money list, the first time she broke the top thirty.  Her bigger win was at the Hite Cup, a Major, where she beat two of the top players on tour, Min Ji Park and Hee Jeong Lim.  She also managed two seconds, a third and a fourth.

Other Nominees:

In Gee Chun

In Gee Chun was not able to secure a win in 2021, but this year was still a huge comeback for her.  In the three previous years, she had not been able to make more than two top tens per year; but in 2021, she started her year with three straight top tens (and might have had 4 but was DQed from the Kia Classic after forgetting to sign her card).  In all, she made 8 top tens, her best since her great years of 2016 and 2017.  She made over $750,000 and finished 25th on the money list.  Even more impressively, she was in the hunt for the Vare Trophy right until the final event of the year, and wound up with a great 69.63 average, good for 7th in the league.

Min Ji Park

Min Ji Park has been one of the best players on the KLPGA the past few years, but she took an enormous leap in 2021.  For the first few months she was almost unbeatable, notching 6 wins and becoming the first in history to make over 1.5 billion won in a single season.

Player of the Year

And the Winner is: Jin Young Ko

2021 was a brutal year for fans of the Seoul Sisters, but two amazing players bucked the trend and produced magical years.  In the first half of the season, Min Ji Park was smashing records with one amazing result after another.  As she cooled down, Jin Young Ko caught fire, and ended the year with one of the most sustained bursts of excellence in LPGA history.  It’s hard to choose between the two for the title of Player of the Year, but Jin Young’s efforts were so mind-boggling that in the end she deserved the prize more.

The first part of the 2021 season was rough for the world’s #1 player.  She suffered a wrist injury early on that affected her for the rest of the year.  In addition, her grandmother became very sick.  Jin Young wanted to spend more time with her, but Covid travel restrictions made that tough.  Unfortunately, her grandma died when Jin Young was out of the country.  It took her several months to get over it.

In the meantime, Nelly Korda was playing some of the best golf of her life.  She won her first Major at the KPMG Championship, allowing her to ascend to the #1 ranking for the first time.  Jin Young still wasn’t playing well by her lofty standards, although she still notched mostly top tens, including a tie for 7th at the ANA Inspiration and another tie for 7th at the US Women’s Open.  But she would not achieve her first 2021 win until the Volunteers of America Classic in early July.  Amazingly, this was only the third win to that point for the Koreans in 2021.  After that, she had a weak finish at the Evian, then competed at the Olympics, where she was not able to seriously contend for a medal.

Jin Young at the Olympics

After that, she decided it was time to reset.  She skipped the final Major of the year, the British Women’s Open, and spent the next month working hard on her game, trying to iron out the kinks and get back to her top form.

Whatever she did worked better than anyone could have expected.  Her next event was the Cambia Classic in Portland, Oregon in mid-September.  She played brilliantly, and after two rounds was in the hunt.  Rain threatened the rest of the week, but they somehow got another round finished on Sunday.  Jin Young took advantage.  She was a total machine, hitting greens like it was going out of style.  She missed a few putts by the slimmest of margins, but at no time did it look like she was going to lose.  She wound up with a 4-shot win over Jeongeun Lee 5 for her second win of the year.  She was still well behind Nelly Korda – who by then had three wins including a Major – in the Player of the Year standings.  But for the first time in a while, there was someone at least in the same zip code as Korda.

Jin Young with win #2 in Portland

Ko played the following week in Arkansas, but only managed a tie for sixth.  But the week after that, she was once again in the hunt at the ShopRite Classic.  She was tied for the lead going into the final day, and she has almost always won when in that spot.  Yet neither she nor Inbee Park, the other star she was tied with, were able to close the deal, and she wound up tied for 2nd.

Jin Young was playing well, and if she had ended her season with two wins, it would not have been all that disappointing.  But at this point, she took it up another level, and things got really amazing.

The next event she played was the Cognizant Founder Cup.  She sent a bold message right away by shooting an 8 under 63 in round one.  She extended her lead somewhat in round 2 with a 68, then shot a 69 in round 3 to move to a four-stroke advantage.  Needless to say, she wasn’t going to lose at that point.  She closed out the win with her 14th consecutive round in the 60s, tying the all-time record held by Annika Sorenstam and So Yeon Ryu.  At this point, her stats went from simply world class to borderline insane.  After her 14 straight rounds in the 60s, she shot a 71 next, then reeled off 11 more rounds in the 60s to end her year.  That’s 25/26 rounds in the 60s.  Unreal.

Jin Young next flew to Korea to play the BMW Championship.  For the first time all year, she was within a win of actually catching Korda.  And she played brilliantly once again, maintaining a strong presence on the leaderboard for the first three rounds.  The leader, however, was KLPGA star Hee Jeong Lim, who had been virtually flawless: through three rounds she had missed just one fairway and made no bogies.  That gave her a four-shot lead going into Sunday.  But Ko was on a mission, and by the turn had caught and passed Lim.  Lim, however, refused to break.  Still without a bogey, she fought back into the lead.  Ko made a clutch birdie to tie.  They wound up in a playoff.  But, as mentioned in Shot of the Year, Ko hit her approach on the first playoff hole to three feet, made the birdie, and collected her fourth win of the year.  She moved ahead of Korda in the world rankings and in the Player of the Year race.  And the win was the 200th ever achieved by a Korean on the LPGA tour; an august achievement she managed to do in Korea! 

At the Pelican Women’s Championship, the penultimate event of the year, Jin Young was never quite in line to get a win, but she still managed a tie for 6th.  Korda looked like she had it in the bag, made a terrible late triple bogey to drop two back, then made two more birdies to sneak into a playoff.  She won it when Lexi Thompson missed a short birdie, and that moved Korda back into the lead in the Player of the Year race ahead of Jin Young.

The year’s final event, the CME Championship, also boasted the biggest first prize award in women’s golf history, $1.5 million.  Jin Young needed to win or finish second (with Korda out of the top ten) if she wanted to get her second Player of the Year award.  But her wrist was acting up again and hurt so much that she seriously considered dropping out of the event.  She toughed it out, not hitting so much as a single full practice shot all week to reduce the strain on her wrist as much as possible.  She had a rough front nine in round one, paired with Nelly.  She did better on the back, but Korda had the early advantage.

Jin Young dug deep and shot a 67 in round 2, which moved her onto the leaderboard, but still a bit behind Celine Boutier and the leaders.  At least she now had a chance, but she needed to keep producing magic to track down Korda and company.

And magic is exactly what she conjured.  In round three she was flat out incredible: she hit every green, as she had in round two, and had seven straight birdies on the front nine to move into the lead.  Although she made no more birdies after that, her 66 moved her into a tie for the lead with none other than Korda herself (as well as Nasa Hataoka and Boutier).  The goal was in sight: all she had to do was beat the #1 player in the world, get her fifth win of the year, and she would become the unlikely Player of the Year.

If round three had been magic, round 4 was miraculous.  She hit the ground running, blasting birdie after birdie to climb into the lead.  Korda was left behind, although Ko still needed to win to get Player of the Year.  Hataoka hung in there, made several clutch birdies, and looked primed for an upset.  But it never came, because Jin Young was literally perfect.  She flat out refused to make a mistake, shooting arguably one of the very greatest rounds in LPGA history.  18/18 Greens in Regulation.  14/14 Fairways.  No bogies.  And her best ever round, a 9 under par 63.  Korda called it ‘The Jin Young Ko Show’, and she wasn’t wrong.  Ko got the win and the Player of the Year, the first Korean to win the award twice.  She also grabbed the money list title for the third straight year, becoming the first Korean to break $3 million in a season with $3,502,161 earned.  Her scoring average was 68.87, the lowest ever by a Korean (although she didn’t play enough events to qualify for the Vare Trophy).

Win #5: at the CME

But even that wasn’t her most jaw-dropping achievement of the week.  Ko had managed to finish the event by hitting a mind-numbing 63 straight greens in regulation.  63!  To put this in context: the PGA (the men’s tour) has been tracking this stat for thirty years.  In all that time, the best a man ever did was 51 straight.  In Tiger Woods’ best season, 2000, his best was 29 straight.  This year on the PGA, the top was 35 straight.  Jin Young’s consistency is simply on another level.  It’s almost inconceivable that anyone could hit that many quality shots in a row: she had not missed a green since the 9th hole in round one!

For all these reasons, Jin Young is the ideal winner of the SeoulSisters Player of the Year award!

Other Nominees:

Min Ji Park

Min Ji Park would be the clear winner of this award most years; like Jin Young Ko, she also set several records en route to a domination of her tour in 2021.  She earned over 1.5 billion won during the year, which was close to 200 million won better than anyone else in history.  Her 6 wins was among the most ever achieved in one season, and one better than Ko on the LPGA, and she also claimed Player of the Year.  She also had a Major win, which Jin Young did not.  On the downside, she only finished 4th in scoring average, and when she started to have injuries mid-season, she did not handle it as well as Ko did.  She did not win again after July, although she did notch a bunch more top tens in that span.

Min Ji started her winning ways early.  After an 11th in the first event of the season, she won the second event she played, the Nexen Saint Nine Masters.  She missed the cut in the next event, but two events later she won again, edging Na Rin An.  She next notched an amazing hard fought win at the Doosan Match Play, one of the harder events to win on tour each year.  After winning all the preliminary matches, she advanced to the round of 16, where she won close matches the next three rounds to reach the finals.  She met Ju Young Park there, and the match went down to the wire, with Min Ji claiming 4 of the final 5 holes to win 3 & 5, her second straight win and third of the year.

Min Ji celebrates her win at the Doosan Match Play

A few weeks later, she had two epic battles with Hyun Kyung Park, as detailed in Best Korean ConfrontationMin Ji won a squeaker at the Celltrion, but her tournament of the year was at the Korea Women’s Open, where she and Park were 8 shots ahead of anyone else in the field.  It went to the final hole, with Min Ji hitting a great drive and Hyun Kyung screwing up off the tee.  Min Ji birdied, Hyun Kyung bogied, and Min Ji won by two, her only Major win of the year.

The first week of July, Min Ji claimed her sixth win.  She still had a bunch of events left in the year and was already close to the all-time most money earned in a year, but there would be no more wins for her.  Injuries slowed her down just enough to prevent her from challenging Jiyai Shin’s all-time record of nine wins in a year.  But she still had two runner-ups and two thirds among her remaining events, so she didn’t completely fall apart.  In all, she had six wins, 2 seconds, 2 thirds, a 4th, and 14 total top tens.  At her hottest, she won 6 times in 13 events.  Most years, that would have been enough for the top SeoulSisters award as well, but she’ll have to settle for second to Jin Young and her amazing late season heroics.

Another win for Min Ji

Most Fashionable

The Korean ladies, especially on the KLPGA, have gotten more and more stylish with each passing year.  Here are some of the many striking looks the ladies wore in 2021.

Hyo Ju You is a KLPGA starlet who was not able to maintain her tour card this year despite a few good weeks.  Fortunately, she did easily earn her card back at Q-School in the Fall.  Which means we’ll be able to enjoy watching her fashion statements in 2022 as well.  She seems to always be stylish and interesting in her clothing choices. Here are a few highlights.

Jae Hee Kim was a rookie on the KLPGA in 2021.  She charmed everyone with her friendly, goofy attitude.  She also had a few colorful outfits courtesy of Le Coq Sportif, her clothing sponsor.

with Ha Neul Kim

In Gee Chun’s clothing deal with FairLiar made waves

Jeongeun Lee6 and Fantom’s Lucky Six line

Ga Eun Song

Hye Jung Lee and the “oversized shirt”

Hyun Kyung Park is a popular young star.  Best Dresser?  No wonder the gals always dress for success…  Prizes are involved!

(even the umbrella is color coordinated – that’s next-level attention to detail!)

Ji Yu Jung

Hee Jeong Lim’s Winter style

Ri An Kim accessorizes splendidly

Sae Ro Mi Kim

So Hyeon Ahn

Teen star Ye Been Sohn will be a rookie in 2022

Screen golfer Ye Ji Choi also likes the bare shoulder look

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is: Jin Young Ko, approach shot, playoff, BMW Championship

As mentioned earlier, Jin Young Ko had a ferocious battle with KLPGA star Hee Jeong Lim at this year’s BMW Championship in Busan, South Korea.  They wound up in a playoff, the first ever in Jin Young’s LPGA career.  After good drives, Lim hit her approach to about 25 feet.  Ko then hit the best shot of the year at just the right time: a beautiful shot that landed 25 feet short of the flag and rolled up to within three feet.  Lim soon missed her birdie try, and Ko had no trouble sinking hers to capture the win.

Other Nominees:

Inbee Park, eagle, final round, 16th hole, Kia Classic

Inbee Park played well all week at the Kia Classic, but with drivable par 4s all weekend, there were several long hitters who were challenging her for the win.  But Inbee also could reach greens, and after getting on the 16th green, she nailed a 20 foot eagle putt to pretty much put her 21st career win in the bank.

Jeongeun Lee6, Amundi Evian, Round 4, 17th hole

See ‘Biggest Disappointment’ for a description of this stunning shot, where Lee somehow made a birdie after blocking herself behind the trees.

Round of the Year

And the winner is: Jin Young Ko, 63, final round, CME Group Tour Championship

Jin Young Ko with the largest winner’s check in women’s golf history

The stakes couldn’t have been higher.  Tied with her biggest rival, Nelly Korda.  One round left in the season.  If she wins, she also wins the money list title and the Player of the Year.  Any other finish, even second, and Korda gets those.

Jin Young quickly established that she would be tough to beat.  She left Korda in the dust on the front nine.  But Nasa Hataoka still lurked, and if she somehow stole the trophy, Jin Young would still lose the Player of the Year.

She responded by playing one of the most perfect rounds of golf in LPGA history.  18/18 Greens in Regulation.  14/14 Fairways.  No bogies, and a 9-under-par 63, her all-time best score.  She won by a single shot over Hataoka, and the title(s) were hers.

Other Nominees:

Jeongeun Lee6, 2nd round, Evian

Lee6 shot a 61 in the 2nd round at the Evian, tying the all-time lowest score in the history of Major Golf, male or female.  Yes, the course was playing way too easy for a Major test, but even so, a 61 is an amazing accomplishment.

Moments to Remember

There were several happy moments and a few tears outside the golf course as well as on it this year.

Back in 2008, the KLPGA had one of its most popular and offbeat rivalries.  Three different beautiful young ladies, each with the nickname ‘Supermodel of the Fairways’, all had fantastic years.  One of them, Hee Kyung Seo, would soon go on to win the Player of the Year, before playing on the LPGA for a few years.

The other two both happened to retire at the end of 2021.  Ha Neul Kim was the top player on the KLPGA in 2011 and 2012.  She eventually moved to Japan to play on the JLPGA, where she had a fair amount of success.  With her charisma, great sense of humor, looks and style, she became hugely popular there, even publishing several photo books for her fans.  Her game started to decline in the last few years, so she decided to call it a career this year.  She has started a YouTube channel and hopes to continue being a presence in the game for years to come.   Good luck to her!

Ha Neul meets the media at her last KLPGA event

The third lady in that rivalry was Ran Hong.  Hong never made it off the KLPGA, but her success there gave her a bit of immortality as well.  This year she became the first KLPGA golfer to ever play 1000 official rounds on tour.

Short tidbits:

“Big Mama” Sun Ju Ahn became a mom for real in 2021 when she gave birth to twins!

There’s a new power couple in golf: PGA player Si Woo Kim is dating KLPGA star Ji Hyun Oh. There have been examples before of Korean women golfers dating other athletes, notably Hee Won Han and Mi Hyun Kim; but this is the first time I can recall where one dated a top level male golfer.

LPGA veteran Chella Choi got married in December.  It was a rare instance these days of an event that attracted a bunch of Korean golf stars.  Among those at the wedding were Grace Park, Jee Young Lee, Hee Won Han, Inbee Park, So Yeon Ryu, and Na Yeon Choi.  Congrats to the happy bride and groom!

Welcome once again to my annual summation of the golf year just ended, the SeoulSisters Awards, or “Seoulies”.

This year was a real struggle for the Koreans, not just on the LPGA but all over the golf world.  For that reason, I’m going to abbreviate the awards this year and focus mostly on the amazing things that did occur.  But right out of the gate, we’ll address the slump in our first award:

Biggest Disappearing Act

And the “winner” is: The Koreans on the LPGA

The fact is, there were a lot of important Korean golfers who underperformed this year.  Just as a few examples: two-time winner Mi Hyang Lee lost her tour card, Sei Young Kim had her first winless season, So Yeon Ryu struggle more than I ever recall, and Amy Yang seemed to be missing in action.  Not sure what happened to stars like MJ Hur, I.K. Kim, and Jenny Shin.  Sung Hyun Park continued her freefall, Lee6 only contended a few times this year while working on swing changes, and Inbee Park and Hyo Joo Kim both underperformed after promising starts and wins.  Which star struggled the most?  Hard to narrow down.

Inbee Park was one of the only Koreans to win an LPGA event early in the season at the Kia Classic

The Olympics didn’t go any better.  The Koreans sent one of their best imaginable squads:  four Major winners led by the defending gold medalist Inbee Park and the world’s best player, Jin Young Ko.  They also had 12-time winner (and 2020 LPGA Player of the Year) Sei Young Kim and last year’s KLPGA money list leader Hyo Joo Kim.  None of them were a factor.  The best finish by any of them were ties for ninth by Sei Young and Jin Young, arguably two of the four best players in the field.

The Korean women’s squad at the 2020 Olympics

There were five Majors besides the Olympics this year;  the Koreans didn’t win any of them.  This was the first year without at least one Major win for them since 2010.  But worse than that, they only seriously contended in one of them, the Evian, and that event ended with an epic collapse that we will talk more about later.

It gets worse.  The Sisters had won the previous five straight LPGA Rookie of the Year awards but were non-factors this year.  They had also managed to win the US Women’s Open in every odd numbered year since 2007 (!) but were again not even in the hunt on Sunday this year.  They also had a very weak year on the JLPGA.

Fortunately for the Koreans, Jin Young took some of the heat off of them with a spectacular end to the year that pretty much saved the season all by itself.  But they can’t depend on Jin Young to carry the weight all by herself in 2022; at least a few of them besides her will need to step up and give her needed support next year.

Best Korean Confrontation

And the winner is: Jin Young Ko vs. Hee Jeong Lim, BMW Championship

Since her rookie year in 2019, Hee Jeong Lim has been one of the strongest golfers on the KLPGA tour.  But she really outdid herself at this year’s BMW Championship, the annual event co-sanctioned by the LPGA and KLPGA tours.  How amazing was Lim?  She didn’t make a single bogey in 73 holes, and only missed two fairways ALL WEEK.  By the end of the third round, she had a four-shot lead and looked like she was on her way to earning an LPGA tour card.

But Korean superstar Jin Young Ko was on a mission, at last playing the kind of brilliant golf she was known for after struggling the first half of the season.  On Sunday, it took her just eight holes to catch Lim, and she began to pull away after that.  Lim didn’t give up though; she managed to catch and pass Ko, before Ko made a birdie on the 17th to tie again for the lead.

It came down to a playoff, the first one in Ko’s LPGA career.  Ko hit a superlative approach on the playoff hole, made birdie and denied Lim the card.  But it’s hard to think of a more spectacular runner-up finish than the one Lim produced.

Jin Young claimed the win at the BMW Championship

Other nominees:

Jeongeun Lee6 vs. Minjee Lee, Amundi Evian Champinship

It was a battle of the Lees at the Evian this year.  Jeongeun Lee6 had a 61 early in the week, tying the lowest round in Major history, and ended the third round ahead by five.  But she struggled in the final round, losing her lead before the turn.to the surging Korean-Australian Minjee Lee.  Six caught back up and forced a playoff but lost on the first playoff hole.  This was the only real chance a Korean had to win a Major this year, but at least the winner was still a Sister, claiming her first career Major at last.

Min Ji Park vs. Hyun Kyung Park, Korea Women’s Open & Celltrion Queens Masters

Min Ji Park, Hye Jin Choi and Hyun Kyung Park teamed to win the 2016 Women World Team Championship.  The three teens led Korea to a 21-stroke victory.  They would all go on to become big stars on the KLPGA

From the Battle of the Lees to the Battle of the Parks.  Min Ji Park was as unstoppable early in the year as Jin Young Ko was at the end.  At times she was literally winning every other week.  But talented young gun Hyun Kyung Park was having a great season herself, having won the year’s first Major, and they had two epic clashes in the early summer.

First came the three round Celltrion Queens Masters.  It all came down to the final hole, with Min Ji matching Hyun Kyung’s final round 67 to win by a shot.

Min Ji Park

The next week, the two battled hard at the biggest Major of the year, the Korea Women’s Open.  Hyun Kyung was looking for her second straight Major win. On Sunday, Min Ji managed to get a one-shot lead on the 15th, but made an unexpected three putt on 16 to fall back into a tie.  They were still tied when they reached the 18th tee, but Hyun Kyung hit a surprisingly poor drive.  Min Ji striped her approach to four feet.  Hyun Kyung could not save par, and the win was Min Ji’s.  Min Ji’s final score was 17 under, Hyun Kyung 15 under, and the next nearest player 7 under.  9 out of ten times, Hyun Kyung would have easily won, but Min Ji was too unbeatable at that point.

Hyun Kyung Park

Great Performance that came up short

And the Winner is: Jeongeun Lee6, Amundi Evian Championship

This was the biggest heartbreaker of the year, no question.  Jeongeun Lee6 has been working on her swing all year, trying to get more consistent.  She was starting to see results.  She had put herself into the hunt at the US Women’s Open but faded in the final round.  At the Evian, though, it finally seemed to be her week.  She had a good start, but in the second round had one of the best rounds of the year by a Sister, a scintillating 61 that tied the all-time lowest score in a Major (previously shot by Hyo Joo Kim at this very event).  After the third round, Six had a five-shot lead and looked primed to grab her second career Major.

It was not to be.  The course had been set up for scoring all week, and especially so on Sunday, with a second player shooting a 61 on the final day.  Minjee Lee came from seven shots back to shoot a 64, while Lee6 struggled to hang on.  She lost her lead, fell two back, but rallied.  She had a fantastic birdie on 16 and hit a phenomenal shot over the trees on 17 to five feet and made another birdie.  She reached the 18th in two and had a decent eagle chance for the win, but only made birdie and forced a playoff with the Australian star.  Alas, Six hit her approach on the first playoff hole into the water, basically handing the trophy to Minjee.  It was still a great week for her, but letting that Major get away had to sting.

Other nominees:

Inbee Park and Jin Young Ko, ShopRite Classic

Jin Young was in the midst of her best run of the year, and Inbee Park was also playing well.  On Sunday, the two best Koreans in the game were tied for the lead with one round to play.  Jin Young had converted in that situation six of the previous seven times, and Inbee was a strong front runner as well.

But everything that could have gone wrong did.  Jin Young hit a decent birdie try on one hole and it horseshoed out.  On another hole, she hit a poor tee shot and put herself in a bunker that she did not get up and down out of. 

Meanwhile, Frenchwoman Celine Boutier was playing great and took a slim lead.  Still, these are the two best Korean golfers, both excellent clutch putters, and a par five awaited.  They were only one shot back.  But Inbee missed a five foot birdie try, and Jin Young was not able to two putt from 40 feet.  Boutier beat them both by a single shot.

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!


 [EF1]

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.

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