Rookie of the Year
And the Winner Is: Kyu Jung Baek
Kyu Jung Baek
Boy oh boy, I don’t expect that any award I’m giving out will be as disputed as this one. Rookie of the Year is obviously Lydia Ko, right? Can you think of another rookie who had a more impressive year in recent memory, on any tour? OK, Jiyai Shin maybe, but Shin was three years older than Ko in her rookie year (the year she also almost won Player of the Year). Ko is after all just seventeen frigging years old! I mean, Kyu Jung Baek is really young, and even she is a year and a half older than Ko. And Baek achieved her rookie accomplishments on a much less competitive tour, playing almost entirely in her home country. No international travel to get used to like Ko had to.
Yep, those are good arguments. I can’t deny that what Lydia Ko did was mighty special. Perhaps more impressive than what Baek did, even if you take into account (as I do) that this award is meant to only compare how a player did in her league and not try to take some kind of absolute measure of excellence.
I guess my main reasons for giving this to Baek are twofold. First, I have a hard time accepting Lydia Ko as a rookie. Yes, this was her first year on the LPGA tour, but she has been winning events on that tour for two years now. The same could have been said for Shin, I suppose, but Shin had the added challenge of coming to an entirely new culture, and really she had only been a top force on the LPGA for the year preceding her arrival (she won three times before joining the tour, all in the latter half of the season before she joined). Baek, meanwhile, was basically a new pro in 2014, and had played only a smattering of KLPGA events before this year. She had never played an LPGA event before she won the Hana Bank. That makes her much more of a true rookie in my eyes than Ko.
Kyu Jung still can’t believe she won the Hana Bank even as she accepts the trophy!
The second reason I decided against Ko was that she never really had much competition in her rookie race. It was pretty clear almost immediately that Ko was going to be the top Rookie. Certainly by early summer she had it all but locked up. Even when Mirim Lee won two late events, Ko was so far ahead that Lee would probably have to have won twice more to even get close to Ko. Baek, by contrast, was engaged in the single most epic Rookie of the Year battle the KLPGA has ever seen. Despite her continued excellence, she was frequently second or even third in the rookie standings, even late in the year. It was not until the final two events that she decisively put the kibosh on her big rivals, Jin Young Ko and Min Sun Kim. This battle generated almost as much ink in Korea as Hyo Joo Kim’s incredible year, which made it a boon for the KLPGA tour. And you have to give Baek credit for coming back not once but several times when her rivals seemed to have her beaten, throwing another win or top finish in the pot to keep the race close pretty much every time she needed it. It’s amazing to realize that the week after she won the Hana Bank, she was still only TIED with Jin Young Ko for top rookie (keep in mind that the Hana Bank win did not count towards KLPGA races). And Min Sun Kim, after winning the ADT CAPS, was only a few points behind them. It was anybody’s race.
The great KLPGA rookie class of 2014: Ji Young Ko, Min Sun Kim and Baek
Let’s look at the tale of the tape. Again, remember I am not saying that winning on the KLPGA tour is as hard as winning on the LPGA. I’m rather looking at what kind of season each player had compared to the league she was competing against on a regular basis. Which rookie, based on that criteria and given the handicap I’ve already given Ko, was more deserving of this award?
Firstly, both players had to deal with injury issues. It’s typical of Lydia’s charmed life that the injury she had turned out to be no big deal. She had a wrist problem that sidelined her for a short while. Some players have had their entire careers ruined by wrist issues; Jeong Jang never was the same once she started struggling with her wrist. But when Ko came back, her wrist was completely healed; she did not even need any surgery on it. Meanwhile, Baek had to deal with a lower back issue that required her to wear a wrap most of the season. Despite that, she still managed to win and stay competitive, playing through the discomfort.
Both players won three times on their tours, although Baek did manage a Major win at the KLPGA Championship, while Ko did not get a Major despite having five shots at it. And of course, Baek had the additional win at the KEB Hana Bank which doesn’t officially count as a KLPGA win, but is pretty significant nonetheless. Ko finished third on the LPGA money list, Baek fifth on the KLPGA list. They faced each other directly twice, with Baek winning their first meeting at the Hana Bank, and Ko winning their second one at the CME Group Tour Championship.
Baek with her Major trophy
Ko does have consistency on her side. She has never missed a cut in a professional tournament, and continued her perfect record this season on the LPGA. Baek did miss a few cuts on the KLPGA. Baek started her big league pro career with a tie for 4th at the 2013 Swinging Skirts in December, 2013, another event that Ko won. Still, this was Ko’s umpteenth international pro event. Baek was beaten by only three players, all amongst the top in the world: Ko, Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu, and tied with another big star, Hyo Joo Kim. A pretty auspicious start!
Three tournaments later, Baek had her first win on the KLPGA, at the Nexen Saint Nine Ladies Masters in April. She struggled in her next few events, but by early June notched her second win at the Lotte Cantata Women’s Open. In all, Baek had 13 top tens in 2014. And she needed them, because Jin Young Ko and Min Sun Kim were putting up almost as many top tens, keeping the Rookie race tight all year. Baek literally could not take it easy for a minute, because sometimes even a top ten would not be enough to keep up with her challengers. On the LPGA, Lydia Ko had more top tens, 15 in total. Baek had the more impressive rise in world rankings, ending up as high as 11th. Ko’s world ranking slightly improved during the season.
So congratulations to both ladies, and good luck to both going forward! But in the end, I’m going to stick with my controversial choice of the teen sensation Kyu Jung Baek over the teen sensation Lydio Ko. It will be fun to see the two of them duke it out next year on the LPGA tour!
Other Nominees: Lydia Ko
A great rookie season for Mirim, including two wins, and she doesn’t even make the final cut. This season had some really great rookies!
Most Improved Player
And the Winner Is: Mi Hyang Lee
Mi Hyang Lee
To my mind, the most improved player came down to a battle between two players: MJ Hur and Mi Hyang Lee. Both of them were pretty far off the radar at the start of 2014, and both managed to win LPGA events last season. Hur had previously won but fallen far in the last few seasons, while Lee was just trying to find a way up from being a player struggling to keep her card. In the end, I give the edge to Lee. Hur had at least shown herself capable of winning on the LPGA in the past. Not only had Lee not done that, she had to come from even further down than Hur to get to where she got.
Lee first qualified for the LPGA tour in 2012, but she had limited status, and so focused on the Symetra Tour. It was a good move. She won once on that tour and finished 6th on their money list to earn an LPGA card for 2013. She also was the Symetra Tour Rookie of the Year that season. In 2013, she had a mediocre LPGA season, starting 17 tournaments but finishing no higher than 19th. Still, she made enough money to finish 92nd and retain her card.
At the start of 2014, she astounded everyone by going toe to toe with LPGA rookie-to-be Lydia Ko at the New Zealand Women’s Open – and winning! Ko was by far the highest ranked player in the field, playing in her home country with a huge home crowd advantage. But it didn’t matter. Somehow Lee was able to shoot a 9 under par 63, a course record, in the final round to top Ko; Lee had been 8 shots back to start the day.
Lee with her New Zealand Open trophy
Lee then had her career best LPGA finish at the Australian Women’s Open shortly thereafter, a tie for 11th. She followed that up with her first top 20 in a Major at the Kraft Nabisco in March. But Lee really got her second wind at the end of the season, during the LPGA”s Asian swing. She notched three top tens then, including her first career win at the Mizuno Classic in Japan.
Lee receives a necklace of golf balls from her sponsor at the airport in Korea
MJ Hur had the win in her rookie season, 2009, and had a decent 2010 as well. But in 2012 she only finished 52nd on the money list, and in 2013 she was even worse, 75th. She didn’t have to go back to Qualifying School, but she seemed on a trajectory towards obscurity. But as we talked about in ‘Cinderella of the Year’, she had a great run late in 2014 that included her first win in five years at the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic. She wound up making over half a million dollars in 2014.
Hur’s improvement was impressive, but without question Lee’s was more unexpected and bigger, and so she wins the Most Improved Award for 2014.
Other Nominees: MJ Hur
Player of the Year
And the Winner Is: Hyo Joo Kim
Hyo Joo raked in the awards in 2014
Hyo Joo Kim had a senses-shattering, historic season on the KLPGA tour in 2014. The only player who really could be talked about in the same breath as Kim was Inbee Park, who continued her brilliance of 2013 in a smaller way. But what Kim did was more even impressive, and thus she gets the Player of the Year award for 2014.
It seemed like every few tournaments, Hyo Joo Kim was doing something else historic, record shattering or just plain impressive. But her year merely started out great before she kicked it into another gear in June. In fact, at the start of the year, the big question on the KLPGA seemed to be: could anyone stop the irresistible rise of Ha Na Jang? Jang had dominated the money list in 2013, won the first event of 2014 in China, and seemed prepared to steamroll the entire league all year. But one key moment in the season changed everything.
An unfortunate scheduling conflict caused the Korean Women’s Open to be scheduled the same week as the US Women’s Open. Jang decided to play at Pinehurst, but Hyo Joo remained behind in Korea to play their national open. It was a good decision. Kim went on to win the title, her first KLPGA Major and first victory of any kind in more than a year. She certainly hadn’t been having a bad year even before that; no wins, sure, but she did have 6 top tens and no finish worse than 21st. But Jang still had been the dominant force on tour. After Kim’s Major win, everything changed. Kim went on to win the next event on tour when Jang returned, then after a 6th place finish, won again at the Hanwha Classic. That event is also the most lucrative on tour, and by the time she was finished there, she had set the new record for most money earned in a single season in KLPGA history. And there was still a ton of season left to go.
Hyo Joo with her third trophy in four starts
Hyo Joo would go on to collect 18 top tens (11 of which were top fives) on the KLPGA in 2014, with five wins. Even more impressive was that three of those wins were tour Majors. Indeed, were it not for the fact that the year’s second Major came immediately after she returned from France, and she suffered an uncharacteristic bad final round, she might have won that one, too. The last time someone had won five victories in a single season was Hee Kyung Seo in 2009. Seo had also been the last KLPGA golfer to win three Majors in a single season. Kim had only one finish outside the top 20 all year, on either tour, and that was her 21st place finish at the E1 Charity Women’s Open.
Kim also absolutely shattered the record for most money earned in a single season on the KLPGA. She became the first golfer to win over a billion won in one year, and wound up making 1,208,978,590 won in total. That’s over a million dollars, and was around half a million won better than the #2 golfer on the money list.
We haven’t even mentioned her record on the LPGA tour in 2014, which was also stellar. Kim played four events in 2014, notching top tens in all four. One of those tournaments was the Evian Championship. Kim had played the event as a 16-year-old amateur in 2012 and finished fourth. Now it was a Major, in fact the first LPGA Major Kim had ever played. And in her very first round of Major golf, she shot a 61, the lowest round EVER SHOT in a Major by either a man or a woman (see ‘Round of the Year’). She would go on to face down 7-time Major champion Karrie Webb in the final round, making a birdie on the last hole to cause a two-shot swing that gave her a one shot victory. The win earned her a big bonus from her sponsors and an LPGA tour card on top of nearly half a million bucks prize money.
Hyo Joo rocks at the Evian
Hyo Joo wasn’t even done when the KLPGA season ended. She led Korea to a crushing victory over the Japanese team at the Team Tournament in December (Kim was named MVP). A week later, she won the opening event of the 2015 KLPGA season in China, outscoring a surging In Gee Chun by a shot. That win was Kim’s seventh pro win of the calendar year 2014.
Kim won the money list title, low scoring average, most wins, and Player of the Year awards for the 2014 KLPGA season. She finished the year ranked 8th in the world, third among the Koreans and just behind LPGA star So Yeon Ryu, who was 7th.
Hyo Joo at the KLPGA Award Show in December
Kim plans on playing 15 events in her rookie season on the LPGA, with ten events played on the KLPGA. We’ll see if she sticks to that or if she feels she will need more events to be competitive in the LPGA Rookie of the Year race (it will be a very deep rookie class in 2015). Regardless, she handily earned the Seoul Sisters Player of the Year award for this season just passed. Congratulations!
Other Nominees: Inbee Park
Inbee Park got married, won a Major and returned to the #1 ranking in 2014!
Inbee Park had another stellar year on the LPGA tour in 2014. It was always going to be hard following up her three Major 2013, and with her marriage this year, she had her mind on other things much of the time. Indeed, she played several events less than most of the other top players this year. That and a rather slow start to her year allowed her rival Stacy Lewis to pass Park as the number one player, although Park eventually got that ranking back at the end of the year.
Park picked up her game a lot in the second half of the season. Lewis had staked herself to a huge lead in most of the season races, but Park charged hard at the end. She won three times, and when she beat Lewis head-to-head at the Fubon in Taiwan, she moved to within just a small margin of catching Lewis in the Player of the Year race. Park notched ten straight top tens, got to within three points of Lewis in the POY race, but struggled in the year’s final event, allowing Lewis to escape with all the hardware.
Inbee also won her fifth Major in 2014, becoming the first Korean to ever repeat as a Major champion when she won the LPGA Championship for the second straight year. It was also, amazingly, her first ever successful title defense.
Inbee got married in October and nearly won the Hana Bank a few days later, missing a birdie putt that would have put her into the playoff. That was a rare missed opportunity for Park, who notched 17 top tens on the season and made over $2 million for the third straight year.
In addition, she also took down Suzann Pettersen early in the year in an LET event in China, shooting a final round 67 to best Pettersen by five.
So, it was a great year for Park, but all in all, it just wasn’t as impressive as the jaw dropping display Hyo Joo Kim put on all year. Park had several weak moments, such as her play in a couple of the Majors, which prevented her from capturing the Annika Award for best record in the Majors. She also missed a cut. Yeah, that’s picky, but when you are talking the best of the best, it’s the little things that separate them.