Posted by: happyfan08 | January 17, 2009

2008 Awards: Biggest Disappearing Act

The Korean Drought

The most surprising result of the year was not turned in by a single golfer, but by the Korean golfers as a whole.  From July, 2007 to June, 2008, no Korean golfer won a tournament on the LPGA tour, a stretch of more than 20 straight events without a win.  In addition, they were having trouble winning events on other tours during that stretch.  It was a weird result that was all the more puzzling because of the number of times the Koreans came close to winning without actually pulling it off.


Seon Hwa Lee won the 2007 HSBC Match Play Event in July, 2007; Mi Hyun Kim finished third the same week.  It seemed like just another week for the overachieving Korean squad.  Just the week before, Se Ri Pak had won her fifth Jamie Farr Classic title, tying a record for the most times a player had won the same event in LPGA history.  There was no reason to believe another Korean wouldn’t soon be joining them in the win column.


Seon Hwa Lee wins the 2007 HSBC Match Play Championship

Seon Hwa Lee wins the 2007 HSBC Match Play Championship




But from that point on, for week after week, victory eluded the Sisters, at times in an almost farcical manner.  The very next event on tour was the Evian Masters, and as the event wound down, Jeong Jang was poised to at last get her third win.  Ji Yai Shin, meanwhile, needed an eagle on the final hole to join Jang in a potential playoff.  But Shin’s bunker shot on the 18th hole came up one roll short, and she finished third.  Jang wound up in a playoff with Natalie Gulbis, a player who had never won on tour before.  But it was Gulbis who played like the seasoned veteran, easily beating JJ to capture the crown.


At that point, Lorena Ochoa went on a tear.  For much of the next eight months, she would be unbeatable.  And when she wasn’t winning tournaments, Suzann Pettersen often was.  Ochoa won five events in the remainder of 2007, and Pettersen three.


But even with that domainance, there were still chances for the Sisters that got away.  Having been denied a spot on the Solheim team, Christina Kim was on a mission to prove that captain Beth Daniel had made a mistake.  She came close on several occasions to capturing her third career win, but was denied each time.  The most amazing close call came at the State Farm.  Despite making one clutch shot after another, she could not beat Sherri Steinhauer, an American who had not contended in a tournament in ages.  In the final few holes, Kim made two fantastic shots, including a chip-in birdie, to put the pressure on Steinhauer.  But the elder American made a thirty foot par save on the final hole to clinch the title and deny the Sisters again.


Fortunately, the Kolon Hana Bank Championship was on the horizon.  The Koreans had never lost this event, and once again the field would be stocked with top Korean talent going for the crown.  Ji Yai Shin had been almost unstoppable in Korea, and everyone looked forward to a Shin-Ochoa showdown.  But both players were off their game that week.  In Ochoa’s place, it was Pettersen who stepped in, naturally.  After two rounds, she held a one shot lead over Eun Hee Ji, with several other Koreans poised to make a run.


But once again, fate stepped in.  The windy conditions ‘forced’ the organizers of the event to cancel the third round, and Pettersen claimed the crown without a shot played.  It had been the first time in tournament history a non-Korean had led after a round was complete.  It was really beginning to seem like the golf gods did not want the Koreans to win anymore.


The Koreans did not really come close to winning again the rest of the season, and so ended the 2007 campaign with only four wins, their lowest victory total in years. 


2008 started in much the same way, unfortunately.  The Korean squad of Eun Hee Ji and Ji Yai Shin were brilliant at the Women’s World Cup.  They started the week with a joint 61 to take a strong lead, and as round two continued, showed no sign of letting up.  But they made some big mistakes finishing round two, and ended the round tied with the Philippines for the lead.  Still, there was no reason to believe that the Koreans would lose to that team.  The two Filpina players, Jennifer Rosales and Dorothy Delasin, had been struggling with their games for years; neither had come close to winning an event in many seasons.  But once again, just as with Steinhauer, the Koreans found their victory march thwarted by unlikely foes.  Rosales and Delasin made one clutch shot after another in the final round, and in the end claimed the title over the Korean squad.


Even off the LPGA tour, the bad times continued.  Ji Yai Shin took a two shot lead over Karrie Webb at the Australian Open, and looked like she had the crown sewn up.  Then Webb made birdies on two of her final three holes and beat Shin in a playoff to win the title.  Webb later called it one of her best comeback finishes.  It was her only win in 2008.  The next week, at the ANZ Ladies Masters, Hyun Ju Shin had only to make a one foot par save to get into a playoff for that title, and somehow missed it, handing the title to English woman Lisa Hall. 


The LPGA season started in Hawaii at the SBS Open, a tournament sponsored by a Korean company.  Surely now the slump would end?  Well, going into the final round, the leaders were Annika Sorenstam, Angela Park and Jane Park.  Then, as they entered the back nine, Angela was hit with a slow play penalty!  When does that ever happen to anyone who is close to the lead in a tournament?  She never recovered, finishing fifth.  Jane made a great run, dunking an unbelievable 80 foot birdie putt to tie Sorenstam, but Annika, who had not won in more than a year, found her old form, made two late bridies, and denied the Koreans once again.


At the Fields the next week, it was JJ who finished just behind Paula Creamer by one shot.  The Koreans would have to wait until mid March for their next great chance to win a tournament.  At the MasterCard Classic, Ji Young Oh had a two shot lead going into the final round.  Could she become the first Korean sophomore to win a title on the LPGA?  Nope.  She had a big crash in the final round, and unheralded Louise Friberg came from way back in the field to get the title.


For the next few weeks, it was once again the Lorena Ochoa show, as she was playing so well she pretty much locked up the title by the end of the second round each of those events.  In fact, she won four events in a row, and it wasn’t a Korean who finally broke that streak, it was Annika Sorenstam.


After several months of Sorenstam, Ochoa and Creamer winning all the titles on tour, the Koreans finally had another good chance to end the slump.  It came at the Corning Classic in May, an event that had always treated the Koreans well.  Going into the final round, JJ was tied with Erica Blasberg for the lead.  No one other than Mi Hyun Kim who was close to the lead had ever won a title before.  This looked like a golden chance to end the drought.  It would be especially sweet if JJ could do it, since she had come so close to winning this event in the past, only to come up short.


But it was not to be.  JJ climbed to 11 under at one point after a great start, which included one eagle and another just missed eagle.  Kimmie and Sun Young Yoo also were near the top of the leaderboard.  The only non-Korean who was in contention was Leta Lindley, who had never won before.


But Lindley made three straight birdies on the back nine, JJ a bogey, and just like that, they were tied.  JJ had trouble making birdies after that, but Kimmie and Yoo were playing great.  Yoo almost made a hole in one on the par 3 15th, the same hole Jimin Kang had memorably birdied in her win in 2005.  Yoo also almost pitched in on the 18th hole.  Both finished the day at 10 under.  But that was not enough for the title.  Lindley finished at 11 under, so it was up to JJ.  Could she beat Lindley?  Well, on 18, she hit a terrible drive and ended up in a bunker with a terrible lie after two.  She had to get it up and down to even force a playoff.  Miraculously, she did it!  But in the playoff, Lindley could do no wrong.  JJ wound up in the bunker again, but hit her sand shot to inches for an easy par.  Lindley, however, made the seven foot birdie to collect the win.  Once again, amazingly, the Koreans were denied.


Fortunately, the slump was about to come to an end at long last.  The very next event was the Ginn Tribute.  Seon Hwa Lee needed to make an amazingly long birdie to even get into a playoff, and it certainly looked like it was going to be another one of those near misses for the Korean ladies.  But Lee made the unlikely putt, then outlasted Karrie Webb in a playoff to at last end the winless streak for the Sisters.  Interestingly, it had been Seon Hwa who had been the last Korean to win an event on tour before the streak started.  The Koreans would go on to have a fantastic season, winning nine titles on tour, including two Majors.  The drought would become an uneasy footnote to a wonderful 2008 season.


Honorable Mentions:

Se Ri Pak. 

It may be a bit unfair to give this award to Se Ri.  After all, she didn’t have a terrible season in 2008, at least by normal golfer standards.  She notched three top tens, contended at the Canadian Women’s Open, and had a shot at winning the Nabisco as well.  She finished 52nd on the money list, well within the range of exempt players.


On the other hand, this is Se Ri Pak we are talking about: the greatest player in the history of Korean golf, and the one who has inspired dozens of her countrywomen to take up the game and excel.  In a year where so many of those ‘Se Ri Kids’ were winning important tournaments, it was particularly noticeable that Se Ri was not in contention with them.  For instance, when Inbee Park, who took up the game just two days after watching Se Ri win the 1998 US Women’s Open, won the 2008 US Women’s Open, it was a huge story.  She became the youngest woman to ever win that title, breaking the record held by none other than Se Ri.  It would have been an even bigger story had Se Ri herself been there to congratulate her, but alas, Se Ri had missed the cut, the first time she ever missed playing on the weekend at the Open.  The same thing happened a month later at the British Women’s Open: Ji Yai Shin, the most promising of the young Se Ri Kids, won that title, but again, Se Ri missed the cut.


Even by the rather lower standards of recent years, Se Ri’s 2008 was not a good season.  She had her struggles in 2006 and 2007, but still won an event in each of those years and finished in the top 20 on the money list.  As the year went on, Se Ri’s performances got worse and worse, and more and more infrequent, perhaps indicating that an injury was partly responsible for her troubles.  But as her second place finish at the Canadian Women’s Open proved, she was still capable of playing like the Se Ri of old from time to time.  Exactly why those great moments were so rare was the real puzzle of 2008.


The nadir of her season came at the Lexus Cup, where Se Ri was once again the captain of the Asian team.  She did a good job as captain, and the matches went right down to the wire, with the International team capturing the cup by just one point.  But Se Ri was the only player on either squad to not win so much as a single point.  Even when teamed with the previously unbeaten Seon Hwa Lee, she came up short.


Hopefully, Se Ri will work hard in the off season and come back in 2009 closer to her world beating form than she was in 2008.


Grace Park

Grace’s problems on the golf course are nothing new: she has been struggling with injuries ever since the start of the 2005 season, and has not managed a top ten finish in years.  The drought continued in 2008, with her best finish being a tie for 20th in April.  The last tournament she even started was the Canadian Women’s Open in August; after that, injuries sidelined her the rest of the year.


Granted, her injury problems have made it tough for her to play up to her level, but even when she claims to be feeling fine, she has still struggled.  One can only hope she can find a way to get past her physical ailments, because hers was a rare talent that deserves more chances to shine.


Young Kim

Young Kim had her breakthrough on the LPGA tour in 2007: after years on tour as a promising young player, she finally notched her first career win.  But since then, she has not capitalized on her victory to take her career to the next level.  In fact, she has played worse.  She finished 2007 in 32nd place on the money list, but in 2008, she only compiled two top ten finishes all year and finished 49th.  Not exactly a disastrous downturn, but a somewhat puzzling one for a player who seemed to be on the right track.


Sarah Lee

In terms of the biggest drop off from one year to the next, Sarah Lee’s fall was even more spectacular than that of the others mentioned above.  However, she had an excuse: an injury that severely limited her ability to practice and play.


In 2007, Lee was 20th on the money list, notching seven top tens in the process.  Although she still didn’t manage to win an event (she has more near misses than any other Korean golfer), it was still perhaps her best season yet as a pro.  But in 2008, she had major problems with her left wrist and left elbow that prevented her from doing much full swing practicing.  As a result, her 2008 money list position was only 124th.  She failed to finish in the top 20 even once during the season.  She did, however, play at the Lexus Cup, where she finished 2-1-0, much better than Se Ri, who had chosen Lee for the team as a captain’s pick.  So perhaps there is reason to believe Lee will get her injuries under control in 2009 and will return to her former level.


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