Posted by: happyfan08 | January 22, 2009

2008 Awards: Rookie of the Year

He Yong Choi/So Yeon Ryu
In 2008, there were several great rookies who could have qualified for this award. Normally, we give it to the most impressive rookie on the LPGA tour, and Na Yeon Choi certainly had a great season. But as impressive as she was, she wasn’t quite able to get over the hump and win an event. Meanwhile, Vickie Hurst broke all sorts of records on the Futures Tour, and certainly made an impressive name for herself. But as incredible as she was at times, that was still on the Futures Tour, a second tier league.
This year, I have decided to give the Rookie of the Year award to a pair of players who absolutely blazed on the KLPGA tour this year. Their fierce battle for the Rookie title only one of them could win electrified crowds and increased interest in the tour over there. And to make it even more compelling, these are two golfers who have been clashing ever since they started playing the game, and may very well continue their rivalry for years to come. The Rookie(s) of the Year in 2008 are He Yong Choi and So Yeon Ryu.

He Yong Choi and So Yeon Ryu, the top KLPGA rookies in 2008

He Yong Choi and So Yeon Ryu, the top KLPGA rookies in 2008

 

Both ladies have been playing golf for several years, and were top amateur stars in Korea. They are both virtually the same age (17 at the start of the season), and both turned pro at the same time. Indeed, this was a banner year for rookies on that tour, with Hye Yoon Kim and Chae Ah Oh both winning tournaments, and Anna Oh and Ae Ri Pyun also making serious noise. Jae Eun Chung is yet another rookie with an impressive amateur career and notable achievements in 2008. But all of them (save perhaps Hye Yoon Kim) were chasing the two rookie stars Ryu and Choi the entire year.

Back when they were amateurs, Choi and Ryu represented Korea in numerous international competitions. Perhaps the most significant of these was the 2006 Asian Games. The Asian Games are similar to the Olympics: a massive sports competition involving almost any sport you can think of, that, like the Olympics, takes place only once every four years. The event pits athletes from all the various Asian countries against one another, and like the Olympics, winners are award gold, silver and bronze medals. Unlike the Olympics, however, golf is one of the sports that is contested. There is both a team event and individual awards for both genders. Going into the 2006 games, the Koreans had to be considered among the favorites to win medals. The women’s team consisted of three teenagers: Jae Eun Chung, He Yong Choi and So Yeon Ryu, who were all 15 or 16 years old at the time. Interestingly, all three would be rookies on the KLPGA tour two years later.

Needless to say, the Korean team easily captured the gold medal, but they also did very well in the individual events. So Yeon Ryu captured the gold, destroying the field with a blistering 29 under par total score. She won the medal by 9 shots over a Japanese golfer. Choi won the bronze. As the rivalry started, it was Ryu who drew first blood.

In 2007, Choi made some noise of her own. At the Women’s British Open, she made the cut and finished a respectable tied for 48th. Later that year, she played the Hill State Seokyung Open, and announced loudly that she was a force to be reckoned with by taking the second round lead. In the end, she wound up in a pitched battle for the title with four of the top players on the KLPGA tour, including Ji Yai Shin, who ended up winning. But Choi finished tied for third, and showed she was ready to leave the amateur ranks behind. Meanwhile, Ryu played at the US Women’s Amateur in 2007, where she finished fourth in the stroke play section. That year, she also powered the Korean team to an incredible 20 shot win at the Queen Sirikit Cup; she also claimed the individual honors there at 12 under total, with Choi finishing second at 6 under. At the end of 2007, both Choi and Ryu turned professional and joined the KLPGA tour. Let the battle begin!

Ryu warmed up a bit by playing the Cactus League in the States, where she won an event by six shots. She then returned to Korea, where she won the first KLPGA event she played, beating Choi, who finished second, by four shots.

In April, it was Choi’s turn to take a shot at winning on tour. At the MC Square Open, the weather was extremely tough. Another rookie, Chae Ah Oh, put herself into great position after two rounds, but struggled mightily to start round three. Choi made a run, but Oh was able to hold her off for the one shot win; Ryu finished tied for 6th.

Which brings us to the year’s first Major, the Korean Women’s Open, arguably the most important event in Korea every year. Going into the final round, Ryu had carved out a four shot lead over Ji Yai Shin, and looked primed for her first Major win. But Shin was relentless, and managed to catch Ryu on the final day, forcing a playoff which she eventually won. It was a bitter disappointment for the teen, but really, a second place in a Major was still a fantastic finish.

In May, Choi had another great run at a title. The event was the Doosan Match Play Championship, the only match play event of the season on the KLPGA tour. Choi made it all the way to the finals, where she was matched against 22 year old Bo Kyung Kim. Choi certainly was the favorite, and carved out a two hole lead by the turn. By the 14th hole, Kim had squared the match, but Choi made another birdie to win 15. On 17, however, she made a crucial bogey to fall into a tie. On the final hole, despite the fact Choi had led all day, she only made par, Kim made birdie, and it was Bo Kyung Kim who claimed the title. For the third time in 2008, Choi had come up just a little short.

Ryu had another chance at her second win at the KB Star Tour #2 event in June. In fact, going into the final round, Ryu had a one shot lead, and looked poised to make a decisive move over Choi in the Rookie standings. But she was not able to shake her opponents, and coming into the final hole, she was tied with Soo Young Moon and Ran Hong for the lead. Ryu made a bogey there, as did Moon, and Hong walked off with that title.

Finally, in late June, the two rookies collided in a tournament where both played well. At the MBC Tour Lotte Mart Open, Choi got out to a nice lead, but Ryu would not go away, and was two shots behind her after two rounds. In the final round, the tournament turned into a battle between the two rookie stars. Ryu played slightly better on the front nine, with Choi clinging to a one shot lead. But a two shot swing on the 12th hole gave Choi a 3 shot lead, and Ryu made a double bogey later to drop five back. Choi ended up winning her first title by three shots over Ryu, who finished second. Interestingly, when each rookie star won her first title, the other star had finished second. With the win, the Rookie race tightened further, although Ryu still held the advantage.

He Yong Choi

He Yong Choi

 

Choi tried to change that in the very next event, mounting a serious charge at the Lakeside Women’s Open thanks to three straight birdies to start her final round. In the end, however, Ran Hong won her second event of the past three weeks, and Choi finished third.

When the KLPGA returned after its mid-year break, Hee Kyung Seo went on her winning tear, taking the next three titles on tour. Neither rookie star played all that well for the next few events, which meant that Ryu continued to maintain her Rookie of the Year lead. That started to change in early October at the Interburgos Masters. He Yong Choi had not begun the week all that well, but finished with a scintillating 67 that vaulted her all the way into third place. Ryu finished tied for 15th. At the next event, the Hite Cup, Choi finished tied for 4th, while Ryu was tied for 17th. Slowly Choi was reducing Ryu’s Rookie lead to almost nothing.

The pivotal event the entire year was the third and final Major, the KB Star Tour #4. Neither Choi nor Ryu played all that well the first few rounds. In round three, however, Ryu made a crucial mistake. She had an unplayable lie in a fairway bunker, and when she took a drop from there, she somehow violated the rules. I’m not sure I understood the Korean, but it sounds like she dropped closer to the hole, which is a no no. Hence, she was disqualified. This meant she would earn no points for this important event in the Rookie race. But as long as Choi continued to struggle, Ryu might still be in good shape vis a vis their year long battle.

But in the final round, Choi, starting nine shots out of the lead, launched the greatest comeback of the entire year, shooting a record shattering 64 in the tough conditions to force a playoff with Ji Yai Shin and Sun Ju Ahn. She would lose that playoff to Shin, but her second place finish still allowed her to surpass Ryu at last. Choi had shot a final round 5 strokes better than anyone else in the field. It proved to be the lowest score ever shot by a rookie on the KLPGA tour, besting a record once held by 2008 LPGA rookie Hee Young Park. And now, it was Choi who had the target on her back. Could Ryu respond?

There were only a few events left in the season. At the S-OIL Championship, several of the overshadowed rookies had a great week. The winner was Hye Yoon Kim, a rookie who had quietly amassed nearly enough points to overtake Ryu for second in the Rookie of the Year Race, while another rookie, Ae Ri Pyun, finished second. Neither Choi nor Ryu were in contention, but that hurt Ryu more than Choi. At the Saint Four Ladies Masters, Ryu did nicely, finishing third, although she never really had more than a distant chance of catching the leaders Sun Ju Ahn and Hee Kyung Seo, who ended up winning. He Yong Choi finished two shots behind her in fourth.

So it all came down to the final event of the year, the ADT-CAPS Championship. If Ryu were going to be the Rookie of the Year, Choi would have to finish no better than fifth and Ryu would have to win the event. Hye Yoon Kim could also win the award, but she would have to win with the other two finishing fairly badly. Not likely.

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu

 

In the end, Choi took matters into her own hands. After two rounds, she was tied for the lead with another rookie, Anna Oh. Ryu played well in the second round, and only missed being tied for the lead thanks to a late double bogey. So it all came down to the final round of the year. And Choi got the job done. She shot a one over par 73, which gave her a fourth place finish and the Rookie of the Year title. Ryu shot a 74 and captured a top ten, but had to settle for second in the Rookie race. It had been an exciting year long battle that had captivated KLPGA fans everywhere, but in the end, it was He Yong Choi who stood triumphant.

Who knows what the future will hold for these two rookie stars as they move into their second year and beyond. Choi has certainly let it be known she’s not going away. In the very first event of the 2009 season, the Ladies China Open, she captured her second KLPGA victory to take the money list lead on tour. Ryu will need to keep working hard to keep up with her rival, but knowing those two, I’m sure there are many great battles yet to come!

Honorable Mentions:
Na Yeon Choi

It’s hard to imagine a player having a better season, without actually winning an event, than Na Yeon Choi had in 2008. It says something that her primary rival for the Rookie of the Year crown, Ya Ni Tseng, was behind Choi much of the year despite having won a Major title. And even when Tseng notched a second place finish at another Major, she still would not put Choi away until the very last tournament of the year. Choi would accumulate over a million dollars in earnings in 2008, with nine top tens.

Na Yeon Choi in the final round of 2008 the Evian Masters

Na Yeon Choi in the final round of the 2008 Evian Masters

 

Na Yeon started the year with non-exempt status; she had just missed earning her exempt tour card at the previous year’s Qualifying School. Her status would probably insure she would get into at least 10 – 12 events; but if she could play well early in the year, she could improve her status and get into pretty much any event she wanted to. That was her first goal, and she achieved it beautifully.

Na Yeon got her season off to just the start she needed. In just her third event on tour, the MasterCard Classic, she notched a 5th place finish. She also had a tie for 14th at the HSBC Women’s Champions event in Singapore, and those two finishes were good enough to qualify her for the year’s first Major, the Nabisco. She didn’t have an easy task: she played well enough to be one of the contenders, and in the final round was paired with Hall of Famers Karrie Webb and Annika Sorenstam. She took advantage of that opportunity, finishing tied for 6th. At her next event, the Corona Morelia, she and the rest of the field were helpless before the relentless onslaught of Lorena Ochoa. Choi had another top five finish, a tie for fifth, but still finished more than ten shots behind the Mexican star.

Choi continued to play brilliantly the rest of the year. Her worst finish of the season was a tie for 43rd; most of her finishes were top 20s (she had 19 of them on the year). And she continued to notch top tens. At the Sybase Classic, she had her first legitimate shot at a win. Once again, Ochoa had the lead, but was not playing her best. Choi was in contention, and had a shot at catching Ochoa. But she missed two short birdie putts on holes 16 and 18, and Ochoa escaped with the victory. Choi, however, collected her first runner up finish on tour.

Choi had a couple of other chances to shine during the season, but no doubt the most painful near miss came at the Evian Masters. As the last round progressed, she was on fire, and roared into a four shot lead over the field. It seemed like she could do no wrong; even when she put her tee shot into the trees on one hole, she still managed to get out of that mess and make a birdie. But on the back nine, the nerves started to get to her and she made several mistakes, while veteran Helen Alfredsson started to make one clutch shot after another. In the end, the two of them and Angela Park wound up in a playoff, and it was Alfredsson who got the title. If Choi could have found a way to make one fewer mistake somewhere along the line, however, she might have collected her first tour win instead.

The Rookie of the Year race came down to the final event of the year. Choi was going to need to win the ADT Championship, while Tseng would have to miss the two day cut. Tseng did in fact miss that cut, but Choi did also, thanks to late mistakes on the second day. But though Choi only finished second in that race, she still managed to finish 11th on the money list, earning $1,095,759 in the process. A great rookie year indeed!

Vickie Hurst
As mentioned previously, Vickie Hurst had a record shattering rookie year on the Futures Tour, winning four official events and one unofficial one and shattering the record for most money earned on that tour. She also set a new record for lowest 54 hole score in tour history and became the youngest player on that tour to ever win an event. Her rookie year on the LPGA in 2009 should be very interesting indeed!

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