Posted by: happyfan08 | April 13, 2009

The 2009 KLPGA Primer

The KLPGA, or Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association, is the top pro golf tour in South Korea.  It is on this tour that many of the top Korean golfers get their starts, before joining the LPGA golf and making their mark on the world.  Four of its members have even won LPGA events in the past ten years before joining the LPGA tour.  But the coverage of this important world tour is practically nil outside of Korea.  As a result, it often seems that these strong Korean golfers have come out of nowhere when they make their big international splash.

Among the great players who made their first impact on the KLPGA before joining the LPGA are Se Ri Pak, the only Korean woman in the Golf Hall of Fame; 8 time winner Mi Hyun Kim; and tour winners Seon Hwa Lee, Jee Young Lee, Meena Lee, Joo Mi Kim, Soo Yun Kang and Eun Hee Ji.  For most of its history, the KLPGA has been a relatively small tour, with around a dozen or fewer tournaments in a season.  But this tour has really exploded in the past few years, thanks in large part to the exploits of its latest superstar, Ji Yai Shin.  Shin started her great career over there by winning a KLPGA event while still an amateur, and since joining the tour in 2006, she has dominated, winning the Player of the Year award the last three years while smashing almost every record you could imagine in the process.  Now that Shin has moved on to the LPGA tour starting with the 2009 season, there should be a real battle among those left to assume the top spot.  The five primary golfers involved in that struggle are all top flight talents who may sooner or later find themselves in the golf headlines over here.  As a service, I’ll present you with a brief profile of each of them, with a ‘best of the rest’ feature at the end. 

Interestingly, these five players neatly breakdown into two big rivalries that have each earned a lot of press over in Korea.  First, we have the battle of the ‘Supermodels of the Fairways’, followed by the battle of the teen phenoms, with a fifth star hanging about from the old days of the tour.  Let’s go!

Pitched Battle #1: The Supermodels of the Fairways
Ha Neul Kim vs. Hee Kyung Seo.

Hee Kyung Seo and Ha Neul Kim

Hee Kyung Seo and Ha Neul Kim

The #2 and #3 golfers on the KLPGA tour in 2008 are both young women famous for their good looks and fashion sense.  But make no mistake: they are both top talents who have managed to win multiple times on tour despite the presence of superstar Shin.

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim at the 2007 KLPGA Awards

Ha Neul Kim at the 2007 KLPGA Awards

Ha Neul Kim drew first blood in this rivalry.  She won the 2007 Rookie of the Year Award on tour, but 2008 was really her breakout season.  She won three times last year, a feat still fairly rare on tour.  So far, she hasn’t had a lot of success outside of the KLPGA tour, but being that she is only 20 years old, she still has a lot of time to change that.  She was the clear #2 on tour the first half of last year, but found herself in a battle for that crown with Seo during the latter half of the year and eventually finished third on the money list.  The KLPGA was quick to capitalize on their ‘rivalry’, even matching them in a Skins Game against each other during the season (the Game also featured PGA star Anthony Kim, who teamed with Ha Neul to win the Skins title).  

Fun Fact: ‘Ha Neul’ means sky or heaven in Korean (heaven both in the natural and religious sense).  It also means the color of the sky, ie light blue, and Ha Neul often wears light blue clothing in competition.

Hee Kyung Seo 

Hee Kyung Seo

Hee Kyung Seo

Hee Kyung Seo is a tad older than Ha Neul Kim, and had been on tour a little longer before breaking through.  But when she caught fire, she did so in a huge way.  In the second half of the 2008 KLPGA season, she won an astounding six tournaments.  Only Ji Yai Shin has ever won more events in a single year.  Seo has kept up her good play, notching a top ten at the recent ANZ Ladies Masters and a top 20 at the LPGA’s SBS Open, although she missed the cut at the 2009 Kraft Nabisco.

Seo is the most likely player to step into Shin’s shoes as the next KLPGA superstar.  Interestingly, though, five of her six wins came when Shin was not in the field.  Be that as it may, it does not take away from her great play.  Perhaps her most impressive feat was winning three straight events at one point, a feat only two others had ever before accomplished. 

Sponsored by Hite Beer and a favorite subject of photographers at tournaments, the glamorous Seo is the player to beat on tour in 2009.

Fun Fact: Hee Kyung Seo won the Saint Four Masters, an event co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour.  She finished with four birdies to come from behind and capture the crown.  Thus, she has full membership on the LET tour.

Pitched Battle #2: The teen phenoms

The teen rivals: So Yeon Ryu and He Yong Choi

The teen rivals: So Yeon Ryu and He Yong Choi

Most tours would be happy to have one great rivalry, especially if it was between two ladies often mistaken for fashion models.  But the KLPGA has a second compelling storyline developing.  So Yeon Ryu and He Yong Choi are two 18 year olds who broke onto tour last season as 17 year old rookies.  Both won events last year and contended several other times.  Both finished in the top six on the money list, and both duked it out for Rookie of the Year title all season.  In the end, Choi pipped Ryu for that award.  This was hardly the start of their rivalry: both met as amateurs at the 2006 Asian Games, where Ryu won gold and Choi bronze. 

He Yong Choi

He Yong having a good tournament in 2008

He Yong having a good tournament in 2008

He Yong Choi is one of the teen phenoms who dazzled folks on tour last year, eventually winning the Rookie of the Year trophy.  Her feat shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  She had represented Korea in international amateur competition for years.  In 2007, she even made the cut at the British Women’s Open (at St. Andrews no less!).  She even contended to win a KLPGA event before joining the tour, although in the end she lost out.  Last year, she came close to winning the KLPGA’s Match Play title, losing in the final, and also lost a playoff for the year’s third Major.  She did collect one win.

She started the 2009 season right by winning the first KLPGA event of the year and capturing a tie for third at the Australian Women’s Open.

Fun Fact: He Yong’s name is sometimes anglicized as Hye Yong.  Thanks for the confusion!

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu

Ryu got the early jump on Choi last year, winning the first event of the calendar year on tour.  She also looked primed to win the Korean Women’s Open before Shin caught her on the back nine and beat her in a playoff.  Ryu was ahead of Choi in the Rookie of the Year race until the year’s final Major.  Ryu was DQed thanks to a strange rules infraction, while Choi rallied in the final round to finish second.  From that point on, it was Choi who was the Rookie leader.

Ryu has had a strong start to her new year.  She finished tied for second at the ANZ Ladies Masters, and although she missed the cut at her first LPGA event, she was a factor at the second KLPGA event of the year, leading after one round and notching a top ten.

Fun Fact: Ryu was attending high school between tournaments at the start of the 2008 season!

Sun Ju Ahn: The Fifth superstar

Sun Ju Ahn

Sun Ju Ahn

Unlike the other four top golfers we’ve talked about, Sun Ju Ahn had her breakthrough moment in 2007, not last year.  That year, she won three times on tour, and seemed to be about the only person who could occasionally slow Ji Yai Shin down.  She did not have a great 2008 although she did win one tournament.  Among her notable near misses were at the Saint Four, where she led much of the week only to be caught and passed at the end by Seo, and the year’s final Major, where she lost in a playoff with He Yong Choi and Shin (Shin won, naturally).

Ahn made an effort to join her pals Shin and Eun Hee Ji on the LPGA via its Qualifying School.  She won the sectional she played at, but struggled in the finals and had to drop out after two rounds.  It has been revealed that she has had injuries lately, and those may have affected her last season.  Still playing on the tour in 2009, her goal will doubtless be to make it to the LPGA by 2010.  But can she capture the KLPGA’s Player of the Year in the interim?

Fun Fact: Sun Ju Ahn’s nickname is ‘Big Mama’. 

Some other top names

Ran Hong.  Often lumped in with Seo and Ha Neul Kim as one of the Supermodels of the Fairways, Hong won twice in 2008.  If she contended more often, she would definitely join the ranks of the other top players.

Hye Youn Kim, Chae Ah Oh.  Two 2008 rookies who also won in their rookie years, but who were not quite in the same league as Choi and Ryu.

Hae Jung Kim, Hyun Hee Moon, Aram Cho, Soo Young Moon.  All these ladies have won on tour and are former LPGA members.




  1. Great post, HF! Any word on whether Ji-Yai Shin will be following up her at-least-3-event Japanese tour with any visits to the KLPGA in late April or early May?

  2. You’re a star HF!
    Mr C… I’ll get back to you asap about Ji-Yai’s schedule… but as far as I’m aware the KLPGA is not on her radar.

    Regarding Seo Hee-Kyeung’s sudden transformation into a winner… it’s been widely reported that a brief spell in the middle of last year training with Ji-Yai at her little 9-hole home course turned Hee-Kyeung around. Here are Ji-Yai’s comment’s from an interview I did with her last December.

    J-Y: “Before she practiced with me she’d never won. Never! After practicing with me for about two weeks, she won six times. It was amazing. I said to her “wow we’re really successful this year.” She said “it’s unbelievable”. She had always seemed to just miss the win in the final round. She’s a great player but sometimes when she got close to the leader she got very nervous and felt the pressure and so made mistakes. One of the last tournament’s she won she scored eight-under par in the final round. She’s my best friend among the Korean golfers. Sun-Ju Ahn and Seo, we’re always talking about golf. I’m very close to them. She (Seo) saw I was practicing about 10 or 11 hours most days, with five hours putting practice. She said she was shocked a little bit and thought wow I need to practice more. I think she was working five or six hours a day. After she worked with me she started practicing more and after her first win she had a big change in her mentality. She knows how to win in the final round now I think. ”

    Have you created a monster?
    J-Y: “Yeah… alittle bit!” She laughed.

    J-Y: “Hyun-Ju Shin – she plays in Japan – I played a Japan Ladies tournament, the second biggest tournament (JLPGA Championship Konica-Minolta Cup), I practiced with her and she was saying I can’t get out of the rough here, so I taught her a little bit and she won and I came second. I cost myself money!

    J-Y: “On the last hole of the final round we were co-leaders. We both missed the green, but her last shot from the rough was inside one foot.

    “I taught another player putting in Korea and she came second in the tournament.

    You’re going to have to start asking for a 10 per cent commission before you give advice!!

    J-Y: “Not 10 per cent! More! More! At least 15 per cent! (Laughs)

  3. BTW HF… I dare you… No! I double-dare you to try and produce a reliable list of ALL the nicknames ALL of the top KLPGA players have been given 🙂

  4. I love korean women, are there any good ones left?

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