Posted by: happyfan08 | December 8, 2009

2009: Seo and Shin, A Tale of Two Superstars

The 2009 golf season in women’s golf was another fantastic one for Korean golfers.  They managed 11 wins on the LPGA tour, a record, while capturing some of the biggest titles on the Japanese tour.  The KLPGA produced a ton of exciting moments, and two Korean women, Bo Mi Suh and Hyun Ji Kim, even captured events on the Ladies European Tour.

But even among all these great achievements, two women stood out as particularly sensational.  On the KLPGA tour, Hee Kyung Seo was a dominant force, while on the LPGA, Jiyai Shin came close to making history.  In this article, I will take a look at what these two women accomplished this year, and what we have to look forward to in 2010.

Jiyai Shin and Hee Kyung Seo pose with the KLPGA's Ha Neul Kim

Jiyai Shin was the Player of the Year on the LPGA tour (no, really!)

The Player of the Year award on the LPGA tour this year came down to the very last hole of the season.  Jiyai Shin missed a chip by inches that would have made her the Player of the Year, and for the fourth year in a row that award went to Lorena Ochoa.  But though the mathematical way of determining this award is usually the best way, every once in a while, I believe the points don’t tell the correct story.  For instance, although Annika Sorenstam won the Player of the Year award in 1998, I will always believe that Se Ri Pak was the true Player of the Year that year (the AP agreed with me – they named Se Ri the Female Athlete of the Year that season).  The point system awards consistency, but that year, Sorenstam may have been more consistent, but both won four times, with Pak claiming two Majors (in three tries) and Sorenstam none.  To my mind, winning two Majors as a 20 year old rookie is far more impressive than making a few more top tens in second tier events.

Similarly, I believe in 2009 Shin was the Player of the Year and not Ochoa.  Think about all the things that had to happen in order for Ochoa to win.  If the season had been an event shorter, or two events shorter, or three, or four, Shin would have been POY.  The final two events were both events that favored the long hitting Ochoa; one took place at the course she grew up playing (!!), and was even named after her, and the other event took place in Houston, a place with a large Mexican contingent to cheer her on.  Rain soaked the course in Houston, making it play even more into Ochoa’s hands.  The event was shortened to 54 holes; had it been 36, Shin would have been POY.  Perhaps if it had gone 72, Shin would have rallied (as she had in round 2) and captured the crown.

But the result was even closer than that.  Had Shin made one more putt anytime during the week (and she had several lip outs), she would have been top player.  Had Ochoa missed just one more putt anywhere on the way, Shin would have won.  Exactly seven players needed to finish ahead of Shin to give Ochoa the trophy, and that’s exactly the number who finished ahead of Shin.  Had just one of those players had a bad day, Shin would have won.

Jiyai Shin

The problem with a point system becomes a little more glaring when things get this close.  This system doesn’t care if the field the player faces is tough or not.  A second place against a weak field means the same as a second against all the top players.  Most of the time, such trivialities make little difference, but in a season where literally every putt counted, they loom large.

Given that the ending was so close as to be essentially a tie, why do I give the award to Shin?  Let’s look at the whole picture.  First, let’s face it, this was not a year where Ochoa’s mind was primarily on golf.  She was focused on her impending marriage, and did not generally play to her top level most of the year.    Shin ended up making more money than Ochoa (playing three more tournaments), and easily won the most money on tour (a first for a Korean).  On the other hand, Ochoa’s scoring average was slightly better (but that, too, may have come down to her missing events where the scoring was tougher), and she just barely won the Player of the Year on points.  Ochoa had more second place finishes, four to Shin’s one, but Shin had more thirds, three to none for Lorena.  Both had eight top fives and three wins, and Lorena had one more top ten.  But Shin had a better overall record in the Majors this year.

Jiyai Shin at the HSBC Championship

All these facts show just how close things were between the two.  But I think what pushes Shin over the top is that fact that she hasn’t been doing this for the past seven years like Ochoa has.  She is a 20-21 year old rookie, playing most of these courses for the first time.  It was the first time she was away from home for any significant time, and she had to deal with a new culture, new language, and tons more travel than ever before.  She also played a lot more than just the LPGA events, appearing at 6 JLPGA events, an Australian tournament and one Korean tour event.  Given all that, and taking nothing away from Ochoa, who is the official and deserving LPGA Player of the Year, I would hand the award to Shin if there were a vote.

Hee Kyung Seo: From Supermodel to Major Queen

Hee Kyung Seo is one of Jiyai Shin’s best friends.  The two competed against each other for several years on the Korean tour.  When Shin left this year to play in America full-time, many believed this was Hee Kyung’s chance to at last step out of the shadow of her younger friend.  And indeed, she did just that, although there were several players who made sure it would not be an easy task for her.

Seo started her year in style, capturing two events early, including the year’s first Major, the Korean Women’s Open.  This was also her breakthrough Major win.  After that event, it looked like she would easily claim the top spot on tour.

Hee Kyung wins the Korean Women's Open

But a funny thing happened after that.  A younger gun caught fire, and after a few more events, Seo found herself in second place looking up.  That player was teenager So Yeon Ryu.  Ryu won four events, including three in a row at one stretch, to seize control of the money list and Player of the Year standings.  Seo wasn’t exactly playing badly, but she had cooled off considerably from her start.  As the tour went on summer break, the question of which player would be #1 hung over the tour.

Seo answered the question brilliantly soon after the tour resumed in August.  She just missed out winning the year’s second Major, the Shinsegae KLPGA Championship, finishing second.  In the year’s third Major, Seo and friend Ran Hong were locked in a tense seesaw battle for the title on Sunday, but in the end Hong blinked and Seo captured her second Major of the year.  Seo had another tough battle in the year’s final Major, the KB Star Tour Finale, this time with teen amateur Hana Jang.  But even though Jang hung in there until the end, Seo made the clutch putt she needed on the 17th hole to win her third Major.  Three Majors and a second in the fourth; a truly astonishing performance for the superstar.

The taste of victory! Hee Kyung Seo wins the Hite Cup

Seo's third Major win of the year at the KB Star Tour Finale

But despite all that, she still needed to do some work to put away Ryu to gain the upper hand in the major yearlong races.  This she did decisively by winning the year’s final event, the ADT-CAPS, her fifth title of the year and 11th of her career.  With that victory, she sealed the money list title and scoring title, having already won the Player of the Year at the previous event.

Hee Kyung with her fifth win of the year, the ADT-CAPS

You can bet that Hee Kyung Seo is starting to get noticed in a big way in Korea.  But her next big challenge will be to take her game out of the country and start winning and contending in more international events.  She played decently in Australia early in the year and had a couple of top 20s in LPGA events, but she is still looking for the breakthrough that will get her on sports pages in America and Japan.  Her intention in 2010 is to play in Korea while expanding her efforts elsewhere.  Her primary goal is to close in on the all time win record for the Korean tour, 20, but she will also be looking for a big moment overseas.

For Jiyai Shin, there are a few goals.  Now that she is more used to playing on the LPGA, she should be looking for more wins and more success in Majors.  But her top goal should be to continue to close the gap on Ochoa for the #1 ranking.  If she can do that, she will be the first Korean to ever achieve that ranking.  It will be fun to see if she can do it!

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