Posted by: happyfan08 | January 13, 2010

2009 Awards (3 of 12): Cinderella of the Year

Cinderella of the Year

And the Winner Is: Eunjung Yi

When Eunjung Yi won the Jamie Farr Classic this year, more than a few people were probably wondering who she was.  Even fans of Korean women golfers don’t know much about this player.  She certainly was one of the more obscure Korean golfers before the win, but earned a little notoriety thanks to not only her win, but the fact she shot a 61 during the tournament, one of the lowest scores ever accomplished by a Korean golfer (the lowest is still the 60 shot by Sarah Lee in Tucson a few years ago, while Se Ri Pak, Grace Park and Hee-Won Han have also managed 61s in the past).

Eun Jung Yi

Eunjung Yi was still known as Eun Jung Lee when she won the US Women’s Amateur Pub Links in 2005.  She seemed like another very promising young Korean golfer, but this was her only major win as an amateur.  Still, she was young and had plenty of time to make a splash, either as an amateur or a pro.  She turned pro in 2006 and played for a couple seasons on the Futures Tour.  She finally qualified for the LPGA in 2008 when she finished 25th at Q-School to earn non-exempt status.  In 2008 she made nine cuts, her best finish a tie for 11th.  This allowed her to keep the same relatively low status she had on tour for 2009.

Until the Farr tournament, her most notable achievement in 2009 came at the Corning Classic.  She became only the fifth player in LPGA history to card three eagles in a single round when she eagled the first, second and fifth holes (in fact, she had three eagles in five holes, a pretty astonishing feat right there!).  But her best finish of the year before Farr was a tie for 18th, and she had missed half her cuts to that point in the year.

Eunjung Yi

Something about the Toledo, Ohio event seemed to strike a chord with Yi, however.  She opened her week with a 66 followed by a 68 to put herself in a tie for 7th, just three shots out of the lead.  If she were nervous about being in contention, it didn’t show, for her third round was the aforementioned 61.  In that round she had eight birdies and an eagle when she holed out from the fairway on a par 4 (the Farr course is a par 71, so she was 10 under for the day).  By the end of Saturday she was four shots ahead of her nearest chaser.

Her competitors would not make it easy for her to claim the title.  She made two early birdies to move to 20 under and seemed in firm control, but did not have another birdie the rest of the day.  After a bogey on 16, she found herself battling nerves and Morgan Pressel, who had a birdie and eagle late in her round to finish her day at 18 under.  Yi was not able to birdie either of the final par 5 holes, and was thus forced into a playoff with Pressel for the title.  It’s hard enough to be in your first playoff, but imagine it’s against a fan favorite like Pressel, and you can picture the pressure Yi was under.  But amazingly, despite her earlier struggles, Yi played like a champ.  She hit a fantastic birdie putt on the first playoff hole, walking towards the hole as though she knew it was going in all the way.  She certainly would have looked stupid if she had missed, but in fact, the ball dropped perfectly into the cup, and the win was hers.  And Yi’s Cinderella story was complete!

Eunjung wins!

Other Nominees:

Ji Na Lim

Ji Na Lim has been a dependable golfer on the KLPGA tour for a while now, but definitely a notch below the top talents on that tour.  So when she found herself in a battle with So Yeon Ryu, Hee Kyung Seo, Sun Ju Ahn and Ha Neul Kim, four of the top players on tour, at this year’s LG Electronics Ladies Open, most people were expecting one of those established stars to claim the trophy.  But Ryu struggled to a 76 and was not a factor, and Seo made three straight bogies on the back nine to also fall out of contention.  Lim, meanwhile, moved to 7 under on the front nine, a three shot cushion, and was able to hold off Ahn and Kim, cruising to a fantastic six shot victory by the end of the day.

Ji Na Lim

Bo Mi Lee

Bo Mi Lee was another solid KLPGA golfer who had yet to win on tour.  She came close at the Korean Women’s Open this year, only to fall to Hee Kyung Seo in the end.  But at the Nefs Masterpiece, it was her chance to shine.  She was tied with Inbee Park, former US Women’s Open champ, entering the final round, and both wound up tied after regulation.  Finally on the second playoff hole, Lee saved par while Park struggled, and Lee claimed her first career win.  She not only had beaten all the KLPGA’s top stars and Park, but a star studded field that included Vicky Hurst, Kyeong Bae, Song Hee Kim and Ji Young Oh.

Bo Mi Lee

Heartbreaker of the Year

And the Winner Is: Jiyai Shin loses the Player of the Year

Amazing as it may seem considering how well Korean golfers have done on the LPGA tour, coming into 2009, no Korean had ever led the money list or won Player of the Year, not even Se Ri Pak (who did finish second three times) or Grace Park (who finished second once).  Jiyai Shin was a rookie in 2009, and though she was primarily focused on winning the Rookie of the Year award (which she did easily), she was also in a position to do something only one other golfer had ever done on tour, win all four major year ending awards: the money list title, Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average.

With about two months left in the season, Shin looked on track to do just that.  There were a few golfers who were challenging her closely, but none of them seemed able to make a decisive move to close in on her.  The scoring average seemed like it was going to be the toughest for her to claim, but as the season got closer to the end, she moved closer to the top in that category, too.

Interestingly, one of the players who seemed pretty much out of the race back in September was the player who had won three of those awards the previous three seasons: Lorena Ochoa.  The Mexican star just had not been playing to her usual level all summer, and had not really contended in any of the Majors in 2009.  But Shin fell ill at the CVS Pharmacy Challenge in October and was forced to drop out of that and the next event.  Ochoa took advantage, finishing second at the CVS and winning the next event, the Navistar Classic.  In just two weeks, Ochoa had made up more than 40 points on Shin in the Player of the Year standings, and now was close enough to make a run at the awards again.

Ji Yai and Lorena wrestle over the Player of the Year trophy

Shin was still in the lead in money made and Player of the Year standings with four events to go.  One of the events was in Korea, one in Japan (which Shin had won in the past), but the final two events were the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, played on the course Ochoa grew up playing (!), and the Tour Championship in Houston, just a stone’s throw from the Mexican border.  Shin would probably be favored in the first two, but Ochoa would have the advantage in the final two.  It was imperative that Shin build up her lead before the tour got to Mexico.

Shin played decently in Korea, finishing in 6th place, while Ochoa finished well back in the standings.  This allowed Jiyai to increase her lead by a few points.  But because POY standings are based solely on your finishes in tournaments relative to the field, Shin only earned four points for her 6th and thus only increased her lead over Ochoa by a small amount.  In Japan, Shin defended her title well, finishing tied for 5th.  But she actually lost ground to Ochoa there.  Ochoa had been struggling most of the week, but put together a great run in the final round to finish tied for 2nd, one shot ahead of Shin.  Although there was but one stroke separating them there, Ochoa gained 6 points on Shin, again owing solely to her finish relative to the field at the event.  Shin still held the lead in the race, but now the total difference separating was only four points.

Jiyai Shin

At the Ochoa Invitational, Lorena struggled much of the week.  She had to play host during the tournament and had more duties than usual, which somewhat negated her advantage playing the familiar course in front of her hometown fans.  But once again, she made a run in the final round to minimize Shin’s gain in the Vare Trophy and POY standings.  In the end, Shin’s third place had improved her lead to 8 points with one event to go.  What this meant was, if Ochoa won the final event of the year, she would win Player of the Year, no matter where Shin finished.  If Ochoa finished second or third, Jiyai would win if she could finish above 7th or 10th, respectively.  And if Ochoa finished below third, Shin would be the top player no matter  where she finished. 

Unfortunately, the Houston event was plagued by rain, which forced many delays and made the course play much longer than normal.  This of course played into the hands of golfers like Ochoa, who could hit the ball longer than Jiyai could.  After the first round, Ochoa even had the lead, four shots ahead of Shin.  But Jiyai bounced back in round 2, eventually climbing ahead of Ochoa again.

The tournament was reduced to 54 holes due to the rain, with the final round played on Monday.  Alas, Shin was not playing well that day, while Ochoa was on fire, and Ochoa soon went ahead of Shin.  Luckily for Shin, her playing partner Anna Nordqvist, another long bomber, was playing well enough to prevent Ochoa from winning the event.  But would Ochoa be able to finish second or third, forcing Shin to be 7th or better? 

Jiyai Shin

The final round was a seesaw battle between the two.  Literally from hole to hole, the points they would have earned had it ended there and then would favor first one, then the other, for the Player of the Year.  Shin hovered between fifth and eighth.  Finally, on the 17th hole, Ochoa hit her tee shot into a bunker and took two shots to get it onto the green.  She did make a long bogey putt to minimize the damage, but that bogey had knocked her back to a tie for 2nd, with the possibility that one of the other players could pass her and make it that much harder for her to win Player of the Year.  But Shin also knocked her tee shot into that 17th hole’s bunker and made bogey, falling from a tie for fifth to a tie for 8th.  Either Jiyai needed a birdie on 18, Ochoa needed to bogey, or Kristy McPherson needed a birdie to pass Ochoa.

Ochoa, however, birdied 18, meaning that even if McPherson birdied, she couldn’t knock Ochoa out of second.  So now, Shin needed to birdie to be the Player of the Year.  Alas, she missed the green, but her chip shot came within inches of finding the cup.  And just like that, by the barest of margins, Lorena Ochoa was the Player of the Year for the fourth straight year.  Ochoa also won the Vare Trophy, although Shin did at least become the first Korean golfer to lead the money list.  But losing the Player of the Year when she had led it so much of the season was a bitter pill to swallow.  If, at any time during the week, Shin had made one more putt, she would have been POY.  Perhaps if the event had gone 72 holes, or there hadn’t been so much rain, she would have won.  Ochoa needed 7 players to beat Shin on Sunday and got exactly that much help; if even one of those players had faltered, Shin would have been Player of the Year.  It just doesn’t get much closer, or more heartbreaking, than that!

Jiyai

Other Nominees:

Se Ri loses State Farm

It’s hard to feel too terrible, if you are a Korean golfer fan, about the final result of the State Farm this year, since Korean In-Kyung Kim ended up taking the title.  But Se Ri Pak has been looking for her 25th win since 2007, and she came so close to winning it in Illinois this year, so there is a little bit of heartbreak there to be sure. 

Se Ri was looking like the superstar of old in the final round.  On one hole she smoked her drive 330 yards; wind aided or not, it was an amazing drive.  She did have a silly short par miss early on the back nine, but otherwise was doing everything right.  She even negotiated a tricky par save on the 17th to keep herself in the game.  When she finished at 16 under total, it looked like the only golfer who could potentially rain on her parade was her country woman In-Kyung Kim.

And that’s exactly what happened!  Inky made birdie on 16 to tie Se Ri, then hit a great tee shot on 17, making a rare birdie on this tough hole to take the lead.  She made par on 18 to secure the one shot victory over the legend. 

One nice moment came a few minutes later, when Se Ri went into the scorer’s tent to congratulate Inky on her win.  It was a nice gesture that doubtless meant a lot to the young player.

Se Ri Pak

Soo Yun Kang comes up short in Corning

We’ll get back to this one a little later, but this was another case of a veteran Korean star just missing a win on the final hole.

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