Posted by: happyfan08 | January 14, 2010

2009 Awards (4 of 12): Best Breakthrough

Best Breakthrough

And the Winner Is: Na Yeon Choi wins twice

Ever since she joined the LPGA in 2008, Na Yeon Choi has been one of the most consistent golfers on the LPGA tour.  In her first season, she racked up 9 top tens and 18 top 20s, and made over a million dollars during the year.  Despite the fact her biggest rookie challenger, Ya Ni Tseng from Taiwan, had won a Major that year, it still took Tseng until the final tournament of the year before she finally clinched the Rookie of the Year award, and Choi had in fact led that race much of the season.  She did not miss a single cut, and had no finish worse than 43rd.

Na Yeon Choi

Despite this great record, Choi did in fact fail to win in her rookie season.  She did have her chances, though, culminating in a great performance at the Evian Masters which saw her take a four shot lead on the back nine on the final day.  But she was not able to hang on and Helen Alfredsson wound up winning the title in a playoff.

It looked like history would repeat itself in 2009.  Once again, Choi made every cut, collected 11 top tens, and was in the top 20 17 times.  But once again, that first LPGA win seemed to stay tantalizingly out of reach.

Finally, everything changed at the Samsung World Championship in October.  Choi played brilliantly for three days, then seized control of the tournament on the back nine, amassing a seven shot lead at one point.  But amazingly, she once again saw that lead dwindle, despite making several clutch par saves along the way.  With one hole to go, Ai Miyazato had wrestled the lead away from Choi, and now had her own one shot lead over the Korean.  But this time, luck was on Choi’s side, and Miyazato hit her second shot approach on the par 5 18th into the water hazard.  This gave Choi a chance to win the event outright if she could make birdie on that hole.  Faced with her own dicey approach, she hit it to just in front of the green, but her third shot was not good, and she left it about four feet short.  With everything on the line, however, she came through, nailing the birdie putt to finally claim her first career LPGA win.

Na Yeon Choi wins a Rolex for her first career LPGA victory

Choi would not have to wait long to find the winner’s circle a second time.  Just a few weeks later, she was again in the hunt, this time at the Hana Bank Kolon Championship in her home country of South Korea.  With a few holes to go, she was right in the thick of the battle with none other than her former rookie rival, and good friend, Ya Ni Tseng, as well as long hitting Swede Maria Hjorth.  This time, Hjorth hit it into the water on the final hole, but Tseng reached the green of the 18th in 2 and made birdie.  Choi got to in front of the green in two, but needed just a birdie to beat Tseng.  Once again, she delivered in the clutch, hitting her chip to inches for a tap in birdie and the one shot win.  Her second win made her only the fourth player to manage multiple wins on tour in 2009, and her money total left her 6th on the money list.  It looks like Na Yeon may have arrived at last!

Na Yeon Choi with her second trophy of 2009

Other Nominees:

Bo Bae Song

BB Song was the KLPGA’s top player in 2004 and 2005, but she somewhat faded from the spotlight in 2006, when Jiyai Shin took over the league.  Song went to Japan to play, but injuries and other issues prevented her from finishing full seasons in 2007 and 2008.  Thus, her official rookie year on that tour was not until this year, and if people had forgotten the former teen prodigy, she was quick to remind everyone what she was capable of!  She would go on to win the JLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award, one of the few Koreans to be so honored.  She did this thanks to two wins, both very important.  The first came at the Japan Women’s Open in early October, one of the JLPGA’s most important Majors.  She followed that up just a month later by winning the Mizuno Classic, the only event co-sanctioned by the LPGA and JLPGA.  That win gained Song membership on the LPGA for 2010, although it looks like she has decided to refuse that and remain on the Japanese tour.  At the Mizuno, BB collected a three shot win over a field that included some of the LPGA’s top players, including Lorena Ochoa and Jiyai Shin.

Bo Bae Song

As if that weren’t enough, Song concluded her year by winning both her matches at the Kyoraku Cup, the annual tournament that pits the best of the Japanese women against the top Korean women golfers.  She also won the pivotal match that clinched the cup for Korea, and was named the MVP of the tournament.  Without any doubt, Song will be on everyone’s radar from now on!

Michelle Wie

The Hawaiian prodigy finally got her first win in any tournament, professional or amateur, since she was 13 years old when she won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November.  Whether this will be a breakthrough or an isolated success remains to be seen, but she did follow it with a second place finish at the Dubai Masters, an LET event, in December, so the signs are good.

Great Performance that came up short

And the Winner is: Soo-Yun Kang at the Corning Classic

In the early part of this decade, Soo-Yun Kang was without question the best Korean woman golfer not playing on the LPGA.  She was frequently one of the very top players on the KLPGA in the years after Se Ri Pak and Mi Hyun Kim left.  When she finally came over to the LPGA tour, it looked like just a matter of time before she brought that success over here.  But in fact she did not play that well for her first few seasons in America.  Her breakthrough finally came in 2005, when she won the Safeway Classic and notched several other top finishes.  At last, the Fashion Model of the Fairways seemed ready to stake her claim as one of the top Koreans on the LPGA.

But the next few years saw Kang struggle mightily.  In 2006 she only finished 94th on the money list, and did even worse in 2007, finishing 132nd.  She got a tad better in 2008 but still was not able to collect even a single top ten.  Part of the problem was injuries: she had a recurring, nagging neck problem that made playing the game tough.  But even when she was feeling fine, she found herself struggling to make cuts, and basically stopped contending.  The 2009 season didn’t go much better for Soo Yun, at least at first.  But then came the final edition of the Corning Classic.  This event has been a good one for Korean golfers over the year, and in 2009, it was Kang’s turn to shine.  Soo Yun opened with a sterling 7 under par 65, and matched that with another one in round 3.  Thus she found herself tied for the lead with Japanese rookie Mika Miyazato at 17 under par.  But there was still one round to go; could she get her first win in four years?

Soo Yun Kang

Things looked great at first.  She made early birdies on holes 2 and 5, then drained a 30 foot birdie on 9 to move to 20 under and the lead.  After that, things got very interesting.  She made bogey on 10, rebounded with a birdie on 12, then just missed another at 13.  Meanwhile, Paula Creamer rallied elsewhere on the course, nailing a long birdie putt on the final hole to move to 20 under in the clubhouse.  Kang knew she would have to finish at least at that level to have any chance to win.

Kang continued to save pars, seemingly by the skin of her teeth.  She finally nailed an approach on the 16th hole to 4 feet and rolled in the birdie to move to 21 under, but just then Ya Ni Tseng also made a birdie to climb to that score.  On the par 5 17th, her drive rolled into the trees, and after she punched out, she had to settle for par.  Still, she was tied for the lead with one hole to go.  All she would need was par for the playoff or birdie for the win.

On 18, her approach shot left her 60 feet from the hole.  Her first putt went a few feet past the hole, but Kang made the mistake of not watching the break as the ball went by.  As a result, she missed her short par save, handing the tournament to Tseng. 

How did Kangsy miss that putt???

It took four years for Kang to get back into the hunt for a win, she led much of the week, then a short putt cost her the trophy.  Surely, it was a heartbreaker, but Kang was still happy with her best finish in several years.  Hopefully she will be able to build herself back into a player who can contend regularly again.

Other Nominees:

Hee Young Park in Thailand

What a weird week Hee Young Park had in Thailand at the LPGA’s annual visit to that country, the Honda LPGA Thailand.  Park got extremely ill on the first day of the tournament and struggled to even stay in the tournament.  Somehow she finished her round, but shot a 79 that left her second from last in the standings.  That night, she went to the hospital, where the doctors hooked her up to an IV for several hours.

Hee Young Park in the hospital following round one in Thailand

Amazingly, she not only stayed in the tournament, but shot the best round of the day in round two, a masterful eight under par 64.  She followed that with a 69, then on the final day, zoomed up the leaderboard with a 65, a round almost as good as her round two performance.   In just three rounds, she had gone from second to last to second place.  Alas, she was not able to top Lorena Ochoa, who won the tournament, but it was nonetheless a fantastic comeback from about as bad a start as you could imagine.

Hee Young Park recovered to finish second

Grace Park at MasterCard

Grace Park was once upon a time one of the very best young Korean golfers on tour.  Indeed, in 2004 she was not only the top Korean on the LPGA, but also the second best golfer, period, finishing behind only Annika Sorenstam.   But since the 2005 season, Grace has struggled with severe back problems, and as a result, she has not even notched a top ten since October of that year, let alone a win.  But Grace fans everywhere keep hoping that she will get her injuries under control and will once again become the great golfer she was.

Grace finally had a chance to get that elusive top ten, and perhaps more, at the MasterCard Classic in Mexico.  After two rounds, Grace was tied for 7th, three shots out of the lead (another Korean veteran looking for a win, Se Ri Pak, was one shot ahead of her.  It was 2004 all over again!).  Grace played well early in her final round, moving to 5 under, but carded three double bogies in her next four holes to fall to one over par.  That looked like it for Grace and her top ten, but she immediately made two birdies after that to move back to one under.  She finished her round at that score, but as it turned out, that was one shot worse than she needed to get that top ten; she finished 12th.  Shortly after that, injuries got the best of Grace again, and she missed most of the rest of the season.

Grace Park

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