Posted by: happyfan08 | January 25, 2010

2009 Awards (11 of 12): Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year

And the Winner Is: Jiyai Shin

Jiyai Shin

I’ll admit it, I almost bought the lie.  For much of this year, there has been this steady drumbeat from all sides that Jiyai Shin, for all her accomplishments, is not really an LPGA rookie in 2009.  After all, she already had three wins in 2008, before even joining the tour, right?  How could such a player be compared to some amateur who has just joined the professional ranks?

In my case, I have been reporting about Shin since she turned pro in 2006 and started blowing away records everywhere she went.  She has been the Player of the Year in these SeoulSisters.com awards the past two seasons.  How could I call such a player a rookie?

Of course, such semantics are silly.  Shin is playing for the first time as a full time player on the LPGA tour, and she is facing many of the same issues other rookies face: getting used to traveling all over the States, rookie hours, dealing with pro ams and other obligations.  It’s true that she has three years of pro experience under her belt, but she has played fewer than half as many LPGA events as Michelle Wie did before joining the tour, yet not nearly as many people were questioning Wie’s rookie status.  And if previous professional experience alone were a disqualifier for rookie status, then should I have considered Seon Hwa Lee the Rookie of the Year back in 2006?  After all, by the time she collected that award, Lee had already been playing pro golf for six years, winning multiple events on the Futures Tour and the KLPGA in the process.  If winning before getting to the tour were an issue, why did I not object when Shi Hyun Ahn won the Rookie of the Year award in 2004, the year after she won the CJ 9 Bridges Classic to get membership on the LPGA tour?  And keep in mind that, besides playing a bunch of courses she has never seen before, like (most) rookies, Shin also had to deal with a new language, a new culture, and living away from home for the first time.  And she did all this at the fairly young age of 20.  No, there really is no sense to the argument that Jiyai Shin was not a rookie in 2009.  By the definition of the tour and any other logical definition of the term, a rookie she indeed was.

Jiyai Shin

Once you accept that Shin was a rookie in 2009, there’s no escaping the fact that she was the best rookie this season.  Shin not only crushed the competition in the rookie race on the LPGA tour, she did it with several weeks left in the season.  And that’s despite the fact she faced three other players who won tournaments this year, including one, Anna Nordqvist, who won twice, including a Major. 

As if Jiyai needed any other help in claiming this award, there are few other Korean golfers who were rookies in 2009 that might qualify for this award.  MJ Hur had a very good rookie year which included a win, but she had only two top tens in total.  No other Korean rookie on the LPGA was really in the same ballpark as Shin.  The crop of rookies on the KLPGA was decent, but gathered not a single win between them (compared to 2008, where four rookies won events).  The JLPGA’s top rookie was Bo Bae Song, but though she had a great season, it pales compared to what Jiyai accomplished.

I have a feeling we may be hearing from Jiyai Shin again in these awards, so we’ll leave it at that for now.

Jiyai Shin

Other Nominees:

Bo Bae Song

BB Song won the JLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2009, even though she had played on the tour since 2007 and had already carded a win (last year).  No, I’m not sure how she qualifies to be a rookie, either, but if I understand correctly, the JLPGA does not count you a rookie simply because it’s the first year you have membership on tour.  You actually have to play some minimum number of events that year to be a rookie.  This is actually a rule the LPGA might consider adopting, being that so many non-exempt rookies play next to no events on tour their rookie year (this killed Amy Yang last year).  But if you think the LPGA’s current way of judging who is a rookie is controversial, just think how doing it the Japanese way would go down with the press!

In any event, this apparently was BB’s first official year, and she won the tour’s Rookie trophy thanks to her two impressive wins on tour in 2009.  First she collected the Japan Women’s Open, her first Major victory, then followed that up not long afterwards with a win at the joint JLPGA-LPGA event, the Mizuno Classic.  That’s an impressive twofer no matter who you are, rookie or seasoned veteran.  Congrats to her!

Most Improved Player

And the winner Is: So Yeon Ryu

We’ve already talked a bit about So Yeon Ryu in these awards.  She won an award for Best Streak of the Year and Best One on One confrontation, and was one of our Best Teen performers in 2009 as well.  Not only that, but she was the KLPGA’s Most Popular Player in 2009, as voted by the fans!  To cap off a stellar year for Ryu, we will now present her with the Seoulie for Most Improved Player of 2009.

So Yeon Ryu

It’s not as though Ryu was having a bad career before this season.  She had already established herself as one of the top amateurs in the country by her mid teens.  A frequent representative of Korea on the national team, Ryu was most famous before turning pro for winning the gold medal at the Asian Games in 2006.  But she played umpteen other amateur tournaments all over the world, and collected a lot of individual and team honors in the process.

Her rookie year on the KLPGA in 2008 was certainly a strong one.  She played her events while finishing her senior year of high school, winning once and grabbing two other second place finishes, including a runner up to Jiyai Shin at the Korean Women’s Open, where she lost in a playoff.  But she was denied the Rookie of the Year award on tour by her arch rival He Yong Choi, who also had a win and several other top five finishes in 2008.  Ryu finished 6th on the money list in 2008.

Ryu worked with top Australian coach Ian Triggs in the off season, and impressed him so much he went on record to say he expected her to soon be one of the ten best women’s golfers in the world.  Ryu showed a flash of what was to come when she finished second at the ANZ Ladies Masters in Australia in February, beating Hee Kyung Seo and Jiyai Shin, the top two KLPGA golfers from 2008, among many others.

So Yeon takes aim

Hee Kyung Seo dominated the early part of the 2009 KLPGA season, but Ryu’s win at the Doosan Match Play Championship in May changed everything, not only for the season, but arguably for Ryu’s career.  Without question, nobody worked harder in 2009 to get a victory than Ryu did at that tournament.  Match play is tough anyway; you have to be on your game pretty much the entire week, as even one bad stretch of holes can be enough to cost you the tournament.  In Ryu’s case, she had several tough matches on her way to the finals, and was forced into three sudden death playoffs on the way.  All of that toughened her and prepared her for the final match against her rival He Yong Choi.  This match in was an epic in itself, lasting nine extra holes and more than 7 hours in total.  Handling all of that pressure all week paid off for Ryu, though, and she finally wrapped up the title with a birdie on the ninth playoff hole for her second career victory.

From that moment, Ryu caught fire in a major way.  She was understandably tired at the next event on the schedule, yet still finished third.  After that, she won the next three events on tour.  Though she would not win another event on the 2009 schedule (she did lose the penultimate event of the year in a playoff, however), Ryu’s four wins for a time made her, not Seo, the top player on tour.  Eventually Seo retook the lead and won all the major awards on tour, but without question, Ryu is now the second best player on the KLPGA tour, a quantum leap from her results in 2008.

So Yeon vs. Hee Kyung: Rivals

Ryu finished the calendar year in style, with another win, this time at the event that officially started the 2010 KLPGA season.  That event was the Orient China Ladies Open, and for much of the week, the leader was none other than Hee Kyung Seo.  But Ryu was lurking just a few shots back, and in the final round, she outplayed the KLPGA’s top gun to force a playoff.  After three holes, Ryu emerged with the win.  So not only did she improve massively this season from last, she also beat both of her chief rivals, He Yong Choi and Seo, in playoffs this year.

So Yeon wins in China

So Yeon Ryu plans to work with Triggs again this off season, and no doubt wants to become the new top gun on the KLPGA tour.  Hee Kyung Seo will not be able to rest for a minute.  Should be a gas!

Other Nominee:

Jung Eun Lee 5

Jung Eun Lee

Jung Eun Lee was one of the faces in the crowd on the KLPGA tour until this season, when she established herself as a force to be reckoned with.  She captured two wins total, including a victory at the Shinsegae KLPGA Championship, the year’s second Major.  This win was important, because it denied Hee Kyung Seo the calendar year Grand Slam (Seo put pressure on Lee all day, but Lee held on and Seo finished second).  Lee wound up fourth on the KLPGA money list.  At the 2010 China Open, she continued her strong play, contending for the title and eventually finishing tied for third.

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