Posted by: happyfan08 | January 26, 2010

2009 Awards (12 of 12): Player of the Year

Player of the Year

And the Winner Is: Jiyai Shin

Jiyai Shin

This was one of the closest battles for Player of the Year I can remember.  In the end, it came down to three players, all of whom had phenomenal seasons: Jiyai Shin, Hee Kyung Seo and Jennifer Song.  Song was the amateur sensation who became the first woman in more than 20 years, and only second in history, to win the USGA’s top two amateur events.  The historic nature of what she accomplished certainly makes her a candidate for best player of the year, but we should also keep in mind that the caliber of player she was facing was not nearly that of the other two nominees for this award.  Reluctantly, I decided that she would not win the Seoulie.

But why choose Jiyai Shin for the third straight year instead of Hee Kyung Seo, who had a phenomenal year on the KLPGA?  This was a tough choice, made tougher by the fact that Shin did not actually win the Player of the Year like it looked like she would, and Seo nearly swept the four Majors on the KLPGA tour (she did win three of them).  It’s true that Seo was facing week in and week out lesser competition than Shin was, but I’m not merely comparing them apples to apples, but by what they accomplished in their respective spheres.  Seo was hurt somewhat by the fact that Shin herself won all three KLPGA Majors in 2008 (there were four this year) and actually won the fourth event that would become a Major as well, the Hite Cup.  But we need to keep in mind that those two are the only players to ever win three Majors on the KLPGA tour, and Seo’s five wins on tour in a single season is still a very rare accomplishment over there.

Jiyai Shin

Jiyai Shin, meanwhile, was somewhat hurt by the fact that 2009 was, in some ways, her weakest season since 2006, her rookie year as a pro.  She won three times on the LPGA, and had one win in Japan, but did not win a Major, unlike in 2008.  As mentioned before, she failed to win the Player of the Year or the Vare Trophy, although she did lead the money list and won the Rookie of the Year trophy in a rout.  Three wins is still a pretty darn good season, but keep in mind that she won that many times in 2008 on the LPGA tour in just ten starts, and those wins included not only a Major but also the Tour Championship, one of the most important non-Majors on tour.  Compared to her 2008 and 2007 seasons, 2009 definitely seemed a little off.

But then I did a few thought experiments, and realized how unfair I was being to Shin.  Imagine for a moment that Seon Hwa Lee had had a season like Shin’s in 2009.  Lee was the top Korean player on the LPGA last year, but she has never won three times in a single year (indeed, her two wins last year were a first for her).  Nor has she ever finished higher than fifth on the money list, or come anywhere close to winning the Player of the Year or Vare Trophy or leading the money list.  If Lee had done all the things Shin did, would we be giving her the Player of the Year award?  In other words, are we knocking Shin down a little just because she didn’t live up to her own ridiculously high standard?  I think the answer is yes.

Jiyai wins in Rochester

In fact, Jiyai had the best season for a Korean golfer on tour since Grace Park in 2004.  Grace that year finished second on the money list, one behind Shin, and had two wins (but one of those was a Major).  Grace had more top tens and top twos than Jiyai as well.  If Shin’s season matches up well with a great season’s like Grace’s, how can we deny that she was the Best Player in Korean golf this year?

Now, imagine that Shin had made that final chip at the Tour Championship.  One shot.  Now she is the first Korean player to win Player of the Year, as well as the first to lead the money list.  In fact, I have argued here that the difference between her and Ochoa was so ridiculously slight that you may as well consider Shin the Player of the Year, since she had the tougher challenges to face, being younger, new to living in America and a rookie.  Now, would I really deny Shin the Seoulie for Best Player if she had won POY?  If the answer is ‘no’, then I cannot deny it to her now, when I think she earned the award with her play.

Jiyai and Michelle Wie

And even though she did not win the Vare or Player of the Year, she did become the first Korean to lead the money list, a not inconsiderable achievement, as well as earning the most money in a season of any Korean ever. 

The other convincing argument against Shin winning might be to look at the competition she faced.  While Seo was dealing with several top KLPGA stars, including the smoking hot So Yeon Ryu, Shin was facing an LPGA that, for the first time in a decade, did not have a single star dominating.  In all the other years this decade, there was always at least one player, Annika Sorenstam or Lorena Ochoa or even Karrie Webb, who was winning 5 or more events and 2 million or more dollars.  This year, even Ochoa did not manage more than three wins, and captured no Majors.  With Ochoa having her worst season in a while, Shin had a chance to capture the POY even though she did not win five or more times.  Under normal circumstances, Shin would not have come close to clinching that title.

Jiyai takes English lessons at tournaments!

Well, this is all true, of course, but you can’t control the competition you face.  And weaker competition or not, Lorena Ochoa still put a heck of a lot of pressure on Shin the final three months of the year.  It’s true that, in the end, Shin did not win the Player of the Year, but it’s also true that she was in that race right until the bitter end.  She held up to the pressure quite well.  And when you think of all the scenarios that could have given her the POY, the mind reels.  Just as an example, if the final tournament had been one round shorter, Shin is in.  If she had made one more putt any time that week, she wins (she had several lip outs).  If Ochoa had missed one of the two long putts she made at the end of the week, Shin might have won.  Or, had any of the seven golfers that finished ahead of her had a worse final round, Shin would have won.  This is where the ‘weak competition’ angle falls down; Shin may not have had to face a superstar at the top of her game in 2009, but she did have to face a deeper collection of golfers capable of knocking her down the leaderboard, and that proved to be the difference at the Tour Championship.

Jiyai wins in Arkansas

Make no mistake about it: Hee Kyung Seo had a fabulous season.  She actually had one fewer win than in 2008, but there were fewer events on tour to play in 2009.

To summarize once again what Jiyai Shin accomplished.  She had three wins, eight top threes and 12 top tens on the LPGA tour.  She won an additional event on the JLPGA tour.  She had a decent season in the Majors, which included a third place finish at the LPGA Championship.  She became the first Korean to ever lead the LPGA money list, and in the process broke Se Ri Pak’s record for most money earned in a season.  She dominated a tough rookie class which had four other wins (including a Major) to easily win the Rookie of the Year award weeks before the end of the season.  She came within one tap in of winning the Player of the Year award, the first Korean to ever come so close to clinching that title, and finished second in the Vare Trophy standings as well.  And she did all of this while living away from home for the first time, in a country where she was still learning the language and customs, on courses that she was largely unfamiliar with.  And she traveled all over the globe in the process, logging more frequent flier miles than all but a handful of female golfers.  She became only the second Korean to win more than twice in a season; only Se Ri Pak had done that before.  The competition for the top Seoul Sister might have been tougher this year than she had faced in 2008 or 2007, but without question Jiyai Shin still earned the Seoulie for Best Player of the Year for the third straight time.

Peace out, Jiyai! You're the Player of the Year again!

Other Nominees:

 Jennifer Song

Song had one of the most impressive amateur seasons in years.  Among the Korean golfers, perhaps only Grace Park has had a similar type of amateur year, at least in recent memory.  She not only became the second woman to win the US Women’s Amateur and US Amateur Pub Links in the same year, she also was the top amateur at the US Women’s Open and finished second in the NCAA Championship (and only barely lost that event).  That’s on top of her brilliance as a member of the USC golf team.  Great year indeed, but still not quite enough to overcome what Jiyai Shin did in 2009.

Hee Kyung Seo

Hee Kyung Seo emerged from the shadow of Jiyai Shin, and overcame a tough battle with teen sensation So Yeon Ryu, to become the undeniable top player on the KLPGA tour.  She won five times in 2009, including three of the four Majors on tour (while finishing second in the other one).  She shattered the 600 million won mark for season earnings, becoming only the second player to reach that plateau besides Shin.  She led the league in money earned and scoring average, and won the Player of the Year and most wins titles as well.  And she did all this while learning how to salsa dance, and performing for the rest of the tour at the KLPGA Awards show!

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