Posted by: happyfan08 | April 20, 2010

The KLPGA 2010 Primer

Last year, I wrote a post about the KLPGA tour, Korea’s premier women’s golf tour. I talked about the primary rivalries, the superstars and the up and comers, and the players to watch. The KLPGA season is starting in earnest once again, so it’s time to do an update. Yes, it’s time for the 2010 KLPGA Primer!  

At the start of the 2009 season, there was a power vacuum at the top of the league. Jiyai Shin, who had dominated the tour the three previous seasons, left to play on the LPGA tour. There were five great players vying to replace her as the best on tour. Some of them had great years, some struggled, and one did succeed in grabbing the brass ring. As the 2010 season gets rolling, one of those five stars has departed the league. #3 last year on tour, Sun Ju Ahn now plays full time on the Japanese LPGA. She wasted little time making her presence felt over there, winning her very first event of the year. She has continued to contend week after week, and currently is second on their money list. With Ahn gone, how will the KLPGA tour look in 2010? Like last year, I have divided the players into several categories. First, you have the two superstars, both of whom were brilliant in ’09 and promise to continue battling for the top spot this year. There are the new stars who broke through last year, and the stars who faltered and are trying to find their way back. Lastly, there are the young guns who might make noise in 2010. Let’s get started!  

The Superstars  

In 2009, there were two big rivalries that dominated the headlines. The first of these pitted two teenage stars against one another, while the other featured two women often called the ‘Supermodel of the Fairways’. Although it looked at first like we would be seeing these two pairs clash again and again, what ended up happening was very different. One player from each pair had a spectacular year, and the other struggled (although all four were top ten golfers in the end). As a result, the two players who dominated their pairings ended up being the real marquee match up last year, and they provided one big thrill after another. Let’s meet them again!  

So Yeon Ryu vs. Hee Kyung Seo

Hee Kyung Seo: Korea’s Top Model   

Hee Kyung Seo and one of her season ending awards

I’ve talked a lot about Hee Kyung Seo on this site, and no wonder. This is a lady who really has it all. Not only is she charismatic, attractive and a lot of fun to watch, she is also an amazing talent on the golf course. In 2009, she won five times, and now has accumulated 11 total wins in her KLPGA career. What’s even more impressive is that she won three of the four Majors on tour in 2009, while finishing second in the other one. To put this in perspective, no player other than Jiyai Shin (currently #2 in the world) has done anything remotely as impressive in Korea in the past decade. Seo did all this while facing down a brilliant challenge from teen star So Yeon Ryu (we’ll get to her next). In the end, all the post season hardware was hers. And if her play so far in 2010 is any indication, she might have an even more impressive season this year, provided she finds the time to play in Korea, that is. After a top five finish at the ANZ Ladies Masters and a runner up finish at the year’s first event, she won the LPGA’s Kia Classic with startling ease and notched a 21st place finish at the Nabisco Championship.  

Hee Kyung with her first LPGA trophy

With her star on the ascent, the biggest question becomes, will she focus more on the international tournaments, allowing one of her KLPGA rivals to take over this tour? Or will she be able to balance multiple tours as well as Shin did in 2008?  

Read more about Hee Kyung here!  

So Yeon Ryu: Matchless Talent   

So Yeon Ryu taking aim

So Yeon Ryu started the 2009 season as an extremely promising young star with a win on her resume. She was only 18, but already in her second year. Even though she had been a big amateur star, and played well in her rookie season, she still lost the Rookie of the Year award to her rival He Yong Choi, who seemed poised to continue her dominance over Ryu when she won the first event of the 2009 season. But everything changed in one week for So Yeon. She won the Doosan Match Play Championship after three playoffs en route to the finals. In that last match she met up with Choi again, and they staged the longest battle the KLPGA had seen in over eight years. Tied after regulation, Ryu and Choi fought for nine more holes before Ryu finally drained the putt that put away her teen rival. And from that moment on, Ryu was almost unstoppable. She managed a top five in her next event despite her exhaustion, then whipped off three more straight wins. These wins allowed her to climb ahead of even Hee Kyung Seo to become the top player on tour. It wouldn’t last. Seo righted the ship with two Major wins and a victory in the year’s final event. But Ryu had managed a truly sterling season: four wins and nearly 600 million won in earnings.  

So Yeon Ryu with her Doosan Match Play trophy

Ryu immediately got a measure of revenge on Seo. In the first event of the KLPGA season in 2010, the two wound up in a playoff together, and it was Ryu, after three holes, who won the title. Ryu would go on to finish fifth at the ANZ Ladies Masters, just a few shots behind Seo, and would make the cut in her first ever Major, the Kraft Nabisco. The rivalry between Ryu and Seo promises to be an exciting story for the rest of this season, and perhaps beyond!

Part II: The New Stars

Several players had strong seasons in 2009, and two players established themselves as ones to watch in 2010. It remains to be seen whether either one of them has the game to challenge Seo and Ryu, but based on what we’ve seen so far, it wouldn’t be wise to count them out just yet.

Bo Mi Lee: Smile Candy Is Dandy

Bo Mi Lee

Bo Mi Lee is a young golfer who has made huge strides in the few years she has been playing golf professionally. She turned pro in 2007 and joined the KLPGA’s Dream Tour, one of the developmental tours over there. She did quite well in 2008 on that tour, winning twice and notching top tens almost every time she teed it up. In 2009, she joined the KLPGA full time, and showed great promise almost immediately. At the year’s first Major, the Korean Women’s Open, she was in contention much of the week, but could not hold off Seo in the final round and wound up third. But her time came later that year. At the Nefs Masterpiece, she won her first title, holding off a field full of great players from the LPGA, including the likes of Song Hee Kim, Vicky Hurst, and 2008 US Women’s Open winner Inbee Park, whom she beat in a two hole playoff. Lee would go on to finish 5th on the year ending money list.

Bo Mi wins her first KLPGA event

Bo Mi is known as ‘Smile Candy’ in Korea due to her sweet smile. But she isn’t just a glamor girl; she can really play the game. In 2010, she has continued to impress. She shot a blistering 63 in round 3 of the ANZ Ladies Masters and wound up finishing tied for 2nd there, ahead of both Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu. At the year’s second event, the Kim Young Joo Golf Women’s Open, she took the lead in round two and cruised to a 3 shot victory, besting Ryu by six shots (Seo was not in the field). She also had the low round at the year’s third event, a 65, and finished 8th there.  If she can keep playing like this, 2010 could well be the year she emerges as the KLPGA’s newest superstar.   

Jung Eun Lee 5: Gimme 5!  

Jung Eun Lee 5 wins her first Major

Jung Eun Lee had a major breakthrough on the KLPGA tour in 2009. When she started the year, she was one of several players with the name Jung Eun Lee who had played on the KLPGA through the years (this is why she is always identified as ‘Jung Eun Lee 5’ on leaderboards). She joined the tour in 2007, but toiled in relative obscurity that year and the next, only rarely showing up in contention on Sunday. But in 2009, she gained a little bit of notoriety: she was the player who prevented Hee Kyung Seo from becoming the first in history to sweep the four Majors in a calendar year. Despite intense pressure from the top player on tour, Lee held her composure and captured the Shinsegae KLPGA Championship, the year’s second Major. Seo finished second.   

The Shinsegae was her great triumph of the year, but it was not her first. She captured the second event of the season, the Kim Young Joo Golf Women’s Open, for her first ever tour victory. She had four other top tens in 2009, including a second place finish to Seo at the year’s final event, the ADT-CAPS. Her two wins and other top performances placed her fourth on the money list for the year. 

She started 2010 well with a third place in the year’s first event, just out of the Ryu-Seo playoff. Although she missed the cut in the next event, the other Major title defender on tour is certainly somebody who could take the next step to superstardom in 2010. 

The Comeback Trail  

The two great rivalries that started the 2009 season both had one definitive winner and one definitive loser. For those who came out on the losing end, 2009 was a tough year, although both still finished in the top ten on the money list. They both hope to return to the very top of the league in 2010. 

Ha Neul Kim: the Sky is Falling 

Ha Neul throws out the first pitch at a Korean ball game

Kim Ha Neul, whose first name means ‘sky’ or ‘heaven’ in Korean, was the other Supermodel of the Fairway, the one who did not win three Majors in 2009. In 2008, she and Hee Kyung Seo had waged a great battle for supremacy (well, supremacy behind the unstoppable Jiyai Shin, anyway). Kim drew first blood, amassing three wins in total, but Seo hit her stride in the second half of the year and wound up with six wins overall. Still, Kim, the 2007 Rookie of the Year, looked primed to continue her upward climb in 2009. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t a terrible season by any means: she collected 7 top tens during the year, including a runner up finish at the LG Electronics Open. This settled her in at 7th on the year’s money list. But her former rival Seo was tearing up the league with five wins, which made what Kim did pale in comparison. 

Ha Neul has told the press that the biggest problem she has had lately has been her accuracy off the tee. She seems to hit a lot more shots off line these days than in the past. If she can conquer that particular demon, she should be able to return to form. In the meantime, she is doing quite well with her endorsement deals. This year she signed a primary sponsorship deal with BC Card, a credit card company, and also is supported by Ping (clubs) and Le Coq Sportif (clothing), for whom she recently filmed a commercial. But no doubt she is looking forward to the time when she can return to the winner’s circle as well. 

Ha Neul Kim signed with BC Card and Ping in January

  He Yong Choi: Sophomore Slump 

He Yong Choi

 Like Ha Neul Kim, He Yong Choi started the 2009 season as one half of an intense rivalry. Her rival was another teen star with enormous promise, So Yeon Ryu. Choi was the one who drew first blood, winning the Rookie of the Year award over Ryu in 2008, and getting to two wins before her rival. But once Ryu beat her in the final of the Doosan Match Play, she took off like a rocket, while Choi stalled. Choi did not have a terrible 2009. She won the first event of the season, and had one other third place finish beside the Match play loss. But she was not able to get back into the winner’s circle, and finished 6th on the money list at the end of the year. 

So far in 2010, Choi has not been able to find her old form. For now, Ryu has definitely taken the driver’s seat in that rivalry. 

New Blood  

Last year on the KLPGA tour, several rookies emerged as possible future stars, although their level of success did not match those of rookie stars in the previous few years (to give you an idea: in 2008 you had Choi and Ryu and two other rookie winners; in 2007, Ha Neul Kim was the top rookie, and in 2006 the rookie stars included Hee Kyung Seo and Jiyai Shin). But success as a rookie does not necessarily indicate future performance. After all, it took Seo three years on tour before she turned into a powerhouse. Perhaps one of these players could be just like her sooner or later. 

Shin Ae Ahn: Rookie of the Year 

Shin Ae Ahn collects her Rookie of the Year award

Shin Ae Ahn was the young gun who claimed the 2009 rookie of the year award. She did not win an event last year (no rookie did), but she did collect four top tens and finished 21st on the money list. Ahn has quickly become one of the most popular players on tour, grabbing sponsorship deals with Puma and later Le Coq Sportif and BC Card. She appeared in the same Le Coq Golf commercial as Ha Neul Kim (mentioned above). Shin Ae is still waiting for her big breakthrough in Korea, but her T-12th finish at the 2010 Handa Australian Women’s Open shows she is on the right track. 

Shin Ae Ahn out of uniform

Soo Jin Yang: Dancing Queen  

Soo Jin Yang at last year's Lotte Mart Open

Soo Jin Yang made a splash on the KLPGA before even hitting a ball. As a 17 year old, she turned pro in early 2009 and immediately snapped up a lucrative sponsorship with Nefs, a company also newly sponsoring an event on tour. Yang had a lot to sell her: she is cute, spunky and hits the ball a country mile off the tee. She had a pretty decent year, too. She actually finished ahead of Shin Ae Ahn on the money list (16th), with four top tens, but was still barely beaten by Ahn in the Rookie of the Year standings. Her best finish was a second place finish behind So Yeon Ryu at the Woori Bank Championship. 

Soo Jin out of uniform

Yang has already made some noise in 2010. She finished t-30th at both the ANZ Ladies Masters and the Handa Australian Ladies Open, two of her first international events since turning pro. 

Jung Min Lee: the Bomber    

Jung Min Lee is a rookie in 2010. As a teenager she made a big international splash by winning the 2008 Polo Amateur World Championship. Already as a pro she has claimed the 2010 Thai Ladies Open. Like Yang, Lee is renowned for hitting the ball a long way. Samhwa Bank is apparently high on her potential, as they have already given her a sponsorship deal for the coming season and beyond. If there is one player who is a favorite to win the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award this season, and perhaps do more, it would be Jung Min Lee. Keep an eye on her! 

Some other names to watch in 2010: 

Ran Hong 

Ran Hong

One of the Supermodels of the Fairways, she doesn’t win as often as Seo or Ha Neul Kim, but still gets herself into contention fairly regularly. If she could just get a little more consistent she could become a big star. 

Ji Na Lim  

Ji Na Lim – the Pink Princess

Lim won once last year and now has two career victories.  She finished in the top ten on the money list as well.  Like Hong, she doesn’t contend quite enough to be one of the very top stars, but still is in the next echelon and has the potential to be more.   

Yoon Kyung Heo, Mi Rim Lee, Soo Ji Lee, Choo Young Park  

These four players are other rookies who have gotten a fair amount of attention this year on tour. Heo has already come close to winning her first event, just losing to Bo Bae Kim at the Lotte Mart Open. Soo Ji and Mi Rim Lee both signed big deals with sponsors in the off season.; Soo Ji will soon be appearing in commercials with Ha Neul Kim and Shin Ae Ahn for Le Coq Golf. Choo Young Park is the younger sister of LPGA starlet Hee Young Park. How good she is remains to be seen, but the mere fact of her genetics got her a nice sponsorship deal with Hana Bank, who also sponsors big sis. 

Bo Bae Kim 

She came out of nowhere to win the Lotte Mart Open, the year’s third event. Is she for real or just a flash in the pan? Time will tell! 

Hana Jang 

Ha Na Jang

The best amateur in Korea (unless you count Jennifer Song) may well turn pro before the end of the year. It’s not clear if she will play on the KLPGA at that time, but if she does, she could be a major force. She already has two top fives in Majors in 2009.


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