Posted by: happyfan08 | May 11, 2010

KLPGA Rush & Cash Classic: Teen Stars Keep on Coming

May 7th through 9th saw the playing of a new event on the KLPGA tour, the Rush and Cash Charity Classic.  In the end, a KLPGA player won the event, but the most notable results came in the second and third place spots, where two teenage amateurs held sway.  Increasingly in the past few years, we’ve seen teen stars burst onto the scene on the KLPGA, only to become major international stars in the coming years.  With these two new starlets making their presence felt this week, could we be seeing another preview of the state of women’s golf in three or four years’ time?

The winner of this week’s event was Hye Youn Kim.  Kim is in her early twenties, but as a rookie in 2008, she found herself pitted against two teen sensations named So Yeon Ryu and He Yong Choi.  Kim had a win in her rookie year but was only able to finish third in the Rookie of the Year standings to those two 18 year olds.  But she did everything right this last Sunday, shooting a scintillating 66 for a ten under total to capture win #2 of her career.  She has shown flashes of brilliance before, but could she be ready to take the next step and join the elite on tour?  Time will tell.

Hye Youn Kim

Hye Youn Kim

It’s been an odd year on the KLPGA so far in 2010.  Hee Kyung Seo skipped the event, and she has been more focused on international events since winning the LPGA’s Kia Classic in March.  This week she played at the Salonpas Cup in Japan, where she never really recovered from a first round 77 and finished outside the top twenty.  Sun Ju Ahn has moved to the JLPGA full time, where she is currently third on the money list.  So Yeon Ryu, the other KLPGA superstar from last year, has not played well the last few events.  Coming off her first missed cut since joining the tour, this week she never really contended and finished 8 shots back in a tie for 9th.

So Yeon Ryu

Bo Mi Lee has also done well with her own second win a few weeks ago and some other strong finishes (she finished tied for 7th at 3 under total).

But the names that stand out on this week’s leaderboard are Hyo Joo Kim and Jung Eun Han.  Both are teenage amateurs who are part of the Korean National team, and have already accomplished some impressive things in their short careers on the international stage.  This week, Han came out on top, finishing second place at 8 under, just two shots behind the winner.  Kim was three shots behind her at 5 under total, in a tie for third with several pros.

Jung Eun Han and Hyo Joo Kim

Teenagers doing well on the KLPGA is nothing new; many of the top stars of the Korean golf wave got their starts on tour as teenagers.  The movement really reached a pinnacle of sorts back in the early part of the last decade, when Seon Hwa Lee joined the tour as a 14 year old and Kyeong Bae, the same year, became a 15 year old rookie.  Both players showed they were well qualified to be on tour by winning not too long after that.  Lee’s win at the 2001 MC Square Championship, in fact, was historic: at 15, she became the youngest player to ever win on the KLPGA tour.  Both Lee and Bae went on to successful careers on the LPGA tour, especially Lee, who has four career wins to date and several years as a top ten player under her belt.

Seon Hwa Lee

After a while, the KLPGA changed their rules, imposing an age limit of 17 on anyone who wanted to join the tour full time.  But the teen stars kept on coming anyways; they just started winning events as amateurs playing thanks to sponsor’s exemptions, rather than as full time tour members.  Na Yeon Choi won the ADT-CAPS as a 17 year high school student.  The next year she joined the tour and soon became one of the top players in the league.  These days she plays on the LPGA, where she has two career wins and is in the top ten in the world in the latest Rolex Rankings.  Jiyai Shin, an even more auspicious star, started her career in much the same way.  In her case, she won the SK Enclean Invitational in 2005, also as a 17 year old high school student.  She turned pro that fall, and by the middle of 2006 was the dominant player on the KLPGA tour.  She came to the LPGA in 2009 after winning three events as a non-member, and hasn’t looked back since.  As of this writing, she is the number one women’s golfer in the world.

Na Yeon Choi and Jiyai Shin

At about the same time, another Korean teen made a notable splash outside the KLPGA.  Amy Yang was a Korean 16 year old amateur golf star living in Australia when she was invited to play at the ANZ Ladies Masters, an event on the Ladies European Tour.  Yang wound up winning the event in a playoff, the youngest player to win an event in the history of that tour.  She turned pro later that year, and won twice more on the LET in the coming year.  She currently plays on the LPGA, where she has yet to win an event, but many (including this writer) believe it’s only a matter of time before she becomes a big star.

Amy Yang and her ANZ Masters trophy

So Yeon Ryu and He Yong Choi were two more notable teens to make an early splash on the KLPGA.  Both were in their mid-teens when they won medals at the 2006 Asian Games, an Asia-only quadrennial sports event that includes golf among the many sports that are contested.  Ryu won the gold medal, blitzing the field by nine shots, while Choi won the bronze medal.  Keeping in mind that the gold medal at the previous Asian Games in 2002 had been won by Ai Miyazato, who is currently the #2 golfer in the world, you can see that this win could be a stepping stone to greatness.  Indeed, Ryu and Choi kept on winning amateur events all over the world; among their accomplishments was to team together to win the Queen Sirikit Cup by a mind boggling 20 strokes over the other Pacific rim countries in the event.

Choi had her amateur moments without Ryu, as well, including making the cut at the 2007 Women’s British Open and contending at the Hill State Seokyung Open before losing to Jiyai Shin and finishing third.

They both turned pro as 17 year olds in 2008 and immediately made an impact on tour.  Ryu won her very first event, the SBS Open, but Choi won the Rookie of the Year award in the end.  Currently, Ryu has 6 career KLPGA wins and is considered the second best player on tour behind only Hee Kyung Seo, while Choi has 2 KLPGA wins total.

He Yong Choi (L) and So Yeon Ryu (R) at the 2006 Asian Games

Last year, another amateur teenager surged into prominence on the KLPGA: Ha Na Jang.  The 17 year old has been a mainstay on the national team for several years, and like many Koreans before her has collected an impressive array of international victories in the past few years.  2009 was a banner year for her.  She won the World Golf Championship by 6 shots, and contended at both KLPGA Majors to which she was invited.  At the first, the Hite Cup, she finished third, but at the KB Star Tour Grand Finale, she was in contention almost to the very end.  It took a birdie by Hee Kyung Seo on the 17th hole on Sunday to finally put Jang away and claim the title; Jang finished second.  Jang is currently still an amateur looking to play at the 2010 Asian Games, but expect she will be a professional tearing up the KLPGA tour before too much longer.

Ha Na Jang

At those same two Majors, a 14 year old golfer named Hyo Joo Kim was also a factor in the results.  Particularly at the Hite Cup, where she was in fifth place as late as the start of the final round before she faded to her eventual finish of 13th.  Kim joined the Korean national team, where she has made a lot of noise.  At this year’s Queen Sirikit Cup, Kim powered the Korean team to their fourth straight win.  She also shot a final round 65 to win the individual gold medal by 8 shots.

Meanwhile, the same team also featured another young golfer, Jung Eun Han.  Han may have been overshadowed by Kim at the Sirikit Cup, but it was she who had the last laugh at the Rush and Cash Classic.  She beat her rival by three shots, and had a shot at taking the title until Hye Youn Kim pulled off three birdies in a row in the middle of her back nine to establish a lead she would not lose again.  Still, a second place for a teenage amateur is darn great.

Hyo Joo Kim and Jung Eun Han at this week's event

But don’t look now, because even these youngsters are looking over their shoulders at the next group coming up behind them.  At the same Queen Sirikit competition, New Zealand fielded a team that included a 12 year old Korean expatriate named Lydia Ko.  Ko had just come off a 7th place finish at an official LET event, the Pegasus New Zealand Women’s Open.  She finished tied for 4th at the Queen Sirikit Cup in the individual results, ahead of Han.  Who knows what she may have accomplished in five more years, when she’ll finally be old enough to join the KLPGA tour (!!). 

12 year old Lydia Ko

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