Posted by: happyfan08 | May 26, 2010

May Means Matchplay Madness!!

In the professional ranks of women’s golf, the vast majority of tournaments use stroke play rules.  But the big tours like to shake things up with a Match play tournament now and then.  The problems with Match Play tend to limit the number of times this is done: match play tournaments require six rounds to complete, and oftentimes the only players left at the end of the week are relatively obscure, the stars having long since been eliminated.  The nature of golf at a high level makes it much more likely that a lesser player can best a better one over just 18 holes, unlike a sport like tennis, where the stars tend to get through brackets to the final rounds much more frequently.

This week, the LPGA tour introduced a new Match Play tournament to the schedule, the Sybase Match Play.  As it turns out, this event was held at Hamilton Farms Golf Club, the place where some of the editions of the last Match Play event on tour, the HSBC, had been held.    By sheer coincidence, the same week as the Sybase, the KLPGA was also holding its annual Match Play tournament, the Doosan Match Play.  Both events featured the top players on their tours duking it out in one on one competition, the field slowly getting winnowed down until only one player remained.  And in the end, both tournaments featured a surprise first time winner who had taken down the top player on their tours to get to the trophy.

The poster for this year's Doosan Match Play event featured Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu

The KLPGA’s Doosan Match Play took place from May 20 – 23.  The defending champion was So Yeon Ryu, the league’s second best player.  Her win in 2009 was one of the most grueling achieved by any player anywhere in the world that year.  She had to play three extra hole matches en route to the final, where she met her arch rival, He Yong Choi, for all the marbles.  That match would become one of the greatest ever contested on that tour, lasting an astonishing 7 hours and 11 minutes, as they played nine sudden death holes before deciding the winner.  Ryu finally put away her determined foe on the 27th hole.  The tournament proved to be a springboard in Ryu’s career, as she won three more times in 2009 and once more at the start of this season to become a true superstar in the league.

The top four players on the KLPGA, including So Yeon Ryu, draw their first round match ups

This year, Ryu was coming into the tournament not playing her best golf.  Nor was the top player in the league, Hee Kyung Seo, who had amazingly missed the cut in her title defense at the Korean Women’s Open the week before.  This left the door open for a young gun to step through.  And so one did.

That player was Jung Min Lee.  Lee is an 18 year old who turned professional at the start of the year.  Before that, she had already made a name for herself as an amateur, winning the 2008 Polo Junior World Championship (a match play event) among other triumphs.  With her great length off the tee (she won the long drive contest at the Korean Women’s Open the week before the Doosan) and prodigious talent, she nabbed a sponsorship right out of the gate and within weeks had already captured her first professional title, the Thai Ladies Open.  But her start on the KLPGA shortly after that was not as impressive: she had only one top ten finish in four starts.  But despite starting slowly, most observers felt it was just a matter of time before she broke through in a big way.

Her moment to shine came at the Doosan Match Play.  She not only won matches, she frequently slaughtered her opponents in a relentless march to the finals.  Her big challenge came in the second round, where she was matched with top KLPGA player Hee Kyung Seo.  It was a bad seeding for Lee to have to face such a formidable foe so early in the tournament!  The match proved to be every bit as exciting as promised, with the two players exchanging the lead back and forth all day.  Tied after 16 holes, Lee seized control with a birdie on the 17th and, for good measure, another on 18 to beat the Supermodel of the Fairways 2 up.

Jung Min Lee (left) vs. Hee Kyung Seo

From there, Lee just gained momentum.  She smoked Yoon Hee Cho in the third round 4 & 3, then destroyed KLPGA winner Hyun Ji Kim 5 & 4.  As she got deeper into the tournament, Lee became stronger and stronger.

In the semifinals, Lee faced another formidable foe: Bo Mi Lee, at that time the top player in Player of the Year standings in 2010.  But It was Bo Mi who blinked first, making two early bogies to fall 2 down right away.  Jung Min never let her recover, crushing Smile Candy 5 & 3 in a startlingly easy win over another top player.  And just like that, the rookie phenom found herself in the finals.

Bo Mi Lee was another victim of Jung Min Lee this week

Who would Lee face in that final match?  So Yeon Ryu and Korean Women’s Open Champion Soo Jin Yang were the two strongest players early on in the other bracket.  Both easily won their first two matches to set up a third round clash, where Ryu eked out a win on the final hole over the teen upstart, 1 up.  But Ryu was no match for Hyun Hee Moon in the quarterfinals and lost 4 & 3.  Moon had little trouble with rookie Hyun Ji Cho in the semis, so it was the wily veteran who faced the indomitable Lee for all the marbles on Sunday.

Hyun Hee Moon had a lot to smile about at this week's tournament

As it turned out, Moon did a great job holding Lee at bay.  Lee made an early birdie on Moon to take a one up lead, but could not increase that lead for many holes.  But finally, on the 16th hole, Moon bogied to fall 2 down, and Lee finished the deal with a birdie on 17 to win the title 3 & 1.

Jung Min Lee might not have been the player many expected to win the title at the start of the week, but in taking down two of the best players on the KLPGA en route to the trophy, she showed she certainly deserved it.  Will this be the spark that vaults her to the top ranks of the KLPGA, like it did for So Yeon Ryu last year?  Time will tell, but she certainly has the credentials to make you think it’s possible!

18 year old Jung Min Lee and her Doosan Match Play trophy

Meanwhile, the LPGA’s new match play event had a distinctly Korean feel to it as well.  In fact, 24 of the 64 players, or 3/8 of the field, were Korean, and that does not even include the Korean Americans.  Last week, Se Ri Pak had broken through with her first win, and the first win for any veteran Korean golfer, in nearly three years.  Would she be able to continue her great play?  Or would one of the young guns get her first win of the season?

The only two Koreans to win match play tournaments on the LPGA tour have been Grace Park and Seon Hwa Lee.  Lee decided to take a pass on the tournament this week, and Grace was eliminated in the first round, as were a dozen or so other Koreans, including Se Ri.  Several other players, however, made strong early impressions, perhaps none more so than Amy Yang.  The long bombing youngster has had a fairly decent 2010 season so far, and she burnished it somewhat by absolutely destroying American veteran Juli Inkster in the second round, 7 & 6.  She followed that up with a convincing victory over Solheim Cup stalwart Morgan Pressel in the next round; the score there was 4 & 3.  In the quarterfinals she ran into another young player having a great week.  Haeji Kang raised a few eyebrows by besting all sorts of higher ranked players, starting with In Kyung Kim in round 1 (beating her 1 up), Sandra Gal in round 2, then Jee Young Lee in the next round.  Something had to give, and after another tough battle, Haeji fell to Amy 1 up in the quarters.

Amy Yang

All in all, 8 Korean players got through to the round of 16.  Included in that group was world #1 Jiyai Shin, who beat first Kyeong Bae, then Hee-Won Han.  Finally in the third round she took on a non-Korean player, but had little trouble with Spaniard Beatriz Recari.  This set up an exciting clash between Shin and Korean American star Michelle Wie.  Wie was outdriving Shin by a bunch throughout the round, but after a close front nine, Wie started making mistakes and Shin took advantage, eventually capturing the match 2 & 1.

Jiyai Shin at the Sybase

But without question the most surprising player of all this week was the player who ended up going all the way, Sun Young Yoo.  Yoo has been a promising young player for the past two years, finishing in the top 30 on the money list and contending for titles occasionally in that span.  But the stars seemed to be aligned correctly for Yoo this week.  Or, as she put it, the karma was about to be balanced.  It seems that her older sister Ja Young, who was with her this week in New Jersey, had been in a serious car accident the week Sun Young was playing in Mexico.  Sun Young had had a dream where she felt something was wrong, but her sister lied about her situation when she called her that morning.  It was not until Sun Young missed the cut that she admitted the truth.  Anyways, both believed that the bad karma of the car crash might soon be balanced by something good happening, and indeed, this week something very good happened.  Simply put, Sun Young took down one impressive player after another in her relentless march to the finals.  First came former British Open champ Karen Stupples, the only player she played all week ranked lower than she.   In round 2, Yoo defeated #5 ranked Cristie Kerr 4 & 2, and followed that up with an impressive win over #12 Song Hee Kim 1 up.  In the quarterfinals, she beat world #3 Yani Tseng 2 & 1.

Sun Young Yoo

The final four thus contained three Koreans: Amy Yang, Sun Young Yoo and Jiyai Shin, and American Angela Stanford.  Interestingly, Yoo’s closest brush with winning before this week had come at last year’s P & G Beauty, where she lost in a playoff to Jiyai Shin;  Angela Stanford was also in that playoff.  Yoo would have a chance to beat both players this week.  First came Shin, whom Yoo took down in the semifinals 2 & 1 (while Yang lost to Stanford in 19 holes).  Shin was the third player ranked in the top five Yoo had beaten this week.  Then came the finals against Stanford.  The match was close most of the day, but Yoo didn’t make many mistakes, Stanford did, and in the end Yoo carved the win out over the feisty Texan, 3 & 1.  The joyous Yoo leapt into the arms of her caddie, and moments later was soaked in water by Shin and Yang, two of the same players who had also soaked winner Se Ri Pak the previous week.  Yoo then spotted her older sister and cried tears of joy.  The karma had been balanced!

Sun Young celebrates her victory

Without question, both Jung Min Lee and Sun Young Yoo accomplished their greatest feats as pros this past weekend.  There is every reason to believe we will be seeing a lot more from these two players in the months to come!

Sun Young Yoo

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