Posted by: happyfan08 | July 14, 2010

Amy Yang: She Looks Like a Star

At the recent US Women’s Open, the Korean women golfers had another fantastic showing.  Although they didn’t threaten Paula Creamer much for the win on Sunday, they did manage to place five golfers in the top ten.  They were especially impressive on the final day, with the top five Koreans in the world (according to the Rolex Rankings) all finishing in the top 15.  Song Hee Kim, whom I profiled here two weeks ago, was not having a great tournament until Sunday, when she blistered Oakmont, often called one of the toughest golf courses in the world, with a staggering 6 under par 65, the lowest round of the tournament.  She cruised up the leaderboard, finishing at 13th.  In Kyung Kim followed up her 3rd place finishes at the Open the previous two seasons with a fourth place here (and a final round 68), while Jiyai Shin dunked a 40 foot birdie putt on the last hole to also score a 68 and finish fifth.  Meanwhile, Inbee Park, the 2008 US Women’s Open champ, continued her career renaissance with a tie for 8th (she also shot a 68).

Jiyai Shin dunks a long birdie on the final hole

Then there was Na Yeon Choi, who was profiled in this blog last week.  Coming off her victory over Song Hee and In Kyung Kim at the Jamie Farr (as well as Christina Kim, a Korean American star who also finished in the top ten at the Open), Choi was having a decent but unspectacular Major until the final round.  On the front nine on Sunday she shot an unbelievable 31, which included an eagle on the 9th hole.  Thanks to that run, she vaulted from 7 shots back to only 2 behind.  Although she only played even par the rest of the way, her 1 over total secured her a tie for second, her best Major finish yet. 

Na Yeon Choi in the final round of the Open

Among those five stars, however, was another up and coming Korean who has not yet reached their level of stardom, but who is nonetheless having a breakout season in 2010.  That player is Amy Yang, and watchers of the game have pegged her as a star in the making for several years.  Yang had a thoroughly impressive week in Pennsylvania.  By the end of the third round, in fact, she was tied for third, four shots behind Creamer, which earned her the right to play in the final group on Sunday.  She acquitted herself nicely in round four, demonstrating her mixture of power and touch around and on the greens to shoot an even par round and finish tied for 5th.  Johnny Miller, the noted commentator for NBC golf Majors, was suitably impressed.  After she drove the green on the short par 4 17th hole (using a 3 wood) and made eagle, Miller opined that Yang ‘looked like a star’.  A hole later, he and the other commentators expressed their admiration of her ‘effortless power’ and predicted big things for her.  Earlier in the week, one of the commentators mentioned that, among other players and caddies, Yang has become a player to watch.  Everyone seems to sense that this woman, who trains with the same coach as Korean legend Se Ri Pak (and who resembles Pak both in physical shape and style of game), is going to be a big star.  Perhaps that time is fast approaching!

Amy Yang during the final round of the US Women's Open

Amy, born Hee Young Yang in South Korea, took up the game at age 10 and quickly showed a special talent for it.  Athletic ability runs in her family.  Her father, Joon Mo or James, had been a member of the Korean national canoe team as a young man, while her mother, Sun Hee or Sunny, had been a champion javelin thrower.  Hee Young started out as a swimmer, but the driving range near the community pool beckoned, and once she was hooked on golf, swimming became a distant memory.

Just three years after taking up the game, Amy was one of the strongest young golfers in the country.  Her family faced the decision many parents of young golf prodigies have to deal with in Korea: try to raise her at home and deal with the limited facilities for creating an elite golfer in Korea, or move to another country where access to superior courses and coaches is more plentiful.  When Amy was 15, her family relocated to the Gold Coast in Australia, where Amy enrolled in a local high school despite barely being able to speak English.  It may have taken her a little while to learn the language, but the golf success came much easier.  Barely a year after arriving down under, she won the New Zealand’s Women’s Amateur Championship and finished second in the Australian Women’s Amateur.  Yang became one of a group of young Korean stars lighting up courses down under, which included future LPGA players like Sarah Oh, Haeji Kang (a good friend of Amy’s at school, who was one year younger than Amy) and Mi Sun Cho.  At the time, Amy was considered a promising up and comer with some formidable skills, but certainly no more of a standout than some of those other players.

All of that changed one week early in 2006.  Amy was invited to play at the ANZ Ladies Masters, an event on the Ladies European Tour that is considered the top women’s golf event in the country.  The course where the event was contested was only 20 minutes away from her house, and many of Amy’s schoolmates showed up at the tournament to cheer her on.  She did not disappoint.  After shooting a 66 in round 2, Amy had secured the lead.  She managed to hang onto the lead after round 3 despite some troubles, and played the final round against French star Ludivine Kreutz and Korean American amateur Tiffany Joh, who is now on the Futures Tour.

Amy Yang at the 2006 ANZ Ladies Masters

This was an historic moment.  No amateur had ever won an Australian ladies professional event, and no one younger than 18 years of age had ever won an event on a major women’s golf tour anywhere in the world (Amy was 16 years 6 months old).  The pressure was on, but with two holes to go, she had a two stroke lead over fellow amateur Joh.  At that point, however, nerves got the best of Amy, and she hit her approach on 18 over the green, making bogey.  Joh also bogied, but an American, Catherine Cartwright, had birdied that hole, and thus forced a playoff with Yang.  Amy showed amazing grit in that playoff, hitting two fantastic shots to 7 meters, then dunking the birdie putt to claim the victory.  Her win made her the first amateur to win on the LET since 1984, and, as previously mentioned, the youngest winner in their history.

Amy is overcome by emotions after winning the ANZ Masters

She continued to play as an amateur throughout 2006, winning the low amateur award at the 2006 British Women’s Open.  The LET offered her a special exemption to play on tour before her 18th birthday, and though she had originally wished to wait to turn pro, she decided it was too good an offer to turn down.  Thus, she became a pro at 17, finishing high school in between tournaments over the next year.

Her success was immediate.  At her first event as a pro, the Dubai Ladies Masters in late 2006, she finished fourth behind only Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Helen Alfredsson.  At her next event she finished third.  She continued to play on the LET in 2007, earning a number of top 20s.  In the fall she played at the LPGA’s Qualifying School, but was only able to earn conditional status.  She rarely appeared on tour in her rookie year of 2008, concentrating instead on the LET, where she had full status.  This was a good decision, as she collected two victories there, at the German Women’s Open (among those she beat that week was Michelle Wie) and the TPC Scandinavia, where she beat Annika Sorenstam in her final appearance in her home country.  Yang also showed her heart by donating her entire first place check from the German Open to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in China.  To put this in perspective, this check was her first ever winner’s check, and made up as a result a significant percentage of her total career winnings (remember that her ANZ win came as an amateur, and so she made no money).  To give that large a percent of your money to charity is truly a wonderful gesture.

Amy poses with Annika Sorenstam after winning her tournament

In addition to those two wins, Amy finished second at the Swiss Open, losing only to world star Suzann Pettersen, who played one of the most impressive tournaments of her career.  For a time, Amy, the only Korean on the LET, was also the top player on the LET money list.  Although she did not finish there, the teenager had still played brilliantly enough to make everyone on tour take notice.

Amy returned to LPGA Q-School at the end of 2008, and this time had no problem earning full status by finishing second.  Thus, 2009 was her first full time season on the LPGA tour.  All in all, it was a pretty solid year for a 19 year old player.  She managed a couple of top tens, including a tie for 9th at the LPGA Championship, the year’s second Major.  She also collected four other top twenties, and finished 45th on the money list with just over $300,000 in earnings.  She easily maintained her exempt status for 2010.

Amy Yang

This year she has definitely taken another large step forward in her career.  She appears on leaderboards more than ever, and has already made more money this season than all of last year.  Her US Women’s Open finish became her new best ever Major finish.  She made serious noise right off the bat in 2010, finishing tenth at the year’s first event and following that with several more good finishes in the next few events, including a tie for 11th and another 14th place finish.  Amy was on hand to watch her hero Se Ri Pak win her first title in three years, and was one of the three Korean golfers who drenched Pak in water after her victory. 

The very next week, Amy very nearly got the same treatment.  The tournament was the Sybase Match Play, and Amy relentlessly worked her way through the field to the final four.  Among the players she eliminated along the way was Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, who was destroyed by Yang 7 & 6 in their match up.  Another opponent was her old friend Haeji Kang, whom she played in the quarterfinals.  Yang managed to eke the 1 up win out in that match, but lost to Angela Stanford in the semi-finals.  In the consolation match she played another good friend, former world #1 Jiyai Shin.  Shin got the best of Amy, but Yang’s 4th place finish was still an impressive achievement for the young star.

Amy Yang at the Sybase Match Play

Amy is still not the most consistent golfer, but her consistency has continued to increase year after year.  This season, for instance, she has made every cut on tour, and though she only has three top tens, two of those came in particularly tough events (the match play and the Open).  Statswise, she has elevated herself into being one of the top 20 players on tour.  Her scoring average is currently 13th in the league, and she is also 13th on the money list.  More impressively, she is tied for third with Jee Young Lee in number of birdies made this season (and is behind only Na Yeon Choi and Song Hee Kim in that category), and is tied for 6th in eagles.  Her driving distance is 9th in the league, the longest of all the Korean golfers.  She still needs to work on her accuracy off the tee and greens in regulation.  She is only 36th in GIR this season, and 110th in driving accuracy.  But when she is on her game, she is very tough indeed. 

Amy Yang at the US Women's Open

Keep an eye peeled for Amy Yang on leaderboards over the next year.  If she keeps improving at the rate she has been, it won’t be long before the Koreans have a new, powerful superstar on their team!

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