Posted by: happyfan08 | July 22, 2010

Bring on the Korean Americans!

One interesting aspect of the Korean women’s golf revolution has been the increase in Korean American women golfers excelling at the game.  The process seems to be gaining speed in the past few years, and one look at the Futures Tour, the LPGA’s developmental tour, will tell you that the kyopo ladies are on the rise.  Last weekend, one of those ladies, Tiffany Joh, finally broke through with her first professional win, while just a few weeks earlier, Jennifer Song had her first win in her very first professional start.  Esther Choe is also making a move up the money list.  If the season ended today, four Korean Americans would earn some sort of membership on the LPGA tour.  Clearly, women of Korean ethnicity look like they will be a large part of the American golf scene for some time to come.

One thing that becomes a little tricky when following this trend is asking the question, who qualifies as a Korean American?  Are we only talking about ladies of Korean ancestry born in this country?  Do they have to have lived here the whole time?  What if she is half Korean?  What if she came here as a teenager?  Depending on how you define things, many different ladies might qualify as Korean American.  Jennifer Song, for instance, identifies herself as American, but she has dual citizenship with South Korea, and lived there much of her childhood.  Pearl Sinn is usually identified as American, but she was born in Korea.  Angela Park became an American citizen after being raised in southern California, but was born in Brazil.  Then there’s Vicky Hurst and Kimberly Kim, both half Koreans born in the States.  All of these ladies are Korean Americans in my opinion, although someone born and raised in the States like Christina Kim will obviously have had a very different experience growing up than someone like Jennifer Song.

Angela Park waves at the 2008 US Women's Open

Much like with the Korean golfers, Korean Americans have come on very strong in the past decade.  One of the pioneers was Pearl Sinn, who in 1988 became the first woman in history to win two USGA events in the same year when she won both the US Women’s Amateur and US Women’s Amateur Pub Links.  (Interestingly, this feat was only successfully duplicated last year, when another Korean American, Jennifer Song, pulled it off.  Song was not even alive when Sinn did it). Sinn was born in Korea, but lived most of her life here and is an American citizen.  Her pro career never lived up to her historic amateur achievements, but she did manage to win an event in 1998 before retiring a few years ago.

Pearl Sinn

Early in the 2000s, several more Korean Americans emerged on the amateur and professional circuits.  The most famous of these girls is no doubt  Michelle Wie, who made a huge splash starting at age 12, and by the age of 15 had already achieved multiple top tens in Majors.  But Wie did not win any LPGA events back then; it was another Korean American who pulled that feat off.  Hailing from San Jose, Christina Kim is most definitely an American.  With her brash style, outrageous clothes and effusive personality, Kim quickly established herself as one of the most recognizable players on tour.  And she had success fairly early, too, winning for the first time in 2004 and following it up with another win in 2005.  She has not won since then, but has had little trouble maintaining tour membership with numerous top ten finishes along the way.

Christina Kim wins her second title

It’s really in the last few years, however, that a mini-explosion of Korean American golf has taken place.  Several Korean Americans have qualified for the tour and are doing well, although none of these newcomers has yet broken through to the top ranks, while a gaggle more are warming up on the Futures Tour and in the amatuer ranks.  Among the more prominent LPGA Korean Americans is Jane Park, who won the US Women’s Amateur a few years ago.  She has yet to win on the LPGA, although when she is healthy she has managed multiple runner up finishes.  Another young gun to watch is Vicky Hurst.  Half Korean (her mother is  Korean, father white American), Vicky had a record shattering tenure on the Futures Tour in 2008, winning five times during her time there and breaking Song Hee Kim’s record as the youngest professional golfer to win a pro event in America.  One of the very longest drivers on tour, Vicky still hasn’t reached her potential on the big tour, but all indications are that she will be huge when she arrives.

Vicky Hurst

Then there’s Angela Park.  Born in Brazil to Korean parents, Angela moved to America when she was young and grew up in southern California.  She won the 2007 LPGA Rookie of the Year award against some tough competition, including Korean stars Inbee Park, In Kyung Kim and Song Hee Kim, who are three of the top five ranked Koreans in the world right now.  Frequently contending at Majors back in the day, Johnny Miller famously called her swing the best on the LPGA tour during US Women’s Open coverage a few years ago.  Unfortunately, that glorious swing has gone south, and she currently is struggling to regain form and confidence.  But like Hurst and Jane Park, she has the game to be a big star if she gets her house in order.

Angela Park in 2008

Besides those three, there are several more Korean Americans of note on the LPGA tour.  Mindy Kim is a Korean who grew up in southern California and arguably belongs to this list.  Irene Cho won the Honda award for best college player a few years back and occasionally shows up on leaderboards.  The glamorous Jeehae Lee has not had much success on the LPGA and plays in Europe these days, but the Yale educated golfer is certainly a unique presence on tour if nothing else.

Jeehae Lee

Meanwhile, over on the Futures Tour, the developmental tour for the LPGA, an army of Korean Americans with impressive resumes are battling to earn their LPGA tour cards for 2011.  Perhaps the most prestigious name in this group is Jennifer Song.  Song established herself as possibly the best amateur golfer of her generation with her amazing double win of the Women’s Amateur and Women’s Pub Links in 2009, but add onto that the fact that she was low amateur at the US Women’s Open that year (tied for 13th) and nearly won the NCAA Championship (lost it on the final hole), and you can see that she comes to the pro game as a superstar in the making. 

Jennifer Song with her Women's Amateur trophy

She will have a bit of a challenge to earn her tour card this year: she turned pro only in time for the US Women’s Open a few weeks ago, after helping to lead the US team to a dominating win over Great Britain at the Curtis Cup, and thus has given the rest of the Futures tour several months lead over her.  But she quickly established herself as a force, winning her very first event, the Tate& Lyle Players Championship in Decatur, Illinois.  This had also been the site of Lorena Ochoa’s first professional win (an omen?), back in 2002.  Song opened with rounds of 68-67, and zoomed into the lead with a third round 65.  In the final round, she duked it out with fellow Korean American Esther Choe for the title.  Choe played well, but Song was in another time zone, shooting an unreal 61 on Sunday (the all time record for the tour) to smash the tournament’s 72 hole record with a 19 under finish.  She wound up with a six shot win over Choe.  Nothing Song has done in her more recent events compares to that brilliance, but she has still crept up to 15th on the money list in just three events, and looks poised to make a run at a tour card with a few more good finishes.

Jennifer Song and her first pro win

Song has been joined on the Futures Tour money list by seven other Korean Americans in the top 15 (amazingly, there are NO Koreans in the top 15 on the money list this year; the highest ranked Korean as of this writing is #19 Jenny Shin).  Among these ladies are several who were big stars in the amateur ranks trying to break through, former LPGA golfers trying to get back there, and a whole bunch of young kids.  Perhaps the most notable name in the group other than Song is San Diego’s Tiffany Joh.  Joh won the US Women’s Pub Links on two different occasions, once beating Song in the finals.  When she turned pro last year, it seemed like just a matter of time until she rose to the LPGA tour.  But things have not gone all that smoothly so far for the charmingly offbeat lady whose twitter feed was once called ‘Sloppy’ Joh (and after that ‘cup of joh’).  In 2009, she was unable to contend in the nine Futures Tour events she played, and flamed out at LPGA Q-School to boot.  Duly chastened, she returned to the Futures Tour in 2010, where she continued to struggle by and large, although at least she made the occasional top ten now.  Then all of a sudden, along came the ING New England Golf Classic last week.  Joh had little reason to expect she would be a factor, as the leader Gerina Mendoza was running away with the tournament after going mega low in an early round.  But Tiffany made up five shots in the final round and outlasted the long hitting Mendoza in a four hole playoff to claim her first professional win.  Just like that, she leapt to 10th on the money list.  Is this the start of a renaissance in her career or a momentary blip?  Given her proven talent, I’d wager she will be successful sooner or later, regardless of how long it takes.

Tiffany Joh

Then there’s Esther Choe of Scottsdale, Arizona.  Like Joh, Choe was one of the top young amateurs in the country a few years back; she even won an award as the TOP junior girl in the country in 2006.  Choe had committed to play at the University of Arizona in the 2007-2008 season, but after playing the Kraft Nabisco in March, 2007, she surprised everyone by announcing she was going to turn pro.  It turned out to have been a pretty poor move.  She played well on the Futures Tour that year, but did not play enough events to seriously threaten for a card.  She struggled miserably at qualifying school for the LPGA that fall, however, and was forced back to the Futures tour in 2008.  Her results that season were terrible; she finished no better than 42nd in any event.  When she returned to LPGA qualifying school, she was unable to advance out of either sectional.  She later admitted that she had no injuries; she had simply lost all confidence in her game.  She played the Futures Tour in 2009 but continued to have rotten results.  Finally, this year she has righted the ship in a major way.  She notched two straight top tens to start the year and finished second to Song at the Tate & Lyle.  She followed that with another second place finish the next week and an 8th place at the ING behind Joh.  She has still not won on the Futures Tour in her career, but sits 7th on the money list and has a good chance of earning an LPGA card in 2010.

Esther Choe

Besides those two names are some other interesting Korean American prospects.  Christine Song won for two straight weeks on tour and currently leads the money list.  Her 7 top tens give the Fullerton, California native a great chance to advance to the big leagues next year.  New Jersey’s Angela Oh is currently 4th on the money list.  She had LPGA membership previously, but a top five finish on the Futures would give her her first exempt status on tour.  SoCal gal Jane Rah is a former star in the junior ranks who turned pro earlier this year and is already having some great results on tour.  She sits 8th on the tour money list with no wins yet and five top tens.  Former Duke star Jennie Lee turned pro last year and is 12th on tour, trying to get her first win (her best finish is 2nd).

Make sure not to confuse Hannah Jun and Hannah Yun!  Jun, from San Diego, has already had LPGA membership, but is trying to get back there with full status.  She is 11th on this year’s money list and certainly has a fighting chance to do that for 2011.  Yun has a more convoluted story.  She went to college at the University of Florida at the age of 15, where she quickly became one of the top college golfers in the country.  But amazingly, she decided to leave school just a year later, and applied to join the Futures Tour even though she was below their minimum age limit.  The tour granted her request, and Yun wound up 50th on the money list that season.  The LPGA, however, denied Yun the right to play in qualifying school due to her age, so she returned to the Futures Tour in 2010 as a 17 year old (she turned 18 a few months into the season).  So far she has not had a particularly great season and is 46th on the money list, but her youth and quality of game have many predicting great things for her in the coming years.

One more name to watch out for is the mercurial Hawaiian half Korean Kimberly Kim.  Kim was attending school at the University of Colorado, but decided to turn pro at this year’s US Women’s Open.  She will probably play some Futures Tour events, but more likely will focus on getting her tour card at Q School in the fall.  Kim became the youngest girl in history to win the US Women’s Amateur when she captured that title as a 14 year old in 2006.  She has been perpetually one of the top amateurs in the country since then, so she certainly bears watching as she takes this step in her career.

Kim Kim wins the US Women's Amateur as a 14 year old

With this wealth of Korean American talent coming down the pipe, don’t be surprised if the American Solheim team has a distinctly Korean flavor sometime in the near future!

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