Posted by: happyfan08 | July 29, 2010

Shin’s Spin for the Win

If there is one big time tournament that has consistently defied the Korean golfers, it is the Evian Masters, contested each year in beautiful Evian les Bains in the French Alps.  Most years, a Korean is in the hunt for the title, yet again and again, those players have come up short, often in a playoff.  Just in the last few years, there was Jeong Jang, losing in a playoff at the 2007 Evian to Natalie Gulbis (it still is Gulbis’ only LPGA win to date), and Na Yeon Choi and Korean Brazilian Angela Park losing in a playoff at the 2008 Evian to Helen Alfredsson.  That 2008 edition was perhaps the most painful loss of them all.  Choi had not yet won on tour, but was hanging on in the Rookie of the Year race behind Yani Tseng, who had recently won the year’s second Major, the LPGA Championship.  Choi cruised to a big lead on the back nine of the final day, only to see Alfredsson come out of nowhere, catch her on the final hole, then beat her in the playoff.  Choi would have to wait more than a year afger that loss before she finally captured her first win on tour, and without the extra points the win would have given her, she ended up losing the Rookie of the Year race to Tseng on the final day of the year.

Na Yeon Choi after losing the 2008 Evian Masters

This year, the Koreans finally broke the Evian jinx, and the Seoul Sister who did it was none other than the best of them all these days, Jiyai Shin.  Shin has been remarkably consistent this year, posting top fives in most of the tournaments she has played, including all three Majors.  But somehow a win on the LPGA had eluded her so far in 2010 (she did have a win in Japan, however).  The win at Evian not only propelled Shin to the top of the LPGA money list for the first time this season, it also moved her back to the top of the Rolex rankings for the second time.  Shin’s odyssey as the first Korean to reach the top of the world rankings has been a roller coaster ride of great golf, challenging opponents, and sudden illness.  Let’s recap the amazing journey Shin took to get back to where she once belonged.

Shin is congratulated in the French way at the Evian

The fun really began back in May, when Lorena Ochoa, who had been the number one player in the world since 2007, played her final few events before her retirement.  Shin had been slowly gaining on Ochoa in the rankings for most of the previous year, but Ochoa had somehow managed to hold on to her number one ranking.  However, on May 2nd, the same day as Ochoa was playing her final LPGA round at the Tres Marias Championship in Mexico, Shin ratcheted up the pressure on the Mexican star.  In Japan, Shin had won the JLPGA’s Cyber Agent Ladies Golf Championship, which meant that Ochoa needed to finish at least fifth at Tres Marias to maintain her number one status her final week.  She did not make it, and so Shin assumed the number one ranking at the same moment Ochoa left the game.  A common mistake the media makes is to imply or outright state that Shin only became #1 because of Ochoa’s retirement, but this is wrong – Shin would have been number one that week no matter if Ochoa retired or not.  It’s a sad thing that Shin is not given credit for the amazing achievement of being the one to finally overtake Ochoa, something no one had been able to do for nearly three years.

Jiyai Shin earlier this year

Shin held on to the top spot in the rankings for the next seven weeks.  During that stretch, the main threats to her spot were the winner of the Tres Maria Championship, Ai Miyazato, who had notched three wins already in five starts, and American Cristie Kerr, who had not won yet in 2010 but who had been fairly consistent.  Norwegian Suzann Pettersen also had not won in 2010, but kept putting up strong finishes. 

Shin had her worst finish of the season at the next LPGA tournament, the Bell Micro Classic, a tie for 26th.  But fortunately for her, her main competitors did not do much better, and she maintained her top status.  The next week turned out much better for her.  She worked her way through the field at the Sybase Match Play Championship, finally losing in the semifinals to Sun Young Yoo.  However, she beat Amy Yang in the consolation match and wound up third, easily better than Miyazato or Kerr, her main rivals for the top spot.  Her reign continued.

Jiyai Shin on the final day of the Sybase Classic

The next LPGA event, the State Farm Classic, took place in mid-June.  Shin had been at the top of the rankings for seven weeks, but knew she needed a strong finish to fend off her pursuers.  This is when disaster struck.  Just before the tournament started, Shin came down with severe stomach cramps.  She went to a hospital, and discovered that her appendix was inflamed and needed to be removed immediately!  The timing could not have been worse.  It can take months to fully recover from an appendectomy, and some of the LPGA’s biggest tournaments were just around the corner.  But Shin had no choice – she dropped out of the tournament and had the operation.  Kerr and Miyazato seized the opportunity, winning the next two tournaments, which allowed Miyazato to take over the top spot in the rankings from the idle Shin.  She could have at least sent Shin a card in the hospital to make her feel a little better after that!

Shin spent about ten days recovering from the effects of the operation, then got back to work on her game.   She was forced to miss the next event, the ShopRite in New Jersey, but knew she could not afford to miss the event after that.  That tournament was the LPGA Championship, the year’s second Major.  Not only are Majors worth more points than ordinary events, but this year the tournament was played in Rochester, on the very course Shin had won the Wegman’s event in dominating fashion in 2009.  Incredibly, Shin showed up for the tournament, and even more amazingly, played well enough to finish tied for third, just two weeks after her operation.  She later admitted that it hurt every time she swung, but she nonetheless gutted it out for her second top five finish in a Major in 2010.  Unfortunately for her, Cristie Kerr dominated the event pretty much all weekend, and her win allowed her to overtake Miyazato for the top spot in the rankings.  Miyazato also managed a tie for third, and so Shin fell to third in the rankings behind Kerr and Miyazato.  A bitter pill to swallow after such a great result!

Jiyai Shin at the LPGA Championship

Shin continued her iron woman ways by playing the next week at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic in Toledo.  She didn’t do all that well the first three days, but shot a blistering 7 under par 64 on Sunday to vault up the leaderboard.  Alas, it was not enough, and she finished one shot out of the four way playoff, in fifth place.  Another top five, but she actually lost ground to Kerr and Miyazato, who did not play that week, probably due to those two players losing bad tournaments off their rankings (events more than two years old cease to count in rankings, so any events that fell out of that range that week might actually help a player’s rankings if they had been bad finishes for that player).

Next came the US Women’s Open.  Kerr had sat on top of the world rankings for two weeks, but did not play all that well at this event.  Nor did Miyazato, so Shin had a golden chance to make up some ground on those two.  She did not disappoint.  Although she once again was too far back on Sunday to make a serious run at the title, she still shot an immaculate 68 on the final day to finish tied for fifth, her third top five in a Major in 2010, and third straight top five since her appendectomy.  Although she easily bested her top rivals that week, not only did she not catch them, but another rival, Suzann Pettersen, finished tied for second and surpassed Shin in the rankings.   Shin, who had been #1 in the world before her operation, was now fourth.  Imagine how it must have felt:  coming back from surgery, having three fantastic finishes in three big tournaments, and still falling from first to fourth in the world.  What would she have to do to actually make progress?

Jiyai Shin during the final day of the US Women's Open

The obvious answer was, she needed to win.  And this was the situation Shin faced when she came to France to play the Evian Masters, one of the most lucrative events each year on the LPGA tour, where she faced one of the deepest fields she would encounter all year.  In order to get the win, she needed to put herself into good position early in the event.  In 2010, for the most part, she had not really been close enough entering the final day of most tournaments to make her typical brilliant charge and still have a chance to win.  But at the Evian, she was in the lead at 9 under par after round three, until Morgan Pressel made an unexpected eagle on the final hole to move to 11 under.  Still, Shin’s score got her into the final group on Sunday, where she at last would have a chance to operate.

Jiyai Shin during the final round of the Evian

She did not disappoint, winning the event after a flawless bogey free 67.  It was a nail biter the whole way, however.  Pressel made things tough for Shin by holing out for eagle on the fifth hole.  But Shin would not go away, finally catching Pressel with a birdie early on the back nine.  Both of them missed short, makeable birdie putts on the 16th hole.  On 17, Shin had a challenge that really tested her mettle: a must make par putt from about 6 feet.  No problem – she nailed it to remain tied for the lead.  So it all came down to the 18th hole.  Korean star Na Yeon Choi had just launched an epic run that included four straight birdies, but put her second shot on the par 5 hole in the rough behind the green and could not get up and down for birdie.  She finished at 13 under, the same score Pressel and Shin were at as they reached 18.  Moments later, American 15 year old Alexis Thompson made a birdie on the final hole to also reach 13 under.  Pressel and Shin both laid up on their second shots.  Pressel hit her third to five feet, putting the pressure squarely on the shoulders of the Final Round Queen Shin.

This is when Shin produced a little magic.  Her pitch went a bit long and bounced in the fringe, but somehow, be it the intervention of the golf gods or her own talent, the ball snapped back onto the green and rolled to within ten feet.  From there, she drained the clutch birdie, her first on that hole all week, to eliminate Thompson and Choi and put all the pressure back on Pressel.  Pressel could not respond, just missing the birdie to tie, and the win was Shin’s.  And with the win came the number one ranking all over again, as well as the number one ranking on the LPGA money list with over a million in earnings on the season.

Jiyai with the Evian trophy

Rolex only knows how long this stint at the top will last.  Shin will be losing her first LPGA victory from her Rolex total this week when the British Open is finished.  Unless she plays really well at that Major this year, she may see one of her rivals overtake her again for the ranking crown.  But you can bet she will be doing all she can to prevent that from happening.   And if she does lose the crown, she will doubtless be back at the next event to try to retake it again.  Make no mistake, Shin will keep fighting that battle as long as she is able!

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