Posted by: happyfan08 | August 4, 2010

Major Slump

Why aren’t the Korean women winning more Majors?

This week saw the completion of the fourth and final women’s Major of the year, the Ricoh Women’s British Open.  For the first time since 2007, the Koreans were swept in the Majors, not winning a single one.  In fact, there seems to be a bit of a malaise going on when it comes to the Korean ladies and the tour’s biggest tournaments:  they have won just one of the past eight Majors played.  Although many of these events featured two, three or more Koreans in the top five, in almost every case the Seoul Sisters were not legitimately in contention to get the win by the time the back nine started on Sunday, and often were out of it even before that.  What exactly is happening here?  Is this just a momentary blip in the otherwise fine string of results the Koreans have achieved, or is something deeper amiss?  Let’s take a closer look!

First of all, this unusual slump for the Korean ladies is not a result of a general problem with their games.  In fact, there seem to be more Koreans than ever contending and winning at tournaments, and the 2010 money list shows their strength.  As of August 2nd, following the British Open, Koreans for the first time hold the first and second spots on the LPGA money list.  Jiyai Shin, who last year achieved another first by becoming the first Korean to lead the money list, is currently tops on this year’s tally, while Na Yeon Choi, who is having a phenomenal season, is second.  Three other Sisters are in the top ten: Song Hee Kim (7th), In Kyung Kim (9th) and Inbee Park (10th), with 7 more in the top 30.  Just reviewing the achievements of the top five alone could fill an entire article, but among the things they have accomplished so far in 2010, Jiyai Shin became the first Korean to achieve the world’s #1 ranking and the first to win the Evian Masters; Na Yeon Choi has had top three finishes in her last four events, including two Majors; In Kyung Kim has notched top fives in three of this year’s Majors; Inbee Park has 8 top tens this year, has made top tens in all four Majors this season, and has notched multiple top twos in Japanese tour events to boot (as well as a win).  Then there’s Song Hee Kim, who, despite not winning in her entire career, leads the LPGA’s scoring average race and has 11 top ten finishes so far.  She finished third and second in the first two Majors and top 20 in the other two, shooting the tournament low round in the final round of the US Women’s Open.

Na Yeon Choi at the US Women's Open

As you can imagine, with stats like those, the Korean women are not strangers to victories.  In fact, 2009 was the most successful year ever for the Koreans in terms of wins.  They won an amazing 11 tournaments that season, including two for Na Yeon Choi and three for Shin.  This year they have not been as successful to date, but still have five wins, including two at the biggest non-Major events on the schedule, the Evian Masters and the Sybase Match Play.  The Match play tournament really gave them a chance to show off what they could do: three of the four semifinalists were Korean: Shin, Amy Yang and the eventual winner Sun Young Yoo.

Sun Young Yoo at the Sybase Match Play

And yet, despite all this success, the fact remains that they have not been collecting the Major trophies.  In 2008, Inbee Park won the US Women’s Open and Jiyai Shin the following Major, the Women’s British Open.  But in 2009, the only Korean Major win came at the US Women’s Open, when Eun Hee Ji made a birdie putt on the final hole to claim the victory.  And they were shut out of Majors completely in 2010, despite winning the event immediately before the US Women’s Open, the Nabisco AND the Women’s British Open.  Interestingly, Koreans managed good finishes at every Major, just no wins.  There was at least one Seoul Sister who finished at least third in each Major this year, with second place results in two of the four Majors.  Let’s take a closer look at the 2010 results to see what happened.

The Nabisco has never been a Major that has been kind to the Koreans.  Indeed, only one Korean has ever won the event, Grace Park, and most years Koreans are not even in contention.  Why the lack of success here?  I suspect that, more than any other Major the ladies play, this one rewards being able to hit the ball a long way.  One look at the list of recent champions seems to confirm this, as they are almost all long bombers.  Grace Park, the lone Korean champion, is also one of the longest of all the Korean golfers off the tee.  Other recent champions include Lorena Ochoa, Yani Tseng (who won this year) and Brittany Lincicome, all among the top ten in driving distance.  Even the year Morgan Pressel, not a long hitter, won the tournament, the two who were in the lead most of the day were Se Ri Pak and Suzann Pettersen, two more extremely long golfers.  But they stumbled into the finish and handed the prize to Pressel, who had finished hours earlier. 

A course that benefits long bombing over accuracy does not tend to favor the Koreans, many of whom are short to medium length hitters who are extremely accurate off the tee.  The last two years in particular, the Koreans have not really been close to contending in this one.  This year, the tournament basically came down to a battle between Suzann Pettersen and Yani Tseng, with Song Hee Kim the only Korean anywhere close to the lead, and even she was far back and not really in the hunt on the back nine.  In the end, the Koreans notched top fives for Song Hee and Jiyai Shin, with Inbee Park and Grace Park tied for 10th.  But that’s a heck of a lot better than the 2009 results, where no Koreans finished in the top five, and the best any of them could achieve was an 8th place by Jimin Kang.

Grace Park at this year's Kraft-Nabisco

The LPGA Championship on paper seemed like the best chance for a Korean to win a Major this year.  For a change, the tournament was being held in Rochester, on the same course the Wegman’s tournament is usually played.  Although the conditions were set up tougher, this is still a course where Koreans have done very well in the past.  In fact, the defending champion of the Wegman’s was none other than Shin, who had cruised to a big win on this course in 2009.  But Shin was not coming into this event fresh; she had  had an emergency appendectomy only a few weeks earlier, and this was just her first tournament back since that operation.  To make matters tougher, the event turned into another tournament where a player took a big lead and cruised to an easy win.  In this case, that player was American Cristie Kerr, who basically took control of the event on Friday afternoon and made it more and more of a rout the rest of the weekend.  Though the Koreans were once again mathematically eliminated from the trophy, at least they did well on the leaderboard.  Shin finished tied for third, and Song Hee Kim all by herself in second place.  A great finish for Song Hee, her best ever in a Major in fact, but it came at a bad time.  Even her great play left her 12 shots behind Kerr.  In Kyung Kim finished tied for 5th, making it three Koreans in the top 6, with Inbee Park tied for 7th.

Song Hee Kim (right) has a laugh with Hee Young Park at the LPGA Championship

The results had not been much better in 2009.  That year, Anna Nordqvist had little trouble on Sunday and cruised to a 4 shot win.   Jiyai finished by herself in third, but was never much of a factor on the final day.  So, of the four Majors we have examined so far, not even a single one featured a Korean player with a realistic chance to win on the last day.

The Koreans traditionally have done much better at the final two Majors of the year, The US Women’s Open and the Ricoh Women’s British Open.  Four different Koreans have won the US Women’s Open, and Koreans had won the event in both 2008 and 2009.  Eun Hee Ji finally claimed the event in 2009 on the 72nd hole with a 20 foot birdie putt, defeating Candie Kung by a stroke and outlasting both Kerr and In Kyung Kim, who finished tied for third.  This was the only one of the 8 recent Majors the Koreans won.  This year, the event was relatively close on Sunday, but Paula Creamer held fast to a lead that varied between 2 and four shots all Sunday.  The only player who put a bit of a scare into her was Na Yeon Choi, who launched a spectacular run on Sunday, shooting 31 on the front nine to close to within 2 shots.  But that’s as close as she got, and despite a final round 66, she finished four shots back tied for second.  In Kyung Kim finished 4th, Jiyai Shin tied for 5th with Amy Yang, and Inbee Park tied for 8th right behind them.  Song Hee Kim finished outside the top ten, but blistered the course with the tournament’s best score, a 65 on Sunday.

Really, all the Koreans other than Yang who finished near the top of the leaderboard had great days on Sunday.  In Kyung, Shin, and Park shot 68s; Choi a 66, and Song Hee a 65.  They made amazing putts, great recoveries from adversity, and were rewarded with great finishes.  But it all didn’t matter, because Creamer had established too big a lead, and nothing the Koreans could do could shake her out of the win.  In a lot of ways, this is the biggest disappointment for the Sisters all year.  Not only because they played so well only to fall short, but because Creamer had not won on tour in quite a long while, had never won a Major, and basically had been struggling with injuries all season that limited her effectiveness.  She was an unlikely champion this year, but she picked the right time to suddenly get her game back.

Jiyai Shin at this year's US Women's Open

The 2009 Women’s British Open was yet another tournament where the Koreans struggled to make an impact.  On the final day, the event basically came down to Catriona Matthew, who started the day with a 3 shot lead over Christina Kim and a four shot margin over Jiyai Shin.  Shin never got anything going on Sunday, finishing tied for 8th, and the only other Korean who made any impact was Hee-Won Han, who shot a 70 to finish tied for 3rd.  But essentially, the event came down to Matthew.  She had not been having a noteworthy season before this, and had missed a lot of time due to the birth of her son.  But like Creamer she suddenly found her game at the right time.  She had some nerves on the back nine, but just when it looked like she might come back to the field, she righted the ship and cruised to a three shot win.  So once again, this was a Major where no Korean was in the mix.

This year’s British Open was a tale of the weather.  Those who had Thursday morning-Friday afternoon tee times had much better weather both days than those who had the opposite schedule.  Alas, four of the top Koreans were stuck competing in the terrible conditions: Shin, In Kyung, Song Hee and Na Yeon Choi.  By the first day, only Shin was still under par, and though she did well on the first two days all things considered, she fell out of the tournament after a bad shot on day three into the deep weeds led to a quad bogey.  She still somehow finished tied for 14th, but never had a chance to catch the leaders on Sunday.

Indeed, by the start of the fourth day, Yani Tseng, who played in the benign conditions in the first two days, had a four shot lead, and a six shot lead over the nearest Korean In Kyung.  The next nearest Korean, Hee Kyung Seo, was eight back.  It was yet another case of one player distancing herself from the pack, and when it became apparent that Tseng was not going to come back to the field too much, that eliminated every Korean but In Kyung from the hunt.  Since Kim was having a simply terrible putting day (but was fabulous tee to green), she was not going to be able to make the birdies she would need to contend, and so yet again, no Korean had a shot at the brass ring. 

In the end the Sisters did well, as usual.  In Kyung and Choi tied for third, Amy Yang and Seo tied for 5th, while Inbee tied for 9th for yet another top ten in a Major in 2010.  But the loss here meant that they would be blanked in the Majors for the first time in several years.

In Kyung Kim struggled with her putter at this year's British Open

What conclusions can we draw from these results?  Well, first of all, that the Koreans are just not all that good at the Nabisco.  But even excluding that event, there are six more Majors they could have won.  In the five Majors they didn’t win, each one featured one player who distanced herself significantly from the field by the end of the third round.  That leading player did not play poorly in the final round, and no Korean was close enough to make up the gap in such a situation.  In two cases, Creamer and Matthew, the player had not been 100% or had missed a lot of golf during the season, and yet still was able to rise to the occasion to win her first Major.  In the case of Kerr, she had been a longtime contender at Majors, but still played an event that was far beyond anything she had ever done before (and probably will ever do again);  so even great performances from several Koreans were essentially meaningless in that context.  And in at least one instance, the 2010 British, weather played a significant part in limiting the ability of the Koreans to position themselves for Sunday.

What the results do not show is a lack of ability by the Koreans to win Majors.  Sometimes golf can be a cruel sport, where timing can be so important.  If a player is having the tournament of her life during a Major (I would argue Matthew, Kerr, Creamer and Nordqvist all fit that definition during their Major wins), a great golfer having only a solid (or even very very good) week just can’t compete.  But a great golfer like many of the Koreans may have the tournament of her life coming up in the near future, and if her timing is right, maybe it will happen during a Major week.  So, fans of the Korean golfers will have to wait to see if 2011 will bring just such a week for a star like In Kyung, Jiyai, Na Yeon, Song Hee or Inbee.  Giving their consistency, talent and winning percentages, they will no doubt have many more fantastic Majors in their future.

Hee Kyung Seo had her first top five in a Major at this year's Women's British Open

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Responses

  1. I love the Korean ladies on the LPGA! … keep the great coverage & photos coming Happyfan!!

    What do they do in off weeks?

    Are they friendly?

    Who has the best english?

    What do they like?

    What is Korea like?

    Rick Schofield
    Port Ewen, NY

  2. I can’t wait for your next blog … I saw your site before but never these blogs … how do you get all the great photos & data?

    Who are you?

    Do you ever interview the players yourself?

    Ever been to a KLPA event?

    Why do you like the Korean women golfers?

    For me it is:

    Their Beauty.

    Their skill.

    Their calm & restrained demeanor (I mean who wants to see a little spoiled American princess cuss & throw a hissie fit. Also, there’s no sense getting TOO excited after a good shot unless it’s your last putt on Sunday for the trophy).

    The Koreans mostly petite size – it’s not women’s golf if they are as big and strong as a man.

    Their discipline and work ethic.

    Their exotic and mysterious culture.

    And their Beauty.

    I do like others as well: Annika – pretty & possibly the greatest; rookie Aza Munoz; Lorena was attractive, friendly & humble; the 15 yr old US Girls amateur finalist from Carolina Katelin Dambaugh; Paula is great for the game, Dottie is a great announcer, Julie I is a class act in the whole world of sports; and there are several from Japan that are cute with Ai being the friendliest & nicest it seems. Their were two beautiful Thai twins. Sandra Gal from Germany is very pretty with talent. Teresa lu is pretty & nice as is her caddie and Yani’s ex caddie.

    But overall the Koreans have the beauty, talent, & fashion that just keeps on coming.

    Rick

  3. naturally like your website however you need to test the spelling on several of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling problems and I to find it very troublesome to inform the truth however I will surely come back again.


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