Posted by: happyfan08 | September 2, 2010

Is Jiyai Shin still the Top Seoul Sister?

In the world of Korean women’s golf, three years is a long time. Think about all the players who have arrived on the scene since 2007, some of whom have won Majors or established themselves as top ten players in just a few years on tour. Yes, there have been many ups and downs during these seasons, but there has also been one sure constant: no matter who comes or goes, Jiyai Shin has stood out above the others as the clear best.  But as we head towards the completion of the 2010 season, is it still the case that Shin is the undoubted best among the Seoul Sisters? Or is there anyone who could challenge her?

Shin burst onto the radar in late 2005, when she won the KLPGA’s SK Enclean Championship as a high school student. She turned pro that winter, and within weeks had already collected her first win as a professional at the Hong Kong Open. She joined the KLPGA in2006, and by the end of the season had established herself as the Player of the Year as well as the Rookie of the Year. It was in 2007, however, when she went from merely being the top Korean not on the LPGA to arguably the very best Korean of them all. She shattered records on the KLPGA tour that year, winning an incredible 9 of 18 tournaments. She also contended at the US Women’s Open and made other noteworthy forays into international golf. By 2008, she was winning internationally, capturing three events on the LPGA tour including the British Women’s Open. She became the first woman golfer in history to win three times before joining the LPGA tour. All of this she accomplished before she even joined the LPGA tour.

Jiyai Shin won her first KLPGA trophy in 2005 before turning pro

Once she arrived in America, her brilliance continued. She easily won the tour’s Rookie of the Year award, capturing three more titles in 2009. She came within one shot of winning the Player of the Year award as well, which would have made her only the second woman to ever win both titles in the same season. On top of all that, she also led the LPGA money list, becoming the first Korean to ever achieve that milestone. For the crowning achievement, in 2010 Shin climbed to #1 in the Rolex rankings, once again becoming the first Korean to reach that plateau.

Jiyai Shin won $1 million at the 2008 ADT Tour Championship

So, with all of those accomplishments on her resume, could there be any Korean who is even close to her level? Starting in 2007, a huge wave of talented young Koreans washed ashore on the LPGA. These ladies have continued to get stronger over the past few years, and currently several of them are in the top ten on the LPGA’s money list. Song Hee Kim has led the scoring average race for several months, although she recently slipped to fourth. She has been unbelievably consistent, notching the most top tens of anyone on tour in 2010. She is currently 7th on the tour’s money list with nearly a million dollars earned. But as great as she has been, she still has yet to win on tour. Until she starts collecting victories, it’s impossible to consider her to be in the same league as Shin. In Kyung Kim has been top notch in 2010. She is 8th on the tour’s money list, with top five finishes in the past three Majors. She also has two career wins on her resume. But she has not won in 2010, so she, too, has more work to do to catch Shin.

In Kyung Kim

One Korean, however, is starting to push towards Shin’s level – perhaps she has even caught the Final Round Queen? Her name is Na Yeon Choi. Choi’s record since joining the tour has been something to behold, but as great as she has been, she has taken her game to a new level in 2010, and especially so in the past two months. Let’s take a closer look at her vital statistics.

Choi, like Shin, first burst onto the professional golf scene while still an amateur in high school. She won the KLPGA’s 2004 ADT-CAPS Championship, beating Korean superstar Se Ri Pak in the process. Choi turned pro in 2005 and proceeded to have a very solid KLPGA career, though nowhere near in the league of what Shin accomplished in her years on that tour. In 2007, Choi went to LPGA Q-School, but was only able to achieve non-exempt status for the 2008 season. It appeared it would be tough for her to get into enough tournaments to make much of a difference in the Rookie of the Year race.

Na Yeon Choi won her first KLPGA event while still in high school

But from the moment she reached the LPGA, Choi played on a different, higher level than she did back in Korea. In just her third event she managed her first top five, which qualified her for the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco, where she finished 6th. Before long she not only had the equivalent of full privileges on tour, she was leading the Rookie of the Year race.

In the end, Taiwanese star Yani Tseng won that award, but despite winning one Major and finishing second at another, it took Tseng until the final event of the year to claim that award. Choi, meanwhile, achieved 9 top ten finishes, made over a million dollars, and did not miss a single cut all season.

In 2009, Choi continued to play brilliantly, but wins eluded her. She had come very close to winning the 2008 Evian Masters, but ended up losing in a playoff. In 2009, she continued her brilliant play, making every cut and making top twenties most weeks, but missed out on several more chances to claim her first win. She finally broke through at the Samsung World Championship in September. She took a big lead and looked certain to win until Ai Miyazato made a massive run to catch and pass her. But Choi fought back, making a birdie on the final hole to claim the win.

Na Yeon Choi with the Rolex watch she won after capturing her first LPGA title

Since that win nearly a year ago, Choi’s stats have been so good that she may even have caught the mighty Shin (and you thought you’d not seen nothing like the Mighty Shin!). Here’s how their records compare. Choi has won three tournaments in this span: the Samsung, the 2009 Hana Bank in Korea just three weeks later, and the 2010 Jamie Farr. She finished no worse than 17th the rest of 2009 with one top ten, a third. In 2010, she started the year a bit more inconsistently, managing 5 top tens including a 2nd place, but also a few weaker results, including a tie for 27th at the Nabisco. She then missed her first ever cut at the year’s second Major, the LPGA Championship.

But since that time she has been on an unbelievable tear. She won at the Farr in her next event, prevailing in a playoff against three players named Kim. She then finished second at the US Women’s Open, second at the Evian Masters (she had a great chance to beat Shin there but messed up on the final hole), third at the year’s final Major, the Women’s British Open, and second at the Safeway Classic, before falling to 11th at the Canadian Women’s Open. All of this brilliance has allowed her to rise to third on the money list, just behind Shin and Ai Miyazato. Her totals are 9 top tens (8 of which were top fives, including 4 second places finishes and a win), 3 other top 20s, and top threes in two of the four Majors.

Na Yeon with her third career win at this year's Jamie Farr Classic

Choi’s other stats have also been impressive. Choi leads the league in birdies made and sand saves. She is top ten in 9 statistical categories. Her scoring average of 70.09 has her third in the league right now. She is 6th in the Rolex Rankings at the moment.

Is Na Yeon Choi the new Korean Top Gun?

In roughly the same span, Shin has won twice on the LPGA: at the 2009 P&G Beauty (the week before Choi’s first win) and the 2010 Evian. She also has a win on the Japanese tour in 2010. She finished 2009 well, with top tens in her final five events (including two thirds), which allowed her to finish atop the LPGA money list and barely second in the Player of the Year race. In 2010, she has not won a lot of tournaments, but her consistency has still been excellent. In 13 LPGA events played to date, she has finished in the top ten 10 times, 9 of which were top fives. She has 1 win, 1 second place (at last week’s Canadian Women’s Open), 4 thirds, and three other 5ths. Her worst top ten finish is a 6th. At the Majors she has been great, finishing in the top five in three of them and 14th at the British Women’s Open. She is currently on top of the money list with $1.4 million earned. Her scoring average is 70.30, fifth in the league. She is top ten in 7 statistical categories and is 4th in the Rolex Rankings, having been first several times this year.

Jiyai Shin's first LPGA win this year came at the Evian

As you can see, Choi has certainly narrowed the gap on Shin. She has her beat in victories the past year, with 3 LPGA wins vs. 2 and a JLPGA win for Shin. Shin, however, has played better at the Majors. Though neither has a win, Shin has three top fives to two for Choi. Choi, however, has the best finish, a second. Nonetheless, her missed cut at the LPGA Championship is far worse than Shin’s worst LPGA Major of 2010, the tie for 14th. Advantage: Jiyai.

Shin has several more top tens than Choi is you include the end of last year, but Choi has more seconds. They are pretty even in top fives in 2010, with Shin having 9 to Choi’s 8. In this department they are pretty much even. Lastly, Shin tops Choi in both Rolex ranking and money list, while Choi is ahead of Shin in birdies made and scoring average. Choi has played more often than Shin, however, which has helped her to get that birdie lead. The Rolex ranking also depends in part on events which happened more than a year ago, which for the sake of this discussion we are ignoring, so that favors Shin. And the money list total depends a lot on which events you excel at; win one of the big money tournaments, like Shin did in France, and it can make a huge difference to your bottom line.  Still, you can’t ignore the fact that Shin leads Choi in total money with fewer events played. So, again the advantage should go to Shin here.

Na Yeon has come close to dethroning the Queen...

All in all, it’s safe to say that this is the closest anyone has gotten to dethroning Jiyai Shin as the Queen of Korean golf in quite some time. But despite Na Yeon’s brilliant season, it seems as though she hasn’t quite been able to surpass Jiyai as the top gun just yet. The battle between these two friends should continue to make a compelling story for the rest of the season and perhaps for years to come. Best of luck to both of them!

... but Jiyai is for now still the best of the best

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