Posted by: happyfan08 | January 14, 2011

2010 Awards (3 of 10): Cinderella & Breakthrough

Cinderella of the Year

And the Winner Is: Hee Kyung Bae, LIG Classic

Korean female amateur golfers made a lot of noise all over the world in 2010.  But though they had come close to winning on the KLPGA many times in the past year and a half leading up to the LIG Classic in August, an actual victory proved elusive. 

After that tournament’s first round, 17 year old amateur Hee Kyung Bae was a shot out of the lead.  But in round 2, the amateurs charged.  One of the first round leaders was Jung Eun Han, another teen amateur, and she managed an even par 72 in round 2 to remain tied for 2nd.  But it was Bae who made the biggest move, shooting a 69 to move into the lead by two shots. 

Hee Kyung Bae at the LIG Classic, round 1

Advantage Bae, but she was looking at a tough, tough final round to get the crown.  Not only was the more accomplished amateur Han breathing down her neck, but also tied for second was Shin Ae Ahn, then in the midst of a fantastic second year on tour.  A shot further back was Major winner Jung Eun Lee, and one shot behind her were three of the biggest stars on tour: Hee Kyung Seo (no relation to Hee Kyung Bae!), So Yeon Ryu and Soo Jin Yang.

But the clock never struck midnight for this Cinderella.  On day three, the rains came, and they were so bad that the round was canceled.  Thus, Bae was declared the winner without having to strike a shot! 

Bae became the first amateur to win on the KLPGA since 2005.  That year, a high schooler named Jiyai Shin captured the SK Enclean Invitational.  The last amateur before Shin to win was another high school student named Na Yeon Choi.  Considering those two are now the two biggest stars among all Korean golfers, it will be interesting to see if Bae, who intends to turn pro in 2011, will be able to follow in their footsteps and become a huge star herself.

The sedate trophy ceremony for the LIG Classic: Hee Kyung Bae

Honorable Mentions:

Hee Kyung Seo at the Kia Classic

Jimin Kang at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia

More on those two events later!

Sun Young Yoo at Sybase Match Play

Sun Young Yoo at the Sybase Match Play

Sun Young Yoo had not contended all that often on tour when the Sybase Match Play started earlier this year.  There wasn’t much reason to expect her to be a factor in a field that contained most of the top women’s golfers in the world.  But Yoo was relentless all week, grinding her way to victories over five golfers seeded in the top 12 in the tournament: #5 Cristie Kerr in round 2, #12 Song Hee Kim in round 3, #4 Ya Ni Tseng in the quarterfinals, #1 Jiyai Shin in the semis, and #10 Angela Stanford in the finals.  That is hardcore awesomeness, and a heck of a way to get your first career win!

Jung Min Lee at Doosan Match Play

Jung Min Lee with her trophy from the Doosan Match Play

The same week Yoo was mowing them down on the LPGA tour, rookie Jung Min Lee, who had never won on tour before, did the same thing on the KLPGA at the Doosan Match Play.  Among the stars Lee defeated during the week were superstars Bo Mee Lee and Hee Kyung Seo and top ten player Hyun Hee Moon in the finals.  Lee would not have another tournament even nearly that great for the rest of the season, but for one week she was a true Cinderella.

Best Breakthrough

And the Winner Is:  Hee Kyung Seo wins the Kia Classic

Hee Kyung Seo at the Kia Classic

What is a breakthrough win (as opposed to a Cinderella)?  A Cinderella is a player who wins an event seemingly out of the blue; that win might not lead to anything impressive after it.  A breakthrough, by contrast, is a win that opens new vistas for the winner, and is usually achieved by a player who has fulfilled longstanding promise.

By that measure, few Korean golfers of the last few years have had a more awaited breakthrough in 2010 than Hee Kyung Seo.  The Supermodel of the Fairways achieved eleven wins in Korea in 2008 and 2009, including three Majors.  But internationally, she had yet to find the winner’s circle before this season.

All that changed one week in late March.  The event was the Kia Classic, a new event held at La Costa in southern California.  The sponsors invited Seo, a superstar in Korea but little known outside, as one of their special invites to play in the tournament.  And boy, did she cash it in: she was the first sponsor’s exemption to win on the LPGA since 2006, when Jin Joo Hong parlayed an invitation to the CJ 9 Bridges into a membership card on tour.

Hee Kyung in round 3

By the end of round 2, Seo had taken over the lead.  In the fourth round, with everything on the line, she made a few mistakes, but seemed to follow every setback with a brilliant recovery, usually for birdie.  Her putter was on fire, and by the middle of the back nine it became apparent that the win would be hers.  Even an unfortunate tee shot on the par 3 16th which went into the water did little to slow her down, and she came up with a 6 shot win against a very deep field.  The LPGA membership card would be hers for 2011 if she wanted it.

The interesting thing is, she wasn’t sure she wanted it.  She had contemplated playing in Japan for a few years before trying the LPGA, but the LPGA card proved to be too good to turn down.  So her breakthrough win not only proved her mettle on a tough international stage, it also broke her through to a possibly completely different career path than the one she was contemplating beforehand.

In post-tournament interviews, she talked about her wish to someday meet her idol, Juli Inkster, and maybe even play a practice round with her.  Her wish was quickly granted!  She played at the next week’s event, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and met Juli at a sponsor’s event before the tournament.

Dream come true! Hee Kyung Seo meets her idol Juli Inkster before the Nabisco

Lastly, the win at La Costa also moved Seo into the top 20 in the Rolex rankings for the first time in her career.

Honorable Mentions

Soo Jin Yang wins Korean Women’s Open

Soo Jin Yang

Soo Jin Yang was a promising 17 year old when she joined the KLPGA in 2009.  She had a great rookie year, finishing just behind Shin Ae Ahn for the Rookie of the Year award.  Entering 2010, she still hadn’t won on tour, but many felt that she was a star in the making.

She lived up to her potential at one of the biggest events of the KLPGA season, the Korean Women’s Open.  The oldest tournament on the KLPGA tour, it and the KLPGA Championship are the two events Korean golfers most want to win every year. 

The tournament was full of surprises this year.  In the first two rounds, several of the biggest name in the league struggled.  Hee Kyung Seo, the defending champion, missed the cut, her first missed cut in years.  So Yeon Ryu, who had hopes of winning her first Major, would have to do without after shooting a 76 on day two.  The leaderboard got crowded, with Bo Mee Lee and Soo Jin Yang moving to the top with a round to go.

Defending Champ Hee Kyung Seo struggled at the Korean Women's Open

Lee was the top player on the KLPGA in 2010, but in round 3 of the Korean Women’s Open, she struggled to a 74.  In the end, the title came down to several amateurs, Yang, and former LPGA player Sung Ah Yim.  The most storied amateur in the field, Jung Eun Han, made a huge run at the title early in the day, but just as quickly collapsed on the back nine.  Amateur Soo Yeon Kim also had her chances but could not convert.  A third amateur, Eun Joo Lee, finished at 4 under and awaited the results in the clubhouse.

It all came down to one hole for Yang.  All she needed was par on the final hole to walk off with the title, but she missed the putt and settled for a bogey.  The action moved to a playoff between her and the barely younger but amateur Eun Joo Lee.  They both bogied the first playoff hole and parred the second one.

Finally, Yang won the title on the third playoff hole with a par her teen rival could not match, and the biggest title on tour was hers!  She would go on to win one other event in 2010 and finish second on the money list.  It also elevated her into being one of the most visible players on tour; she even won the Most Popular Award at the end of the season.  For Yang, the title was truly a breakthrough.

Soo Jin meets the press with her new best friend

Shin Ae Ahn wins two of three events

Shin Ae Ahn

Like Soo Jin Yang, Shin Ae Ahn started the year as a very promising second year player who had yet to win on the KLPGA tour.  And like the woman she beat for Rookie of the Year in 2009, Ahn would also collect two wins in 2010.  She would zoom to third on the year end money list, this time just behind her young rival Yang.

Ahn’s first win came at the Hidden Valley Women’s Open in late July/early August.  The tournament looked like a sure win for superstar So Yeon Ryu, who in the middle of the third round cruised to the lead on the back of a front nine 33.  But a bogey on 10 and double bogey on 12 knocked her down to Earth, and even though she made a few more birdies, she was not able to recover.

Meanwhile, Ahn did not play like a golfer looking to break through.  She went out in 33, and made 4 more birdies on the back to get into the clubhouse at 12 under.  She then had to sit and wait while the other golfers on the leaderboard tried and failed to catch her.  By virtue of her final round 65, Ahn collected her first win on tour, a three shot triumph at 12 under total.

Shin Ae on the way to her first career KLPGA win at the Hidden Valley

Ahn was far from done!  She notched a 4th place finish at the next KLPGA event, then at the High One Resort SBS Charity Women’s Open, she didn’t look like she would be much of a factor.  She was several shots behind Hee Kyung Seo, the first round leader, when the weather finally allowed them to complete the initial round.  The bad rains forced a cancellation of round 2.  Then, with only one more round to capture the win, she went on a tear, shooting a 68 to move to 7 under total.  This eventually gave her a tie for the lead with Hyun Hee Moon, resulting in a playoff which Ahn won on the first playoff hole.

And so, in just three weeks, Shin Ae Ahn went from being the promising 2009 Rookie of the Year to a two time champion and one of the top stars on the KLPGA!  That’s quite a breakthrough.

Shin Ae Ahn with her second trophy of the season

Shin wins CyberAgent Ladies in Japan

Jiyai Shin and her trophy from the CyberAgent

Jiyai Shin loves playing in Japan.  Out of the four wins she had in 2010, two came in that country.  But as important as her win at the Mizuno Classic was to her chances to win the LPGA’s Player of the Year award, in many ways it was her first Japanese victory of the season that was the more significant.  Shin captured the win thanks to a final round 66, which gave her a two shot margin of victory.  That in itself was impressive, but it was what happened half a world away a few hours later that made the win truly special. 

Lorena Ochoa was playing her final event as a full time LPGA player in her home country of Mexico.  Shin had been gradually creeping up on Ochoa’s #1 ranking, and in 2010 had been making great strides in catching her.  If Ochoa was going to retire as the #1 player, in fact, she needed a top five at the Tres Marias Championship to hold off Shin.  But it didn’t happen: Ochoa finished 6th, and for the first time in golf history, male or female, a Korean golfer became the #1 golfer in the world.  Congratulations to Jiyai Shin on this most auspicious breakthrough!

PS – and as of this writing, she is still the only Korean golfer to ever attain that ranking!


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