Posted by: happyfan08 | January 20, 2011

2010 Awards (8 of 10): Rookie to Watch in 2011

Rookie to Watch in 2011

And the Winner Is: Hee Kyung Seo

Every year, I look into my crystal ball exactly once during these awards and try to pick the Korean rookie whom I think will make a big impact on women’s golf in the next year.  Last year the pickings were pretty slim on the LPGA tour, so I focused instead on a big name rookie on the JLPGA tour: Sun Ju Ahn.  I said:

“Sun Ju Ahn … is one of the strongest players from the KLPGA the last few years.  Although she did not amass the same kind of win totals as Hee Kyung Seo or Jiyai Shin, she still was the type of player who contended often.  (In 2009) she led the tour in scoring average much of the season, and was also the longest driver on tour.  Factors like that lead me to believe she will quickly establish herself as one of the premiere players in Japan.”

I may not be the greatest Nostradamus in women’s golf history, but I sure nailed that one.  Quickly?  She won her very first event played on that tour, and went on to become the first Korean to ever lead the Japanese tour money list.  Needless to say, she dominated the Rookie of the Year standings.

In 2011, there are a number of impressive Korean and Korean American rookies appearing on tours all over the golf world.  With so many quality golfers to choose from, who should get the focus?  I’ve picked the rookie I feel will have the most immediate impact, but I will also talk a little about a few more players who you may be hearing about in 2011.  How’s that for being non-committal?

There are a bunch of notable Sisters joining the LPGA in 2011, but two names really stick out: Hee Kyung Seo and Jennifer Song.  Seo is the player I think is most likely to be the Rookie of the Year by the end of the season.  From mid-2008 through 2009, she won a staggering 11 events in Korea, a record only world #1 Jiyai Shin has been able to surpass in the past ten years.  She struggled a bit in Korea in 2010, not winning even a single event, but she did amass 12 top tens in all, and finished 6th on the money list despite playing fewer events than most of the top players.  And while she was doing that, she managed her two best finishes in Majors, including a tie for 5th at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, and, oh yeah, won the Kia Classic to earn her LPGA tour card.  Her win makes her the only rookie coming into this season with a victory, and the fact that she beat a world class field by 6 shots at that event should make everyone sit up and take notice. 

Hee Kyung Seo

For me, the one variable is, how long will it take Seo to get used to living and traveling in the States?  If it doesn’t hit her too hard, I don’t doubt she will be making noise on tour by the end of the season.  And though there are many solid rookie prospects, all Seo’s pro experience will hold her in good stead in her battle for Rookie of the Year.  By contrast, many of her most important rivals are either amateurs who just turned pro, or who played just one season on the Futures Tour, which does not compare as a competitive environment to the likes of the KLPGA tour.

Hee Kyung Seo

Jennifer Song was an amateur superstar who has already managed some great moments as a professional.  But she has yet to win a big league pro event, and amateurs, even great ones, tend to take a little while to acclimate to professional life.  She will be a big star, and I think we will see her on leaderboards this year, but will she be the top rookie?

Jennifer Song in December

Song certainly had a great season on the Futures Tour.  Playing a lot fewer events than her other top rivals, she still finished second on the year ending money list, with 2 wins and many other top tens.  But though she had some good finishes on the LPGA, she did not notch a top ten there in 2010 (her best finish was a tie for 15th in four tries).

Look at these other 2011 LPGA rookies: Jenny Shin, Tiffany Joh, Kimberly Kim.  What do they have in common?  All of them have won important USGA events as amateurs.  Shin won the US Girl’s Junior when she was just 13 years old, Joh has two Pub Links titles to her credit (once she beat Kim Kim in the finals; the other time, Jennifer Song).  And Kim Squared is the youngest woman to ever win the US Women’s Amateur.  All of these women could be big stars, either this year or later.  But Joh is hampered with poor status on tour; she won’t play many events unless she starts playing great right away.  Kim Kim is mega talented but mercurial; I think she will have good results mixed with some really terrible ones until she focuses.  Shin is the one I think might sneak up on the field next season.  She improved consistently all through the Futures Tour season last year, winding up fourth on their money list to earn full status.  If she holds to that form in 2011, we might see her start to play quite well before the year is out.

Jenny Shin

Over on the JLPGA, a gaggle of significant rookies have followed last year’s Rookie stars Inbee Park and Sun Ju Ahn to that tour.  Some of them will be playing part time: Hee Young Park and Meena Lee are the names that stand out in that group.  Among those who will be full time on that tour, Bo Mee Lee is the most interesting name.  Lee has been a quiet superstar on the KLPGA tour the past few seasons.  In 2010, however, she stood up proudly and seized control, winning all the major awards on that tour, including Player of the Year.  She had little trouble getting through JLPGA Q-School; could she duplicate what Ahn did last year?  In a lot of ways, Lee and Ahn had similar KLPGA records.  Both had three win seasons in the past, both were very consistent and came close to or actually won the scoring title.  Ahn has the advantage of being far longer off the tee than Lee, and in general was more consistent when playing outside of Korea than Lee has been so far.  So I don’t expect Lee to be quite as strong as Ahn was last year, but I do expect she will be a foremost threat for Rookie of the Year, and should get into the winner’s circle sooner or later as well.

Bo Mee Lee

Over in Korea, the most notable rookie is Ha Na Jang.  Jang was a fantastic amateur, and in 2009 put herself in the hunt on Sunday to win two of that year’s four Majors.  Already in 2011, the tour has played its first event, and Jang was in contention and wound up tied for 4th, just two shots out of first place.  Hands down she is the rookie to beat for the Rookie of the Year honor on that tour.

KLPGA Rookie Ha Na Jang

It’s About Time Award

And the Winner Is: Se Ri Pak awarded the Blue Dragon

Se Ri receives the Blue Dragon Award

Se Ri Pak, one of the most important athletes in South Korean history, finally received a long overdue recognition from the Korean government last year.  She was awarded the highest award they can give an athlete: the Blue Dragon, or Chongyong, award.  83 other sportsmen and women were honored with lesser awards at the same ceremony, but there was no question who was the star of the show.  Congratulations to Se Ri!!

Honorable Mention:

Veterans win again on LPGA tour

Koreans have been winning tons of tournaments over the past four years, but amazingly, a Korean golfer over the age of 25 had not won an event since the 2007 season.  That all ended this year in style, as both Se Ri Pak and Jimin Kang collected victories.  For Pak, it was her 25th in her amazing career, while Kang achieved win #2.

Shin finally becomes first Korean to become #1 in the world

Another long awaited benchmark was achieved when Jiyai Shin finally became the first Korean to ascend to the #1 ranking in women’s golf.  This was something even Se Ri Pak and Grace Park never achieved, although the official world rankings did not exist back when they were in their prime.  Still, it’s a fantastic achievement by the woman many believe is the true successor to Pak’s legacy.

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